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  • Elsa

    Fascinating and so true!

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The first thing I learned in law school is that law school is not for learning the law. My decorated professor explained that we would spend twenty hours each week reading and discussing cases—and that very few of those cases would ever again figure in our lives as lawyers. Those hours were not wasted, but it was not because they filled our heads with legal content that they were useful. It was because they slowly formed us into the kinds of minds that make successful lawyers.

My professor was right. I began to speak, think and consume information like a lawyer. When I joined a large corporate law firm as a paralegal, I was coiled and ready to be lawyerly. Not a single one of the dozens of cases we discussed for thousands of hours appeared again, but that didn’t matter. I was primed to read dozens of new cases quickly and efficiently, and to distill thousands of pages of judicial content into a rich concentrate of legal argument.

Eventually I left the law firm and embarked on a new life. I started and finished a doctorate in social psychology, began an academic job in psychology and marketing, and wrote a book. The book, written for people who are interested in human psychology but have no background in the subject, consumed me for three years. I wanted to share with other people the ideas that had kept my mind occupied and entertained for more than a decade. I created a document entitled “Book Plan” and filled page after page with references to my favorite experiments—first dozens and then hundreds. “Book Plan” became a catalogue of the content that populated my thoughts, the closest thing to a facsimile of my academic mind. My aim, I decided, should be to transfer as much of that information to the reader who happened to pick up my book.

I wrote intensely, but briefly. Tattooing my mind to the page wasn’t working. My law professor had promised not to bombard us with content, but that’s exactly what I was doing to my readers—giving them a brute-force education in social psychology. I stopped writing and spent some time leafing through popular-science classics. Some were written by academics in their respective fields, others by journalists and writers. The best of them presented ideas, but these ideas were mostly dressed in anecdotes and narratives.

The first book I opened when I prematurely stopped writing was Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. When I first read the book I was two years into a psychology degree, and it explains in no small part why I went on to pursue a Ph.D.—and why ten years later I wrote a book of my own. In this, his first book, Gladwell explores why some ideas, trends and products go viral after crossing the eponymous tipping point. What distinguishes this book from almost every other I had read before it is its complete disregard of intellectual boundaries. Gladwell is omnivorous, picking and choosing the most compelling ideas from more than a dozen fields. The references at the back of the book show traces of psychology, sociology, medicine, epidemiology, ethology, mathematics, marketing, history, public policy, communications theory, media studies, criminology, jurisprudence, evolutionary behavior, linguistics, public health and psychiatry. Gladwell is a wonderful writer and I enjoyed the book immensely, but long after my memories for each anecdote grew hazy—why crime rates in New York City fell in the mid-Nineties, why the cool kids suddenly started wearing Hush Puppies—I continued to see the world through a sharper lens. As a psychologist, I saw no reason why I couldn’t dip my toes into thousands of other discipline-driven universes that fill our world with information.

A decade after reading The Tipping Point, I stumbled on a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns, written by psychologist James Pennebaker. Pennebaker and Gladwell are very different authors. Pennebaker writes about his own work, so his book covers a narrow field of information in great depth. But his book had a similarly profound impact on how I think about the world. Pennebaker’s premise is that the “small, stealthy [function] words” we use every day—you, a, am, to, I, but, the, for, not—actually reveal a tremendous amount about our mental lives. He presents a string of compelling anecdotes and chases each one with empirical proof.

In one, he analyzes the correspondence between psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who exchanged at least 337 letters between 1906 and 1913. Freud’s reputation ascended before Jung’s, but by 1911 both had achieved renown in the psychoanalytic community—and so the tension between them escalated. At first, their letters showed a great deal of linguistic mimicry; both scholars used similar function words, and their relationship flourished. By 1913, their views had diverged, and Freud suggested they “abandon … personal relations entirely.” Pennebaker shows that even before their letters grew hostile, their linguistic styles had begun to drift apart. These “small, stealthy words” betrayed animus long before it rose to the surface of their relationship.

