Transcript

590:

Choosing Wrong
Transcript

Originally aired 06.24.2016

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Well, it's June. Weddings everywhere, brides in white, little three-year-old nieces sent waddling down aisles throwing rose petals, vows that go on, perhaps a bit too long.

Ira Glass

And how many of these happy couples are actually, underneath all of it, mismatched?

Alain De Botton

A huge number. It's frightening going to weddings.

Ira Glass

Meet Alain de Botton, author of articles with titles like "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person", and "How We End Up Marrying the Wrong Person", and two books about love. I was interested in talking to him because our radio show today is about making wrong choices. And he believes that when it comes to making the single most important decision many of us ever make in our lives, it is incredibly easy to screw it up-- much easier than we generally acknowledge.

Alain De Botton

You know, some of the reason why we marry the wrong people is that we don't really understand ourselves. I mean, sometimes I say to people, do you think you're easy to live with? People who are single. And the ones who say, yeah, yeah, I'm pretty easy to live with, it's just a question of finding the right person, massive alarm bell rings in my mind.

Ira Glass

He says the problem is that it is not until we are actually married that we're in a situation where all the ways that we are hard to live with are truly revealed. All of our neuroses and flaws, all the tiny little things that vaguely remind us of our childhoods, and thus trigger peculiar and inappropriate behavior towards those we live with, that's what gets revealed by the marriage itself. Even if you lived together before marriage, he says, it's not the same. It doesn't give you that self-knowledge.

Alain De Botton

And so we go into marriage unable to convey that knowledge to a partner. We don't understand them. They don't understand us. We don't understand what marriage is. Let's stress that.

Ira Glass

So what would you say to all the people getting married this month? What would you tell them?

Alain De Botton

Be incredibly forgiving for the weird behavior that's going to start coming out. You will be very unhappy in lots of ways. Your partner will fail to understand you.

If you're understood in maybe, I don't know, 60% of your soul by your partner, that's fantastic. Don't expect that it's going to be 100%. Of course you will be lonely.

You will often be in despair. You will sometimes think it's the worst decision in your life. That's fine. That's not a sign your marriage has gone wrong.

It's a sign that it's normal, it's on track. And many of the hopes that took you into the marriage will have to die in order for the marriage to continue. That some of the headiness and expectations will have to die.

[LAUGHTER]

Most of all--

Ira Glass

I'm laughing cause this is so dark.

Alain De Botton

It's very dark. But in love, darkness is a real friend of relationships. Because so many of the problems of love come from unwarranted optimism. And so we need to be dark about so many things.

Ira Glass

OK, I'm going to stop the tape right there and come in to say, I know he's going on a little bit here. And by the way, mazel tov to everybody getting married this month. But I'm a married person. And OK, just speaking for myself, I find this tear that he's on to be one of the most accurate descriptions of marriage I've ever heard-- no judging please-- and also, in its own way, kind of hopeful. But we'll get to that. Anyway, back to the tape.

Alain De Botton

Let me say, you'll have noticed that I've got a British accent. Now, Britain doesn't do many things well. We fail at a lot of things. But one of the things we excel at-- perhaps almost on an international scale-- is melancholy. We do melancholy really well. The weather helps.

And I think that there are aspects of a good marriage that should encompass a kind of melancholy, as we realize that we're trying to do such a complex thing with someone. We are trying to find our best friend, our ideal sexual partner, our co-household manager, perhaps our co-parent. And we're expecting that all this will miraculously go well together. Of course it can. We're not going to be able to get it all right. There will be many areas of misunderstanding and failure. And a certain amount of sober melancholy is a real asset when heading forth into the land of love.

Ira Glass

And so to sum up, he says we choose the wrong spouse because we don't actually understand what marriage is really going to be like. Because we do not know ourselves. And in addition, we idealize our spouse. We make hasty choices about who we'll marry because being single can be so unpleasant. And because, rather than analyzing and thinking all those things through, instead we just follow our feelings. We go on gut. We go on instinct. Which, to Alain's way of thinking, is obviously inadequate to the task at hand.

