Weird Science

Jonah Lehrer, David Brooks & More Malcolm Gladwell Wannabes (PHOTOS)

Did the drive to be the next Gladwell trigger Jonah Lehrer’s downfall? See 16 Gladwell clones and wannabes.

Did the drive to become the next Malcolm Gladwell play a part in Jonah Lehrer’s downfall? From David Brooks to Dan Ariely, the Gladwell clones and wannabes who specialize in writing counterintuitive books that explain the world.

The transformation of Malcolm Gladwell the business and science reporter into Malcolm Gladwell the ideas guru—who, in the process, sold millions of copies of books—is one of the most incredible publishing stories of the millennium. Gladwell reportedly received a $1 million advance for his first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, and it paid off—the book has since sold millions of copies. So has Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Outliers: The Story of Success. On top of that, he now makes hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees. His mega-success has produced what The New York Times called the Gladwell Effect, as writers and publishers scramble to copy his seemingly counterintuitive yet easily understood and very persuasive approach. But have pop-science books become pseudo self-help manuals? From the recently disgraced Jonah Lehrer to the progenitor of Freakonomics, here are some other Gladwell clones and wannabes—what Gladwell wrought.

Charles Duhigg

The New York Times business reporter is one of the most obvious examples of a writer trying to copy Gladwell’s success for Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, writing yet another “hey, you might think you control your thoughts, but you don’t” book, with examples and consequences applied to real life.

Young and ambitious: check
Blue-chip media credentials: check
Plain, trendy book cover: check
Catchy title: check (The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business)
Twitter power: check (16,522 followers)

AP Photo

David Brooks

The New York Times columnist might be known for being a moderate politically, but he spends lots of his time finding studies in the social sciences that support his claims. His “Paradise Suite” books told stories about Bobos in Paradise—bourgeois and bohemian, or bobos, being what Brooks calls the new upper class. His newest, The Social Animal, surveys a wide range of studies in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and sociology to promote his view of human nature.

Blue-chip media credentials: check
Plain, trendy book cover: check
Catchy title: check (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement)
First book praised: check
Latest book panned: check
TED talk: check

Landov

Steven Levitt

Dubbing himself a “rogue” economist, Levitt simplified—or dumbed down, some say—aspects of statistics to show, for example, how legalized abortion led to lower rates of crime, or “which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?” The unconventional ways he arrived at these answers naturally resulted in Freakonomics, which sold millions of copies.

Young and ambitious: check
Rock-star looks: check
Blue-chip media credentials: check (The New York Times)
Catchy title: check (Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything)
First book praised: check
Latest book panned: check
TED talk: check
Twitter power: check (Freakonomics has 456,590 followers)

Rex

Jonah Lehrer

Before he was caught fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan in his latest book, Imagine, and thus becoming the next Jayson Blair, Lehrer had all the makings of the next Malcolm Gladwell, writing easy-to-understand articles on science for The New Yorker. Perhaps the pressure to become a Malcolmite was too much. Tweeted Ross Douthat of The New York Times: “Allen Ginsberg on Lehrer: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Malcolm Gladwell, starving hysterical naked ...’”

Young and ambitious: check
Hipster looks: check
Blue-chip media credentials: check
Trendy glasses: check
Trendy book cover: check
Catchy title: check (Imagine: How Creativity Works)
Latest book panned: check

Landov

Dan Ariely

A respected behavioral economist and psychologist at Duke University, Ariely has lately fallen back on writing books of popular science, trumpeting the irrational and dishonest nature of human beings.

Young and ambitious: check
Blue-chip academic credentials: check
Catchy title: check (The Honest Truth About Dishonesty)
Trendy book cover: check
TED talk: check (viewed some 2.8 million times)
Latest book panned: check

Retna

Susan Cain

Cain explained that if she were not a writer, she’d be a research psychologist, so curious is she about human nature. But then again, when she wasn’t a writer, she was—a lawyer. Her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has been causing quite a loud stir, as Cain argues that introverts like her are undervalued. But then again, she just gave a pretty popular TED talk in front of thousands of people.

