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Malcolm Gladwell on Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder

Malcolm Gladwell, of Outliers, Blink and The Tipping Point fame, has a new book out this week: David and Goliath. He recently talked about a central concept of his book, applied to the number of students who get STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees. Once you make it past the first 2 minutes where he comments at length on not being paid by Google to give the speech, his talk - on the counterproductive desire to associate with elite institutions - is downright fascinating.

Although he gives it the fancy-sounding name of Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder (EICD), this is really the Big Fish in a Small Pond (BFSP) syndrome: apparently, a lot of people are more likely to stick to their career plans - such as getting that STEM degree - if they can compare themselves favorably to the people around them. In other words, they're better off as Big Fish in a Small Pond. Gladwell has some fascinating data regarding the distribution of STEM degrees depending on students' math SAT scores at institutions of varying caliber (top college vs middle-of-the-road). In particular his data suggests the distribution is rather stationary, that is, doesn't depend on the institution, although the students at the top institution are supposed to be "smarter" than the students at the not-so-well-known college. This is why Gladwell argues that people make their decisions by comparing themselves to the people around them, and lose track of the big picture.

Before I make any further comments, I'd like to encourage you to watch his talk, which lasts about 20 minutes.

Gladwell's thesis, at least in this short talk (I haven't read his book), seems to be that most people are better off away from elite institutions. Perhaps there is some truth to what he is saying about academia. I sometimes read papers that make, at best, marginal ("epsilon", as we like to say in my line of work) improvements about the state of knowledge - papers that no one at the university I got my PhD from would have dared consider research papers. And yet their authors submitted them for review, and they got published somewhere. Not in the best journals, but somewhere. They most likely have tenure and while not leaving their mark on their field in the way an academic at a top institution would, they might enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and perhaps a reputation as a good teacher or a valued committee member. Because they might have been the very best students in their program, they may have benefited from the strong support and encouragement of faculty members whose counterparts at a better-ranked institution would not even give such students the time of day. For them, staying away from people who would've diminished their self-esteem definitely paid off.

The bad part of all this, of course, as Gladwell point out, is that not-so-great PhDs from top institutions - who'd be the cream of the crop elsewhere - may decide, judging -- from their more successful peers' examples and their adviser's lack of encouragement (their adviser, after all, is unlikely to know of openings in the second-tier schools that would be a good fit for the student, and even if he did, unlikely to care) -- that they are better off leaving academia altogether. They do not realize that plenty of academics with worse credentials abound and even thrive, having found other strengths to contribute to their workplace. I guess we can call this the false negative of the career path read: some people draw wrong conclusions about their own potential, career-wise, from their immediate environment.

But what about people who rise to the challenge? The 15% of the bottom tier, using Gladwell's numbers, who do hang in there and get their STEM degree, although people with better math abilities (assuming we can judge math abilities by SAT scores, which is highly debatable) drop out of the major? Perhaps they succeed precisely because they were well-aware they didn't have the best SAT scores - because they showed resilience and persevered while the better students, unused to struggling in class, became discouraged and picked another path.

The issue, to me and hopefully to a lot of people, isn't that more people should be advised to "play it safe" and join groups (whether universities or companies or even groups of friends) where they won't feel their self-image so challenged. Pretending employers do not care which school students graduate from, or which company they worked for before, is either naive or disingenuous. The real issue, to me, is that we need to develop long-term resilience and a sense of perspective in students, which they will hopefully take with them when they graduate. But a system where students, worried about their GPA, will take classes with an easy A, and where professors, worried about their evaluations or unwilling to deal with struggling students, allow their course to turn into an "easy A" or "automatic A" course, does not do those things very well. There is also, naturally, a competence issue, where getting a C at Harvard just isn't the same as getting an A at Noname College. Perhaps the rise of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) will allow students unsure of their prospects a different perspective before they change majors. As online education is exploding, it seems more and more doable for universities to adopt a more flexible approach.

Although Gladwell seems to suggest these students should pick a college where they will face less competition to get their prized STEM degree with flying colors, what matters just as much as the degree is the social network - the people students choose to associate with, their goals, their ambitions. If you opt to become a Big Fish in a Small Pond, you might feel very pleased with yourself, but you'll never know what you would have been capable of if you'd pushed yourself to your edge instead of spending your weekends getting drunk in small-town bars.

Being a Small Fish in a Big Pond opens horizons. It is also, of course, immensely unsettling, and it should come as no surprise that many would-be actors, for instance, leave New York City after a few years to pursue other endeavors, whether acting-related or not. (A number of them are now finding work as readers of e-books for the Audible service.) Yet it would not occur to most of them to forgo the obligatory move to New York to give the big leagues a try. The behavior of the students changing paths to succeed in the big leagues (switching majors but remaining at Harvard) makes a lot of sense to me. Now we just have to convince those students that they're still in the big leagues if they struggle to get their degree.

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