Alain De Botton

I mean, imagine if I said I'm going to try to land a 777 tomorrow, I'm going to touch down at San Francisco airpot by intuition. Or if I said I'm going to perform quite a complicated surgical procedure this afternoon by intuition, sounds mad. Nevertheless, we accept that people are going to say, I'm going to run this major part of my life called my love life by intuition.

Ira Glass

Now, I know that we've all heard some of these things, OK? I think every couple now knows that it's not going be great all the time. Every couple is told it's going to be hard. You're going to have to work at it.

But the radical message that Alain de Botton brings is even if you work at it, you're not going to be that successful. It's going to be a mix of unhappiness and happiness with way more unhappiness than you think before you get married. And a good partnership is one where both people have realistic expectations about all that.

A good partnership he writes, "Is not so much between two healthy people. There aren't many of those on the planet. It's one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities." The standard question on an early dinner date he says should be simply, "And how are you crazy?"

Alain De Botton

I mean, relationships markedly improve when two people can make almost a blanket avowal-- we're both kind of crazy.

Ira Glass

You're married, right?

Alain De Botton

I'm married.

Ira Glass

What's your wife say about all this?

Alain De Botton

Look, she's very funny. She's a pessimistic realist. On our 10th wedding anniversary, she dressed in black. And she said, it was a funeral for many of her hopes. So she's quite dark too. But we're actually very hopeful about the course of love.

Ira Glass

And in your marriage, did you both go through a process of entering the marriage with one idea, a very idealized idea, of what marriage would be, and then you came to this other idea?

Alain De Botton

Yes. I had absolutely no idea about how to love. I hadn't had many relationships. And I literally used to think that the only problem, the only difficulty of love was finding this person called the right person.

And they'd come into my life, and then we'd just understand one another totally. We would understand each other without needing to speak. We wouldn't have any arguments. We wouldn't have any arguments over money or practicalities. And I think we had a succession of crises and moments of fear, where we really thought we had married the wrong person.

Ira Glass

Is there a more general rule here? Do most of us make mistakes in other huge decisions in our lives because we don't know ourselves?

Alain De Botton

The other area where we make major bad decisions based on a lack of self knowledge-- and it's exactly the same principle-- is work. Work and love, and the two very similar. Because in both areas, we abandon the field totally to intuition. You're supposed to find your work by a kind of special calling, by a special pull. And in fact, in order to find a job that you can love, you have to understand so much about yourself, your own character, your own nature, let alone the world of work itself.

Ira Glass

And so he says, we choose wrong in not one, but two of the biggest things we ever decide in our lives. And then we muddle our way through. Today on our show, as some of Alain's countrymen who voted for the Brexit are telling reporters they regret their votes now that they see the reality of what it is, we have stories of people making the wrong choices.

And in the stories we have today, the stakes are high-- like, for instance, the career of one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived, like the outcome of the presidential election. And in every story, it could have gone differently. The right choice was out there, right in front of them. They saw it and they rejected the right choice. Something stopped them. What stops us from choosing the best thing for us? So interesting, right? Answers from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Swish Miss.

Ira Glass

Act 1-- "Swish, Miss". So this first wrong choice we're going to talk about in our show, it was made by an athlete who absolutely knew what the right choice could do for him. This story comes from Malcolm Gladwell, who's best known as the author of books like The Tipping Point. Malcolm has started a new podcast called Revisionist History. And he let us adapt one of his stories to play for you now. Here he is.

Malcolm Gladwell

The greatest game of basketball anyone has ever played was in Hershey, Pennsylvania, March 2nd, 1962.

Announcer

Here's the big fourth quarter. And everybody's thinking how many does Wilt got to get? He's got 69 gone in. Here's the pass to him. He's got another one. Any time--

Malcolm Gladwell

Cold winter night, just over 4,000 people in the stands. Philadelphia Warriors vs. The New York Knicks.

Announcer

--defense honest. When [INAUDIBLE] that have the good shot, they're taking it. But mostly they're setting up the big man.

Malcolm Gladwell

The star of the Warriors was a man named Wilt Chamberlain-- no doubt you've heard of him-- 7'1", 275 pounds. For sheer physical presence, there has probably never been anyone like Wilt. There are lots of seven footers who play basketball, who are basically on the court purely because they're seven feet tall. They're clumsy and ungainly.

