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Sure you're sure? Malcolm Gladwell says overconfidence can be more dangerous than ignorance

Malcolm Gladwell speaks to Anna Maria Tremonti about the importance of changing our minds. The good news is he’s hopeful about our ability to do so. In fact, Gladwell believes closed-minded dogmatists are the real outliers. “Most people are actually open to new interpretations — surprisingly so.” 

In a conversation recorded pre-COVID-19, Gladwell urges us to constantly update our perspectives

"It's overconfident people who get in positions of power. So that's actually the thing that ought to stress us out," say Malcolm Gladwell. (CBC)
Listen to the full episode1:04:03

Malcolm Gladwell is known for turning assumptions on their head, and looking at situations from a different point of view. 

In this chat recorded before COVID-19, the journalist and podcaster speaks to Anna Maria Tremonti about the importance of changing our minds. The good news is he's hopeful about our ability to do so. In fact, Gladwell believes closed-minded dogmatists are the real outliers. "Most people are actually open to new interpretations — surprisingly so." 

In the season finale of More with Anna Maria Tremonti, an episode that goes down many rabbit holes, Gladwell reveals why he's rapidly losing interest in print; where he gets his best ideas; why overconfident people may be more dangerous than ignorant ones; and why people reacting with a "huh" is the ultimate compliment.

The following excerpt from their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity. Find the full interview here or on your favourite podcast app.

We stereotype people with dogmatic views and we think often that they are uneducated, they don't know enough, and maybe sometimes they know too much but it's a narrow band.

Yeah. So there's two poles here. There is incompetence which is not knowing enough. And there's overconfidence which is thinking you know way more than you know, right. They are two profoundly different positions. And overconfidence is actually far more dangerous than incompetence because incompetence we're really good at locating it and weeding it out. And also incompetent people never rise to prominent positions, right.

It's overconfident people who get in positions of power. So that's actually the thing that ought to stress us out is the possibility of someone believing themselves to be far more expert than they actually are. That's much more the issue than someone simply ignorant of what they need to know.

So where does that approach of looking at an issue from different perspectives — and pushing for people to do that and maybe change their minds — where does that come from in you?

I mean I could give you an answer but then I mean the standard answer is, well, you credit your parents or your friends or the quality of public schooling in southern Ontario [chuckles]. All of those things are true.

Most people are actually open to new interpretations, surprisingly so. And so what is unusual is those who aren't. Those are the ones that require explanation.- Malcolm Gladwell

But I've thought a lot of about this, and I think the better question is the other question. I think I'm the way that people naturally are. And in my experience is most people are like that. Most people are actually open to new interpretations, surprisingly so. And so what is unusual is those who aren't. Those are the ones that require explanation.

So a far better question is to say to someone whose mind is absolutely made up: how on earth did you get so dogmatic? Because that's weird. Because if human beings were dogmatic we would never have made it this far, right?

So the evolutionary state is to be curious. It's because we're open minded and curious that we have electricity, and telephones, and airplanes, and antibiotics. You will note by the way that of the four things I selected as Hallmarks of the Modern Age: two are Canadian!

Yes. You're a very proud Canadian. [Laughs]

Thank you. Thank you. I was very selective in my choice of things. [Chuckles] But also Brantford — where was Banting? Oh, it's Toronto. 

Banting and Best. Yeah. 

And Alexander Graham Bell in Brantford. Not only am I being Canadian, I'm being true to my southern Ontario roots.

But if it's so central to our species to be open minded and curious, how on earth do we end up from time to time with people who are the opposite? That's the interesting question. So, I'm normal.

When it comes to running ideas by others, the author and podcaster says he's looking to make someone say "Huh? ... some combination of interest and surprise." (Revisionist History/Palopoly)

So how on earth do we end up in an era politically — not just in the U.S. and Canada — where it appears that people are more closed and not open and curious, and more dogmatic?

I don't have a good answer. But I will say I wonder whether this will seem like less of an issue in a few years.

Does anyone seriously doubt for example that on the question of climate change, we will eventually get to 95 percent of the population? We will. Even if you compare today with a year ago today, it's a lot harder today to have this position than it would have been a year ago. I mean eventually we're all moving in the direction of being open to this new understanding of the world. It's just that some of us are moving faster than others.

You know my father was interested in and worried about climate change years before I was, for example. That's not because I was dogmatic. I just didn't think about it or care about it. And he was the one who was sounding the alarm, I mean, I feel like a decade ago he was.

We only have so much room in our life for that kind of ideological disruption. You need to look at all of their beliefs.- Malcolm Gladwell

I got it much later. So, I feel like we're all moving in that direction, only at different speeds, and because of where we stand.

Some a lot of people who are maybe very resistant to that issue maybe they're extraordinarily progressive and open minded on other issues. And we only have so much room in our life for that kind of ideological disruption. You need to look at all of their beliefs.

Here's a really good example.

The Catholic Church rejected contraception in the papal encyclical of 1968 or 1969 in large part because of a ferocious lobbying attempt by a American cleric, Jesuit, named John Ford.

John Ford got the pope's ear and basically talked him out of saying yes to the pill. John Ford in that sense is this great retrograde figure in modern history. He's the one who took the largest private institution in the world and made it antagonistic to birth control.

If you go back 20 to 25 years you discover that at the outset of the Second World War John Ford was also the person who made this extraordinarily prescient and brave argument against civilian bombing which was a generation ahead of its time, which the rest of the world did not come around to until the Vietnam War.

So John Ford was in the same breath an arch traditionalist, dogmatist on the question of contraception, and extraordinarily brave and courageous and in the vanguard of moral opinion on the question of civilian bombing. That's the same person. So that's my point. You've got to look at the whole person to come to an appreciation of how open your mind is.

And yet when you look at that church stand against contraception, think about the lives that were irreparably altered because of that judgment by the church.

But also think about the lives that were lost because of our indifference to the bombing of civilians.

We slaughtered a couple million people with bombs between Korea, World War II, and Vietnam. So there's no way to do a kind of accurate moral accounting it is just to say that here was a man who was of an extraordinary moral voice in one way and who you know by some accounts, some of us believe, was a less so in another way.

But he's complicated like all human beings. We can't paint him with one brush, is my point.

Want to hear the full conversation?

Listen for free at cbc.ca/more or on your favourite podcast app — including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify. And if you're new to podcasts entirely, start here. 

Episode 9: "Malcolm Gladwell won't make up his mind" is available now on the More with Anna Maria Tremonti podcast. (CBC)


 

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