Gladwell: Learned ability matters too

When the Eagles’ scouts picked Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb in the 1999 NFL draft, did they prove that they were brilliant predictors of quarterback potential? “They might just as well have thrown a dart at a list of top college quarterbacks because statistics show that it is impossible to predict who will succeed as a professional,” said New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell, who in his articles and best-selling book, “The Tipping Point,” has set a new high standard for the non-fiction genre that could be called “popular sociology,” was at Penn on April 10 to deliver the 2003 Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture. His talk, “The Quarterback Problem: Fighting the Natural Bias” was a wide-ranging discussion of topics including sports, Enron, college admissions and the SATs.

Football scouts, Gladwell maintained, are “in the grip of bias called the naturalness bias,” and so is everyone else in our culture. “There is a natural hierarchy in our minds. The closer something is to its natural state — unadulterated — the more valuable it is,” he said. “We value secondarily those qualities that are earned.”

That explains why in the quest for the best quarterback, coaches consistently prefer players who are taller, stronger, can throw further—natural athletes—over those who have succeeded by hard work or intelligence or persistence. Yet in 2001, Tom Brady, who was considered too small to start in the NFL, was the Super Bowl MVP.

Enron got the Gladwell analysis too. “Enron was a company so obsessed with the idea of natural talent that employees who had been identified as ‘naturals’ were consistently promoted regardless of their failure to perform,” he reported.

But Gladwell saved his most savage critique for the SATs. He argued that we believe that the SAT is a test of innate ability and therefore give it greater weight in the admissions process, while grades that are merely earned are undervalued. “It is a pernicious idea that undermines meritocracy that one kind of performance is better than another,” Gladwell said.

Originally published on May 1, 2003