Chamberlain was not like that. He was as big as an oak tree and as graceful as a ballet dancer. That season, 1961 to 1962, he ended up averaging more than 50 points a game. That record will never be broken.

Announcer

Chamberlain with a rebound. Taps it in. Chamberlain taps it in--

Malcolm Gladwell

So March 2nd, Wilt was hungover. He'd been out all night with a woman he picked up at a bar. That's classic Wilt, too.

He would later claim to have slept with 20,000 women in his life. And when he said that, lots of people did the math and said, there was no way that was possible, given the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day, and Wilt only lived to the age of 63. But even the skeptics were like, well, maybe it's 10,000 or 8,000. It was an argument over whether it was an unbelievably high number, or merely an incredibly high number.

Announcer

[INAUDIBLE] ...happy to be with you on this historic occasion.

Malcolm Gladwell

So back to the game in question. Chamberlain makes his first five shots and has 23 points at the end of the first quarter. At halftime, he has 41 points. No one's thinking history just yet. But then, by the end of the third quarter, he has 69 points. And he keeps going and going and going.

Announcer

The rebound, [INAUDIBLE]. That's directly into Chamber-- he made it! He made it! He made it! A different dunk! He made it! The fans are all over the floor!

Malcolm Gladwell

100 points, the most anyone has ever scored in a professional basketball game. And here is the most incredible thing about it-- he shot brilliantly from the foul line, made 87.5% of his shots. The reason that's incredible is that Chamberlain was a horrendous free throw shooter, the worst.

He was a man who could score at will with two and sometimes three defenders draped all over his body. But put him all alone, 15 feet from the basket, and he was hopeless. There were seasons in his career where he shot 40% from the free throw line. That's terrible.

But this season, Chamberlain changes tactics. He starts to shoot his foul shots underhanded. He doesn't release the ball up by his forehead.

He holds the ball between his knees and flicks it towards the basket from a slight crouch. Some people call that a granny shot. And all of a sudden, he's a pretty good free throw shooter.

He gets up to more than 60%. And that special night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he's an incredible free throw shooter.

Announcer

Chamberlain on the line. Foul shot, up in the air. He has 84.

Malcolm Gladwell

He makes 28 free throws, the most anyone has ever made in a regular season game in NBA history.

Malcolm Gladwell

20? What?

Rick Barry

28. He made 28 out of 30.

Malcolm Gladwell

You beat that?

Rick Barry

It's 30 or 32, yeah.

Malcolm Gladwell

That's Rick Barry speaking. He played in the NBA at the same time as Chamberlain, also a Hall of Famer, an absolutely unstoppable scorer from almost anywhere on the court, especially the foul line. I met him at his condo in South Carolina earlier this year.

He was living there so he could follow his son, Canyon, who was playing basketball for the College of Charleston at the time. Barry is 72, 6'8" tall, barrel chest, legs that look like he had special extensions put on them. And that thing that great athletes have and never seem to lose, which is that they kind of glide across the floor, like they have wheels on. What Rick Barry will tell you is that shooting underhanded is simply a better way to make foul shots. And he knows that because he was one of the greatest foul shooters of all time.

Rick Barry

I missed 10 in one season and 9 in another, in the whole season.

Malcolm Gladwell

To put that in perspective, if LeBron James-- who may be the greatest player of his generation-- if he was as good from the foul line as Rick Barry, he would have scored hundreds-- in fact-- over 1,000 more points over the course of his career.

Rick Barry

I think I shot 93.5 or something and 94.7, something like that.

Malcolm Gladwell

And Rick Barry only shot underhanded.

Rick Barry

From the physics standpoint, it's a much better way to shoot. Less things that can go wrong, less things that you have to worry about repeating properly in order for it to be successful. But the other thing is, is that who walks around like this?

Malcolm Gladwell

Barry put his hands up in the air, holding an imaginary ball, mimicking the way everyone else shoots free throws.

Rick Barry

This is not a natural position. When I shoot underhand in free throws, where are my arms? Hanging straight down, the way they are normally. And so I'm totally and completely relaxed. It's not in the situation where I have to worry about my muscles getting tense or tight. And then the shot itself, it's a much softer shot. So many of my shots, even if they're a little off, they hit so nice and soft, and they'll still fall in the basket.

