Malcolm Gladwell: We Should All Be Disagreeable

Malcolm Gladwell: We Should All Be Disagreeable

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at OZY Fest on Sunday, July 22.

SourceSean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

The best-selling author and popular podcaster preached the virtues of disagreeableness at OZY Fest.

Malcolm Gladwell wants you to be more disagreeable. It is a subject that the best-selling author and New Yorker writer recently covered on his hit podcast, Revisionist History, and recently expanded upon before a packed crowd at OZY Fest in New York’s Central Park.

Now, by being disagreeable, Gladwell — and the psychological research literature he is drawing from — doesn’t mean being obnoxious. Rather, someone who is disagreeable is someone who does not require the approval of others to do what they believe is right. And it’s obviously a trait that resides on a spectrum across the population. “If you don’t care one iota what your peers think of you, you are essentially a sociopath,” says Gladwell. “But it is also a precondition for doing things that are extraordinary.”

How does one summarize this disagreeably inclined approach? Well, as usual, Gladwell offers a neat encapsulation: “Pull the goalie.” Gladwell first came across this approach in an obscure academic paper he discovered while browsing the Social Science Research Network SSRN, a website devoted to scholarly research that Gladwell refers lovingly to as “Page Six for dorks” or “nerd Google.” In that paper, two financier-mathematicians named Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown show why it makes sense for hockey coaches who are trailing late in the game to pull their team’s goalie (for the purpose of adding an extra attacker) much, much earlier than most people think — with 5 minutes and 40 seconds remaining in the game if you are down by one goal. But as Gladwell puts it, “No one in the history of hockey has ever pulled the goalie with 5 minutes and 40 seconds left.”

Are we as a society making it harder and harder for people to be disagreeable?

Why not? Because even though pulling the goalie increases your odds of winning, it also makes it more likely you’ll lose a lopsided contest, and most coaches are not nearly disagreeable enough to risk that. They’re too concerned about what the media and fans will think. And it’s not just coaches who aren’t disagreeable enough to make the best decision possible. According to Gladwell, being a successful entrepreneur or change agent also requires a certain level of disagreeableness. It’s easier to try something bold and new, to challenge the status quo and to be an effective innovator if you are prepared to withstand the disapproval of the public or your peers.

Gladwell also points out that despite the Silicon Valley hype and the cult of the entrepreneur, American entrepreneurship — in terms of new business formation — is as low as it’s been in four decades. And he thinks this may have something to do with having a generation of young people who have been raised to be too risk-averse, too solicitous of others’ feelings — too agreeable. Are we as a society, he asks, making it harder and harder for people to be disagreeable? While disagreeableness is a trait that some are born having more of than others, Gladwell claims that it is not just a matter of temperament; it is a choice, and we can teach ourselves to make better, more disagreeable decisions — to know when to pull the goalie.

To be sure, Gladwell recognizes that it’s easier for some groups within society to be disagreeable than others. He advises a young White male questioner in the crowd that he should be out there taking more risks than anybody because he comes from a group in society for whom failure produces the “softest landing.” Gladwell also argues that while he does not think women are necessarily any less disagreeable than men by nature, they have been socialized to be agreeable, and hence face larger costs if they are perceived as being difficult. This was a sentiment echoed by another speaker at OZY Fest, actress and author Rose McGowan. “I was the star in a lot of movies, but they put me as No. 2 behind the man. I knew if I went and complained about it, they would say I’m disagreeable.”

McGowan says she agrees with the idea of being beneficially disagreeable — and has come to welcome being called a “freak” — but notes we need a better term for the trait. Unfortunately, the research community has used that label for decades. And to call it something else now in defiance of that community would take, well, one highly disagreeable psychologist.

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