Malcolm Gladwell recently spoke at Google Zeitgeist about something he calls “Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder (EICD).” As he often does, his insights grow out of his personal experience. In this case: why did Gladwell come to speak at Google Zeitgeist – even paying $9.87 to print his speech – without getting paid for it? This despite the fact that his book is not yet available for sale and he has no use for more interesting people in his life or for business contacts.

As Gladwell explains:

The rest of his address focuses on a challenge facing US higher education: STEM field graduates. While there are plenty of students interested, not enough are completing degrees, creating a “persistence problem.” This is true for students attending top institutions such as Harvard and lower ranked universities. The top students relative to class rank are successful. Despite the fact that students at Harvard are among the top of all students pursuing STEM degrees, they are not achieving (i.e., attaining degrees) at a rate any higher than lower ranked schools.

Gladwell asks the question: Why does EICD persist? He points to two causes.

  1. Relative Deprivation Theory: Humans form our ideas about our intelligence, social standing, ability, etc etc based on our immediate environment, rather than overall environment. A 16-year old who is upset because they did not receive a new car for their birthday is experience relative deprivation.
  2. The cost of being at the bottom of a hierarchy. Gladwell has discussed this idea before, namely the opening example of Outliers. Here’s an excerpt from a review of the book:
  3. A close look at the rosters of top Canadian hockey teams reveals an oddly disproportionate number of players born in the first three months of the year. The reason is relative age. Canadian youth hockey leagues base a player’s eligibility on the calendar year, so skaters born on January 1 play with boys with December birthdays. At nine or ten years of age, several months can make a noticeable difference in a child’s size and coordination. The coaches then tend to label the bigger, more focused players the better ones, when in fact what they are is older. Those kids go on to get extra practice and playing time, and eventually do end up being better.

Gladwell closes with what Dr. King called the Drum Major Instinct. Compare Gladwell…

…with excerpts from Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. King jokes about the impact of compliments from a magazine advertisement.

I got a letter the other day, and it was a new magazine coming out. And it opened up, “Dear Dr. King: As you know, you are on many mailing lists. And you are categorized as highly intelligent, progressive, a lover of the arts and the sciences, and I know you will want to read what I have to say.” Of course I did. After you said all of that and explained me so exactly, of course I wanted to read it.

What Gladwell calls irrational behavior, King refers to as a distorted personality.

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. (Make it plain) And that’s where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one’s personality to become distorted. I guess that’s the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn’t harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I’m sure you’ve met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. (Amen) And they just boast and boast and boast, and that’s the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.

Finally, King provides a connection between Gladwell’s idea of EICD, the Drum Major Instinct and “why so many people are ‘joiners.'”

Now the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are “joiners.” You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it’s really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. And they get names that give them that impression. So you get your groups, and they become the “Grand Patron,” and the little fellow who is henpecked at home needs a chance to be the “Most Worthy of the Most Worthy” of something. It is the drum major impulse and longing that runs the gamut of human life. And so we see it everywhere, this quest for recognition. And we join things, overjoin really, that we think that we will find that recognition in.