Malcolm Gladwell

The soft bounce.

Rick Barry

Much softer touch. And so you have a little bit more margin for error than when you shoot overhand.

Malcolm Gladwell

So Wilt Chamberlain switches to a better shooting technique. It pays off in the greatest basketball game ever played. He's playing the way that Rick Barry proved basketball players ought to play.

Then, inexplicably, Wilt Chamberlain stops shooting underhanded. And what happens? He goes back to being a terrible foul shooter.

Let's think about what he did for a moment. Chamberlain had a problem. He tested out a possible solution.

The solution worked. And all of a sudden, he's fixed his biggest weakness as a player. This is not a trivial matter.

If you're a basketball player and you can't hit your free throws, you're an incredible liability to your team, particularly at the end of close games. The other side simply fouls you every time you touch the ball because they know you'll miss your free throw and they'll get the ball back. If you can't hit your foul shots, it means you can't be used in a tight game.

You know what Chamberlain's coach said to him about his free throws? "If you were a 90% shooter, we might never lose." They didn't play on the same team, but Rick Barry got to know Chamberlain pretty well.

Rick Barry

I got to know him, you know? And I just joked with him and said, your technique was terrible. But I mean, had you stuck with it-- I mean, there's no telling what he would have done. I mean, the numbers he would have put up would have been insane. Because the only way they defended him was to foul him.

Malcolm Gladwell

Chamberlain had every incentive in the world to keep shooting free throws underhanded, and he didn't. I think when people don't do the thing they ought to do, we assume it's because of ignorance. This is not that. This is doing something dumb even though you're fully aware that you're doing something dumb.

By the way, there had been countless players like Chamberlain, players who could have been transcendent, devastating, if only they had been open to taking foul shots a different way. Take Shaquille O'Neal, up there with Wilt Chamberlain as one of the greatest NBA centers of all time, but an absolutely horrendous free throw shooter. Shaq even inspired a term, Hack-a-Shaq, which means intentionally fouling Shaquille O'Neal-- or any other terrible free throw shooter-- in order to put them on the foul line, where they're likely to miss their shots. Shaq's inability to shoot free throws drove Rick Barry nuts. Barry tried to reason with him.

Malcolm Gladwell

Oh, you actually talked to Shaquille O'Neal?

Rick Barry

Oh, I tried to get Shaq to change.

Malcolm Gladwell

Shaquille O'Neal?

Rick Barry

Shaquille O'Neal, when I tried to get him to do it, he said, forget it. I'd rather shoot 0 than shoot underhanded.

Malcolm Gladwell

And I'm just fascinated by that.

Rick Barry

I don't understand that.

Malcolm Gladwell

No one shoots underhanded. Not even Barry's teammates followed his lead, people who saw him shoot that way every day and never miss.

Rick Barry

One guy, only--

Malcolm Gladwell

One man, who's that?

Rick Barry

George Johnson, my teammate with the Warriors. I think he was like, 48%, 50%, something like that. And I worked with him for one season. I didn't get to stay with him.

He didn't get the technique down as much as I'd like it. But I think eventually, a season or two later, I think George actually shot 80%. I could actually look it up. It would be interesting to see what he did. I'll get George Johnson's stats here. Let me see. George Johnson's stats.

Siri

Sorry, Rick, I didn't get that.

Rick Barry

Whoops. OK. Stats for George Johnson, NBA.

Siri

Here are George Johnson's stats from the 2015 NFL season.

Rick Barry

NFL. That's great. Wrong guy, wrong season. But anyway, we'll look it up. It's interesting.

Malcolm Gladwell

It's actually more dramatic than Barry said. Johnson was once a 40% free throw shooter. And he ended up over 80%-- twice as good.

Malcolm Gladwell

But I mean, what about one your high school team? Did anyone throw underhand?

Rick Barry

Oh no, nobody. No. I've only had one guy ever come to me. An NBA guy came to me. I won't tell you his name.

But he came to me, he asked me to work with him. I did it. I worked with him. I had him shooting really well. And he never had the nerve to go back and do it when he went back.

Malcolm Gladwell

Can you tell me his name?

Rick Barry

Nah, I don't want to tell his name. It's not fair to him.

Malcolm Gladwell

I don't want to say his name. It's not fair to him, like it's some kind of dark, shameful secret. College basketball is no different.

Out of the thousands of college basketball players last season, there were-- as far as I can tell-- just two who shot underhanded. One is a Nigerian-American who played for Louisville, named Chinanu Onuaku. The other, is Canyon Barry, who played for the College of Charleston, and who-- in case you missed this earlier-- happens to be Rick Barry's son. In other words, there are only two conditions under which people will try the underhanded free throw. One, if their family is from another continent, and two, if they're an offspring of Rick Barry.

Here's why I went all the way to South Carolina to talk to Rick Barry-- not because I'm obsessed with basketball, although I am-- but because the strange story of the underhanded free throw is a really good way of thinking about something that has always puzzled me. Why do some good ideas spread and others go nowhere? We like to think that good ideas will spread because they're good, because their advantages are obvious.

But that's plainly not true. So why don't they? Or to put it another way, what is it about Rick Barry that allowed him to shoot this way? And what is it about Wilt Chamberlain and all the others that made them resist?

Let me try out a theory on you. It's from a sociologist named Mark Granovetter. Granovetter is one of the greatest social theorists of his generation. If you're an academic groupie like I am, Granovetter is like James Dean.

So Granovetter came up with something called the Threshold Model of Collective Behavior. He was trying to answer the question of why people do things out of character. He used riots as his big example.

Why do otherwise law-abiding citizens suddenly throw rocks through windows? Before Granovetter came along, sociologists tried to explain that kind of puzzling behavior in terms of beliefs. So the thinking went-- you and I have a set of beliefs. But when you throw the rock through the window, something powerful must have happened in the moment to change your beliefs. Something about the crowd transforms the way you think. Here's Granovetter explaining that idea.

Mark Granovetter

There was a lot of intellectual tradition that said that when people got into a crowd their independent judgment went out the window, and that they somehow became creatures of the crowd, and that there was some kind of miasma of irrationality that would settle over people. And they would act in ways that they would never act if they were by themselves or they weren't influenced by the mob mentality.

Malcolm Gladwell

But Granovetter doesn't buy it. He doesn't think that being part of the mob casts some kind of spell that makes everyone irrational. He says, it's all about thresholds.

Now, what does Granovetter mean by that word, "threshold"? A belief is an internal thing. It's a position we've taken in our head or in our heart.

But unlike beliefs, thresholds are external. They're about peer pressure. Your threshold is the number of people who have to do something before you join in.

Granovetter makes two crucial arguments. The first is that thresholds and beliefs sometimes overlap. But a lot of the time, they don't.

When your teenage son is driving 100 miles an hour at midnight with three of his friends in your Toyota Camry, it's not because he believes that driving 100 miles per hour is a good idea. In that moment, his beliefs are irrelevant. His behavior is guided by his threshold.

An 18-year-old may be drunk at midnight in a car with three of his friends. That person has a really, really low threshold. It doesn't take a lot of encouragement to get him to do something stupid.

Granovetter's second point is just as important. Everyone's threshold is different. There are plenty of radicals and troublemakers who might need only slight encouragement to throw that rock. Their threshold is really low.

But think about your grandmother. She might well need her sister, her grandchildren, her neighbors, her friends from church, all of them to be throwing rocks before she would even dream of joining in. She's got a high threshold. The riot has to be going on for a very long time and has to involve a whole lot of people before grandma will join in. But there are times when even grandmothers might throw rocks through windows.

Granovetter's theory explained a lot of things that had been puzzling to me. So here's a good example-- it's from an interview I did at the 92nd Street Y in New York, with the economist, Richard Thaler, who is one of the leading lights in what's called Behavioral Economics. He had a book coming out called Misbehaving. And I really liked it. And we thought it would be fun if we did an event together.

[APPLAUSE]

Malcolm Gladwell

You and I have met before. Well, the first time we met was at a hotel bar in Rochester?

Richard Thaler

Yes.

Malcolm Gladwell

Thaler's the kind of guy who's interested in everything, including sports. And there was a point in our conversation when he started to talk about the fact that the owners of professional football teams do things on occasion that are really stupid and inexplicable. Take the professional football draft.