What struck me about The Secret Life of Pronouns, and Pennebaker’s research program more broadly, is that it achieves so many ends that are difficult to accomplish simultaneously. Pennebaker shows that large effects grow from small, apparently innocuous roots, and that those effects persist across many domains, from presidential speeches and letters between academics to Shakespearean character arcs and Beatles lyrics. In each case, function words predict vast differences in power, affection, self-deception, success and leadership skills. As with Gladwell’s book, long after the details from Pennebaker’s anecdotes have begun to fade, I find myself reading legal and political transcripts differently, listening to how other people speak differently, and understanding the world differently.

Gladwell’s book succeeded because it eradicated the barriers between disciplines; Pennebaker’s succeeded because it presented one very powerful idea that tied together disparate worlds. But neither book succeeded because it filled my mind with content. The case studies made the books fun to read, but over time my memory for them waned and left behind a sketchy trace of the big ideas that made the books enduringly important. The vivid anecdotes were just the vehicles that transported those big ideas.

To me, then, the essence of good science writing is not the sharing of particular ideas, but the sharing of general approaches to perceiving the world. A book doesn’t succeed because its readers can cite ten new facts; it succeeds because the next time those readers see a person behaving oddly, or the sun at a particular height in the sky, or two birds engaged in an elaborate courtship ritual, they look at those events differently and perhaps more deeply. This is a skill that cuts across every sphere of life and promises to bring great rewards across time.

Both Gladwell and Pennebaker change how we look at the world, but Gladwell’s lesson is broader than Pennebaker’s. Gladwell implies that the most interesting way to look at the world is to develop a voracious appetite for information without paying too much attention to which discipline produced that information. When several disciplines tackle big challenges—crime, poverty, education, prejudice, disease—it makes no sense to doggedly rely on one approach without at least considering the others. This might seem obvious, but expertise—burrowing deeply into one subject—often comes at the expense of breadth. The first chapter of The Tipping Point illustrates Gladwell’s approach perfectly. As he sketches the “three rules of epidemics,” he invokes lessons from epidemiologists (who were investigating a syphilis epidemic in Baltimore); businesspeople (who were trying to repeat the success of Hush Puppies, which went from selling 30,000 pairs of shoes per year in the early 1990s to 430,000 pairs in 1995); and psychologists (who wondered why dozens of bystanders chose not to intervene or call for help as a young woman was brutally attacked). There are conferences for epidemiologists, conferences for businesspeople and conferences for psychologists—but none that encourage all three disciplines to come together as seamlessly as they do in Gladwell’s book.

Pennebaker’s lesson is narrower but no less important. He shows how a specific, obscure idea at the avant-garde of his field illuminates new terrain for anyone who’s willing to learn. This is a valuable service, particularly in aggregate, as academics who write similar books incrementally bridge the chasm between academia and everything else. It’s easiest to see how important this process is by focusing on how much the chasm shrank during the twentieth century. Concepts that were restricted to experts are understood far more widely today: the forces of supply and demand from economics; sterilization and infection from medicine; the relationship between natural light and well-being from psychology. String together enough of these ideas, and the average well-read layperson becomes the sum of a diverse range of experts—shallower and less sophisticated than true experts, of course, but a smarter consumer of the world’s information nonetheless.

Psychologists use the term metacognition to label how we think about our thoughts, and a truly great popular science book changes how we approach the business of thinking, rather than the specific things we think about. My law professor was explaining this idea without the jargon—that law school changes how you approach the task of consuming information—and books like The Tipping Point and The Secret Life of Pronouns achieve the same lofty goal. Once you’ve read them, you perceive the same people, places, objects, ideas and concepts through a more sophisticated lens. Nothing looks the same, because you’re sporting an upgrade in your basic mental apparatus.

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  • Elsa

    Fascinating and so true!

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