Behind Fortune's Smile

Outliers: The Story of Success By Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown and Company, 309 pages, $27.99

Three and a half decades ago, in their book Inequality, the sociologist Christopher Jencks and his co-authors claimed that where we end up in life is largely a function of luck or chance. At best, they wrote, statistical models predict about half of the variation in schooling and probably less in income. Further, Jencks and colleagues argued, we suffer from attribution bias in that we ascribe successes to personal qualities and failures to bad luck or outside forces, especially when those successes and failures are our own.

In his new book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell gives us a peek into the black box of all that so-called "luck." Gladwell maintains that culture and social structure matter a lot more as determinants of success than we care to think they do. In fact, a better title for his book might have been Hidden Bias, since it's not at all about outliers -- statistical oddities that appear to defy predictive models -- but really about how unseen social forces shape or constrain opportunity.

One of Gladwell's most interesting examples is how the birthdates of Canadian men turn out to be a powerful predictor of success in the hypercompetitive national sport of hockey. Arbitrary cut-off dates matter, it turns out, since they condition the age (and thus the developmental stage) when boys start playing, the group into which they are slotted, and therefore the amount of attention that they receive from coaches. This example is particularly effective since it comes from the ostensibly meritocratic world of sports, where the rules are the same for all comers. By focusing on "quarter of birth" -- that is, whether children are born during the first three months or some other part of the year -- Gladwell illuminates the hidden forces at work in our lives without touching on hot-button issues such as race, gender, or social class (which he gets to later).

Quarter-of-birth effects also show up in more consequential arenas than sports. For example, since many schools use Jan. 1 birthdates as a cut-off for entry into school, some researchers argue that those birthdates have substantial effects on student performance. Children born just after Jan. 1 tend to do better because they're almost a year older when they start school than children born in December. On the other hand, they also reach the age at which they are permitted to drop out having completed a year less of schooling.

Outliers is at its strongest when describing quirky academic research in this way. Gladwell touches upon research ranging from social psychological studies of Southern culture to the benefits of being born in a demographic trough to the debate over "summer setback" -- the notion that race and class gaps in educational achievement don't occur during the academic year but when kids are away from school. These and other theories, however, are just that -- theories -- and Gladwell fails to fully represent the swirling academic debates around these claims. But it would be a mistake to get worked up over these shortcomings. His mission is not to review the literature systematically but to get lay readers thinking about their own lives in a newly critical way.

Gladwell gets into real trouble, however, when he illustrates these putatively general phenomena with deliciously recounted anecdotes about particular individuals. And it is here that Gladwell walks into a trap that plagues many social scientists who attempt to write for a broad audience. By their very nature, individual stories cannot prove relationships between social variables. Gladwell offers dozens of compelling examples, ranging from Bill Gates to J. Robert Oppenheimer -- the physicist who was the father of America's atomic bomb -- to Gladwell's own Jamaican grandmother. He is trying to rewrite the typical individualistic biographies of these folks, stressing the "lucky" social advantages they had -- ranging from free computer-mainframe time for the young Bill Gates to the standing invitation the early Beatles enjoyed to play in Hamburg.

But Gladwell lacks any rigorous counterfactual or comparison cases. Would Gates have succeeded in another industry had he been born a decade or two earlier (plastics, son, plastics)? Would Joe Flom -- a leading litigator who practically founded the legal field of mergers and acquisitions -- have succeeded as a biotech entrepreneur had he been born in 1970? With individuals, we can never know. In some instances, such as that of Gates, Flom, or the Beatles, Gladwell presents no comparative case at all. So we cannot know how many other long-forgotten garage bands, for example, have toiled for the 10,000 hours that Gladwell deems key to the success of the Fab Four.

At other times Gladwell does provide a comparison, but the pairing is flawed. For instance, he contrasts the Manhattan Project's brilliant Oppenheimer with Chris Langan, an autodidact bouncer who was reported to be the "smartest man in America." But the two could have hardly resembled each other less in other ways. They differed in their class background, region, religion, parental nativity, and even birth cohort. The Langan-Oppenheimer duo fails to follow what we social scientists like to call the Millsian comparative method: Find two cases that are alike on all (or as many as possible) dimensions, except the crucial one under study. For instance, if you want to know the effect of universal health-care coverage on longevity, don't compare Canadians to Alabamans. Compare Manitobans to Minnesotans.

Other comparisons Gladwell deploys actually undermine his case. He argues, for example, that East Asians outperform other groups in math largely thanks to their historical experience in wet-rice agriculture (along with their monosyllabic and highly rationalized numbering system). According to Gladwell, rice-paddy maintenance requires so much more careful work than, say, European wheat-growing that it favors a culturally transmitted norm of diligence and persistence, which in turn has enabled Asians (and the Asian Diaspora) to excel in math. (Research that a University of Pennsylvania education professor has had trouble getting published supposedly shows that persistence is an almost perfect predictor of math success.) The problem in comparing Chinese rice farmers to 18th-century French peasants who reputedly slept through much of the cold winters and worked for roughly a third of the number of hours is that there is much more variation in math among the "lazy," wheat-growing Europeans than could be accounted for by such a simple theory. Finland and the Netherlands, for instance, have consistently been in the top five of international rankings.

These are serious criticisms, but they shouldn't ultimately take away from the valuable service that Gladwell provides an American public that's overly enamored of both the myth of genius and Horatio Alger narratives of bootstrapped mobility. If Jencks was indeed right about attribution bias back in 1972, economically gloomy Americans today may be particularly receptive to the notion that our fates are not entirely in our own hands. The real question is whether we will remember the important lesson about the social basis of opportunity that Gladwell has imparted when the economic pendulum swings back from bust to boom.