Tuesday 24 September 2002

Facing the truth about us

Of the articles Malcolm Gladwell writes for the New Yorker my favorites are always those in which he takes a seemingly prosaic aspect of daily life and reveals its mysteries. For example:

  • Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg (“In the late nineteen-sixties, a Harvard social psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in an effort to find an answer to what is known as the small-world problem, though it could also be called the Lois Weisberg problem. It is this: How are human beings connected? Do we belong to separate worlds, operating simultaneously but autonomously, so that the links between any two people, anywhere in the world, are few and distant? Or are we all bound up together in a grand, interlocking web?”)
  • Listening to Khakis (“It’s almost as if the Dockers ads weren’t primarily concerned with clothes at all—and in fact that’s exactly what Levi’s intended. What the company had discovered, in its research, was that baby-boomer men felt that the chief thing missing from their lives was male friendship. Caught between the demands of the families that many of them had started in the eighties and career considerations that had grown more onerous, they felt they had lost touch with other men.”)
  • The Science of the Sleeper (“In the book business, as in the movie business, there are two kinds of hits: sleepers and blockbusters… Sleepers come to your attention by a slow, serendipitous path: a friend who runs into a friend who sets up the interview that just happens to be heard by a guy married to a bookseller. Sleepers tend to emerge from the world of independent bookstores, because independent bookstores are the kinds of places where readers go to ask the question that launches all sleeper hits: Can you recommend a book to me?”)

Since Gladwell owns the copyright on each of the articles he writes for the New Yorker, a month or so after an article appears in the magazine he publishes it on his Web site. I’m not sure how he sees giving away his content. Perhaps he regards it as a brand-building exercise, although I doubt it. He already has an enviable reputation. It’s more likely that he thinks: I’ve already been paid handsomely—through the fun of research, the pleasure/pain of writing, the check from the magazine, the admiration of my peers, and the knowledge that I’ve been read by tens of thousands of discriminating readers—I can afford to give this away.

His latest article, The Naked Face, explains the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who established that facial expressions were “the universal products of evolution”:

Paul Ekman got his start in the face-reading business because of a man named Silvan Tomkins, and Silvan Tomkins may have been the best face reader there ever was. Tomkins was from Philadelphia, the son of a dentist from Russia… During the Depression, in the midst of his doctoral studies at Harvard, he worked as a handicapper for a horse-racing syndicate, and was so successful that he lived lavishly on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At the track, where he sat in the stands for hours, staring at the horses through binoculars, he was known as the Professor. “He had a system for predicting how a horse would do based on what horse was on either side of him, based on their emotional relationship,” Ekman said. If a male horse, for instance, had lost to a mare in his first or second year, he would be ruined if he went to the gate with a mare next to him in the lineup. (Or something like that—no one really knew for certain.) Tomkins felt that emotion was the code to life, and that with enough attention to particulars the code could be cracked. He thought this about the horses, and, more important, he thought this about the human face.

What a wonderful Runyonesque character. The article is filled with them. As you read, you may want to refer to this page that illustrates the action units that make up Ekman’s FACS - Facial Action Coding System.

I suppose this post is a hymn of admiration for Malcolm Gladwell. I admire his curiosity, his tenacity, his gifts as a writer, and his generosity. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, his work points to a direction that bloggers might fruitfully follow.

On reflection, I also realized that I enjoyed reading The Naked Face because it comes down so strongly on the side of nature in the nature vs. nurture debate. Although I accept that we are social beings, I also believe that in recent years our “animal” behavior has been deliberately downplayed by the social engineeers who are convinced that human beings are—if subjected to the appropriate influences—perfectible. The deep irrationality of much of our behavior provides ample evidence, to me at least, that we are shaped by forces beyond our conscious control. More importantly, a world in which we all behaved rationally would be a world without stories.

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Well, I hope you remember this the next time I act irrationally, and take joy in that I'm contributing yet another story to my friend's life.

Posted by Burningbird on 25 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Thank you for your wonderful comments regarding Gladwell's Naked Face story. I enjoyed it immensely, too. However, I would like to know more about the Runyonesque Tomkins and his horse cracking code!

Posted by Jeannie on 24 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour