The afternoon started with me arriving at Gladwell’s talk, picking up my subsidized copy of “David and Goliath”, and realizing that nearly every seat was already taken. I found a lone seat close enough to the center aisle to give me a mostly unobstructed view. It wasn’t until after the rest of the seats were full that I remembered a blog post by Tim Ferris I had read.
Ferris relates an experience he had at a yearly conference put on by Warren Buffet and some other big shot financial types. The gist of the post is that every year, people line up early, clamoring for front row seats at the talk. But jostling for a front row seat is wasting a real opportunity for learning. Shaking Warren Buffet’s hand for a 5 second photo-op is nice, but you can learn just as much by sitting in the back. The real opportunity lies in the ability to ask Warren Buffet any financial question you want. However, if you wait until the Q&A session begins before getting in line to ask a question, there’s no way you’ll be far enough up to get a turn.
Ferris’s strategy was to find out ahead of time where the most difficult to reach microphone was located and race there before everyone else. His strategy paid off, and he learned far more than he could have learned as a passive observer. When I remembered Ferris’s advice, I realized that I was sitting about as far away from a microphone as I could. The talk had already begun so I decided to stay in my seat, but I resolved to come up with a good question and make the most of my opportunity.
The focus of Gladwell’s talk was on the mental models people use when thinking about social phenomena. The tendency is to think of things in a linear fashion. The more punishment we dole out for crimes, the less crime there will be. The smaller our class sizes are, the better our education will be. The more money we put into x, the better x will be. The default way the general population thinks about things is linear because a linear model is easy to understand.
Most people even understand a model of diminishing returns. Going from $0 to $1 million in your bank account will have a much greater impact on your life than going from $1 million to $2 million. Learning curves tend to be sharply upward when we first start learning a new skill, and then taper off once we gain some experience.
Gladwell postulates that most if not all social phenomenons follow an inverted U pattern, which is much harder for people to wrap their heads around. Beyond some point (a tipping point, if you will) adding more of anything will have a negative impact. But does this apply to everything? Surely making prison sentences stricter won’t increase crime rates. Surely decreasing a class size from 20 to 15 won’t make things worse. Surely having more money wouldn’t hurt.
As it turns out, there is a point past which increasing prison sentences increases crime rates. California enacted a three strikes law that set the sentencing for a third felony to life in prison with no opportunity for parole until 25 years have been served. The problem is that the average age at which someone commits their third felony in their late 30’s. The number of people who commit a felony past their early 40’s is statistically insignificant. Thus, even with a reduced sentence, by the time these criminals get out of prison for the third time they are effectively at the end of their criminal careers.
The people being put away for the bulk of the rest of their lives are not even people who would otherwise go on to commit more crimes. Oftentimes they are the breadwinners for their families. Going to prison can also wreak havoc on a marriage. Both increase the likelihood that the next generation will go into crime, consequently increasing the overall crime rate. Studies have shown that once more than 2% of a population is imprisoned, putting more people in jail will actually increase crime rate for these reasons.
There is also a point past which decreasing class size negatively impacts education. This effect is a little easier to picture. At the extreme, having a class size of one disallows any team building or social activities inside the classroom. However, even decreasing from a class of 20 to a class of 15 can have a negative impact. Struggling students need equally struggling peers in order to not feel self-conscious and be willing to ask questions and participate in discussions. I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand when I self-consciously asked Gladwell a question in front of 500+ of my incredibly intelligent Microsoft peers.
With a smaller class size it is less likely that a struggling student will have other peers at his or her level.
During the Q&A session, Gladwell responded to a question with a thought experiment – Can you come up with a phenomenon that doesn’t eventually start going negative? He has yet to come up with a satisfactory example. The follow-up question was “What about money?”.
Gladwell’s example for money was specifically geared towards parenting. At first, more money certainly makes parenting easier. With more money parents don’t have to worry about feeding their family, they can get their kids into better schools, sign them up for more extracurricular activities, pay for private lessons, etc. Once their kids have basically everything they need, the returns of having more money are diminished. Beyond a certain point, things actually get more difficult. When a child asks if they can have a pony, a rich parent can’t say they can’t afford it if they also own a private jet. Now the parents have to explain their priorities and values and WHY they are going to deny their kid a pony, which is much more difficult than saying “We can’t afford it.” The easier alternative is to spoil the kid.
Mo Money, Mo Problems.
The majority of the remaining questions were asking if the inverted U curve applied to various social constructs, perfectly setting the stage for the question I had been pondering for the entire lecture.