For those of you who are not football fans, let me explain. Every year, all the draft-eligible college football players are thrown into a big pool. And the 32 professional football teams pick the players they want, one by one.

The first player taken is the one that people think will be the best professional player. That person gets the biggest salary. The second player taken is the one predicted to be the second-best professional player, and so on. And after every team has picked one player each, they all start again and do another round.

Because the players selected in the first round are considered the most valuable, all the teams fight over them. They pay enormous sums of money and construct elaborate deals to try and acquire those high draft picks.

Richard Thaler

The interesting thing about that is there's a market for picks. So you can trade the first pick for, say, half a dozen second-round picks. That's what the market says. Now, that implies that the first pick is five times more valuable than an early pick in the second round.

Malcolm Gladwell

Thaler and a colleague named Cade Massey decide to analyze this assumption. Was it really true that a first-round pick was worth half a dozen second-round picks?

Richard Thaler

If you compute the surplus a player provides to his team-- meaning how good his performance is-- minus how much you have to pay him, what we found is these second-round picks are actually more valuable than that first pick. But you could get five of those for that pick. It's the biggest anomaly I've ever found.

Malcolm Gladwell

The implication of Thaler and Massey's work is that teams should trade away their first-round picks. They should stockpile players in the second and third rounds, who can be paid a lot less and are nearly as good. This is how you build a winning football team.

So what was the reaction of NFL teams to Thaler's idea? Well, not long after he and Cade Massey did their research, they got a call from the Washington Redskins.

Richard Thaler

It was early in Dan Snyder's tenure as owner. And I met him. And he said, oh, we want to know about this.

And he introduced me. He said, I'm going to send my people to see you. And they flew out to Chicago and met with Cade and me.

And so anyway, we taught his guys-- Dan's guys-- what to do. And then we watched the draft eagerly that year.

Malcolm Gladwell

And what did they see? The Redskins did the exact opposite of what they should have done if they were rational. And they weren't the only ones. Thaler and Massey have consulted for three NFL franchises now, and no one has ever followed their advice.

It gets worse. There's a very respected economist named David Romer, who famously proved that football teams would win more games if they didn't punt, if they simply used all four downs to try and gain 10 yards, as opposed to giving the ball away to their opponents. So since Romer published his work, are NFL teams less likely to punt on fourth down? You guessed it. No.

Richard Thaler

And to tell you how big this is, if you did this right, we think you'd win one game a year more. If you also learned to go for it more often on fourth down, another game and a half. So just being smart, you would win at least two games a year on average.

Malcolm Gladwell

Two extra wins in a 16-game season, just by acting a little bit differently. Who wouldn't do that? But nobody would!

Now, is that because they're stupid, because they have irrational beliefs? That was my first thought when I was listening to Thaler talk about his football research. Those dumb football owners.

But that can't be right. You don't get to their level by being dumb. Surely this is about thresholds.

Football owners and coaches are a small group of people. They all know each other. They've all done things a certain way for a long time.

And doing things that way has made them a lot of money. They have a high threshold. These are a bunch of grandmothers.

The only way any of them is going to change their behavior is if some radical goes first. And there are no radical owners in the NFL. There's just Richard Thaler, a geeky middle-aged economist from the University of Chicago, with a bunch of equations that you need a PhD to understand.

Richard Thaler

There's some geek at every team who's read our paper. You know, think of the Jonah Hill character in the movie Moneyball, right? And nobody pays attention to that guy.

Malcolm Gladwell

Apparently there aren't a lot of radicals in basketball either. Just the Barrys, and Chinanu Onuaku, the Nigerian-American who played for Louisville. This, I think, gets us a little closer to the puzzle of Wilt Chamberlain. In his autobiography, he has this throwaway comment on the subject of shooting underhanded.

Chamberlain wrote-- "I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn't do it."

Two key things here. First he writes, "I know I was wrong." Just as Granovetter would say, it's not Chamberlain's beliefs that are getting in the way.

He knows it's wrong. Then "I felt silly, like a sissy." His doesn't want to look foolish. He's a high-threshold guy. He needs everyone to be doing something new before he's willing to join in. But Rick Barry? He's different.