Young and ambitious: check
Very good looks: check
Catchy title: check
TED talk: check
Twitter power: check (11,857 followers)

Getty Images

Dan Levitin

The director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University is a neuroscience rock star, and before becoming an academic was a producer and recording engineer for Blue Oyster Cult, Santana, and the Grateful Dead. But now he specializes in pop cognitive-science books extolling the virtues of music and its important position in the brain.

Rock-star looks: check
Catchy title: check (This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession)
Twitter power: check (4,791 followers)
Blue-chip academic credentials: check

Getty Images

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

When The Black Swan came out in 2007, some must have thought it was a new Gladwell book, what with its spare cover design and catchy title promising to explain a huge swath of human behavior and existence. The book warned about the coming financial crisis, and one of the writers it influenced was none other than Gladwell. “We associate the willingness to risk great failure: and the ability to climb back from catastrophe: with courage,” Gladwell wrote. “But in this we are wrong. That is the lesson of Nassim Taleb.” A professor at New York University and Oxford University, his next book, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms, was not as well received.

Blue-chip academic credentials: check
Catchy title: check
Trendy book cover: check

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James Surowiecki

Gladwell’s fellow New Yorker staff writer and business columnist took an almost orthodox idea within economics and presented it as something of a controversial insight—that experts are not to be trusted but that crowds get the right answer. The Wisdom of Crowds seemed designed to be a Malcolmite book, but it didn’t do nearly as well as Gladwell’s bestsellers.

Young and ambitious: check
Rock-star looks: check
Blue-chip media credentials: check
Catchy title: check
TED talk: check

Getty Images

Leonard Mlodinow

A physicist who made important contributions to perturbation theory and eigenvalue problems in quantum mechanics, Mlodinow’s most recent work, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, in a field very much not in his own expertise, can’t really be seen as much more than an attempt to copy the Gladwell model.

Steve Jobs-black-T-shirt look: check
Trendy book cover: check
Catchy title: check
Blue-chip academic credentials: check

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Seth Godin

Marketing guru Seth Godin delivered a crowd-pleasing message in Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, contending that the most powerful form of marketing is leadership and that technology allows anyone to become a leader and create movements that matter—very much in the vein of The Tipping Point.

Trendy glasses: check
Catchy title: check
Trendy book cover: check
TED talk: check
Blue-chip marketing credentials: check
Twitter power: check (195,978 followers)

AP Photo

Daniel Pink

Former Al Gore speechwriter Daniel Pink claims in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us that rewards like money aren’t the best ways to motivate us, and he picks and chooses from “four decades of scientific research” to show us something that anyone dumb enough to have chosen journalism as a profession already knows.

TED talk: check
Catchy title: check
Trendy cover: check
Blue-chip political credentials: check
Twitter power: check (195,856 followers)

Barry Schwartz

The professor of psychology at Swarthmore College has lately taken a liking to pop psychology, claiming in The Paradox of Choice to take aim at one of the tenets of Western civilization: the freedom of choice. It’s true—having too many cereals to choose from or cable channels to flip through is not very good for our freedom.

TED talk: check
Catchy title: check
Trendy cover: check
Blue-chip academic credentials: check

Getty Images

Daniel Gilbert

The Harvard psychology professor helped introduce the idea of impact bias—the tendency to overestimate how long a bad feeling or state will last—to the masses. But did he take mass appeal a little too far with Stumbling on Happiness, which purports to answer such deep questions as: “Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink? Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight? Why does the line at the grocery store always slow down the moment we join it?”

TED talk: check
Catchy title: check
Trendy cover: check
Blue-chip academic credentials: check

Christopher Chabris

Inattentional blindness is a phenomenon by which people fail to see things in plain sight when they’re occupied with something. It is an important discovery in itself. But in 2005, Union College psychology professor Chabris and his collaborator, Daniel Simons, won the Ig Nobel Prize for demonstrating that even gorillas can become invisible when people are suffering from inattentional blindness—hence the somewhat silly title of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which without doubt plays into the counterintuitive nature of the Gladwell effect.

Catchy title: check
Trendy cover: check
Trendy glasses: check

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Frank Partnoy

Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, by the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance at the University of San Diego, is perhaps the anti-Blink. Yet its “counterintuitive” premise—that you should wait before you make a decision—might make you wish you had waited before buying the book.

Catchy title: check
Trendy cover: check
Blue-chip academic credentials: check