Quasi Book Review on ‘Outliers’ and East Asian Math Skills

A guy from one of my marketing classes loaned me this book some time ago, before I started reading about HBD.

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of his much more popular and better book, The Tipping Point, which spawned something of a cottage industry in viral marketing firms and social media gurus.  

In Outliers Gladwell explores the factors that shape remarkably successful people – those who have widely deviated above the norm of human achievement.

Unfortunatley, nothing concrete is offered between loosely connected, albeit well written and interesting chapters on:

– Why Bill Gates was not just ‘any’ middle class geek who managed to become the world’s richest man

– Why high IQ does not correlate with success

– Koreans made for bad commercial pilots

– NHL players are disproportionately likely to be born in certain months

It was the chapter ‘Rice Paddies and Math Tests’ which most piqued my interest. Gladwell provides the usual evidence on Asian math dominance, and provides 2 novel causes:

1) The structure of Asian languages and numbering systems, compared to Western ones – read this part from a chapter excerpt here. No mention of African language structures though.

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Read them out loud to yourself. Now look away, and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again.

If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4,8,5,3,9,7,6—right every time because—unlike English speakers—their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

2) Rice paddy agricultural systems used in East Asia that necessitated a culture of attention to detail, complex  rule/process following, structural problem solving and persistence. These are the qualities required to excel in math and logical-type endevours such as computers and engineering.

Interestingly, Gladwell suggests a hereditary link with these culturally acquired skills to mathemateical success. He cites one study where  participants were asked to solve a logical pattern problem. Second generation Asian Americans, without any prior math-oriented backgrounds, outperformed because they were willing to spend longer time on the problem before giving up and deciding it was impossible.



  1. Viewer

    Here’s my comment regarding this from Amazon:

    Gladwell seems totally unaware of twin & adoption studies showing the degree to which behavioural traits, including intelligence, are largely hereditary.

    In terms of Asian Math success he notes:

    “Rice farming lays out a cultural pattern that works beautifully when it comes to math…Rice farming is the most labor-intensive form of agriculture known to man. It is also the most cognitively demanding form of agriculture”

    This is fine, but Gladwell looks purely at cultural effects. What has been indicated in books like ‘A Farewell to Alms’ is that the most effective farmers tended to have the most children & hence there was genetic change in the population (selection for certain traits).

    Recent research shows that with the advent of agriculture and population growth genetic developments have sped up over the past 10,000-15,000 years (see ‘The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution’). Particularly, some of the changes are associated with brain & axon growth:

    “The sweeping alleles we see are mostly regional – you see them in one group and not the other two. A fair fraction are neurological and likely to affect behavior in some way. For example, you see new versions of SLC6A4, a serotonin transporter, in Europeans and Asians. There’s a new version of a gene (DBA1) that shapes the development of the layers of the cerebral cortex in east Asia.”


    Also, Gladwells theory about rice growing seems a little inconsistent. Do the inhabitants of rice-growing southern China outperform the inhabitants of northern China in math? Northern China for millennia has been a wheat/millet/small grain-producing region rather than a rice region. Do Beijingers get beaten by Shainghainese on international math tests? Gladwell avoids this issue in a footnote and claims that “we don’t know” if northern Chinese are good at math.

    Gladwell also skips over studies showing East Asians perform about as well as their biological peers even when adopted into white households. Does culture explain this?


    The explanation for Jewish success in the legal & other professions is similarly fanciful. He overlooks the most well documented explanation:

    Psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their average IQ at 107.5 to 115. That’s only modestly higher than the overall European average of 100, but the gap is large enough to produce a huge difference in the proportion of of those with high levels of cognitive ability. When a group’s average IQ is 100, the percentage of people above 140 is 0.4%; when the average is 110, the rate is 2.3%.

    Cochran & Harpending at University of Utah noted that European Jews were forbidden to work in many of the common jobs of the Middle Ages from 800 to 1700 CE, such as agriculture, and subsequently worked in high proportion in professions such as finance and trade, some of which were forbidden to non-Jews by the church. Those who performed better are known to have raised more children to adulthood passing on their genes in greater proportion than those who performed less successfully.

    G. Cochran, J. Hardy, H. Harpending, Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659-693 (2006).


    One good thing about the book is showing that their are numerous background factors involved in a person’s success. I particularly liked the discussion of the research on 10,000 hours to mastery.

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