Rick Barry's dad comes to him when he's a junior in high school and says, you really ought to shoot underhanded. Rick's a pretty good free throw shooter at that point, maybe 70% or so. But his dad tells him he can do better.

Malcolm Gladwell

And your initial reaction is I don't want to do it?

Rick Barry

Right.

Malcolm Gladwell

Because it seemed to you, like--

Rick Barry

I said, dad--I always remember it, and I tell people-- Dad, they're going to make fun of me. That's the way the girls shoot. I can't do that. He said, son-- and I remember this so clearly, like it was yesterday-- son, they can't make fun of you if you're making them.

And the first game I remember where I did it, it was on the road in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. I shot the free throw. Guy in the stands yells out, Hey Barry, you big sissy, shooting like that! And the guy next to him-- and I heard him very clearly-- he says, what are you making fun of him for? He doesn't miss.

So my dad's prophecy came true. And I was cool from that point forward. So I didn't care anymore what they said. If I'm making 'em, that's all that really matters.

Malcolm Gladwell

What's interesting is that Barry actually has the same initial reaction as Wilt Chamberlain-- I'm going to look like a sissy. But he thinks about it, and he decides it doesn't bother him. Or rather, his drive to be a better shooter is stronger than his worry about what others think of him.

That's exactly what it means to have a low threshold. If you have a threshold of 0, you're someone who doesn't need the support or the approval or the company of others to do what you think is right. Now, here's the catch-- the person who thinks this way is not always easy to be around.

Barry was never embraced by his fellow players. There were a couple of notorious articles about him in the 1980s, full of quotes like this from a former teammate-- "If you'd got to know Rick, you'd realize what a good guy he was. But around the league, they thought of him as the most arrogant guy ever." Half the players disliked Rick. The other half hated him. Here's another quote "He lacks diplomacy. If they sent him to the UN, he'd end up starting World War III."

Rick Barry

Yeah, well I was about winning. I was about giving my best effort. And I had a very difficult time accepting the fact-- I wouldn't accept the fact-- if a teammate is not going to play his hardest.

Malcolm Gladwell

Barry's been out of the game for more than 30 years. But just talking about basketball made him tense. There was a right way to play the game. And when people didn't play it the right way, it drove him crazy.

Rick Barry

Watch a game, right? Guy shoots free throw, misses. Everybody goes up, slaps his hand. What the-- where the hell did that come from?

I want to know who the guy is that started doing that, and who was the genius that said, man, that's a great idea. Let's go up and slap the guy's hand. And let's go up, disturb his concentration, when he's supposed to be focusing on shooting his free throws, and worry about having to slap the hands of his teammates.

Malcolm Gladwell

Do you hear what upsets him? The social part of the game. Players paying attention to each other's feelings as opposed to their own performance.

Rick Barry

Plus the fact if he misses it, you should go up and smack him in the head for missing the free throw, not slap him on the hands and saying it's OK. Because it's not OK. You just cost us a point.

I mean, I go nuts when I watch this kind of stuff. And nobody even talks about that. And it's something that somebody brought up, somebody copied, and now everybody does it. And it's stupid. I just have a real problem with that.

Malcolm Gladwell

Barry wrote an autobiography in 1972, called Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy, which I have to say, is one of the strangest autobiographies I've ever read. There are sections of the book Barry gives over to various people in his life. They each write a few pages. And he seems to care not one iota about what these people say about him.

So here's his mother, comparing Barry to his older brother, Dennis. "Rick has become famous and made a lot of money. But what is that? I think maybe, Dennis leads the better life."

And this is his ex-wife, describing how they first met. "He was awful to me. He was always shoving me in the pool, and I hated him for it.

Oh, I could take it. But there's always someone who goes too far, who does it more than the others, beyond endurance. And for me, that was Rick." I would not let my parents and my wife say these things about me in my own autobiography.

Rick Barry

I let people say what they wanted. I didn't ask for editorial rights, to be able to go through and see what they said and see, well no, I don't want that in there. I let them say what they wanted to say.

Malcolm Gladwell

He doesn't care. The kind of person who would let bad things be said about him in his own autobiography is the kind of person who would shoot a free throw that other people think looks ridiculous. I spent an afternoon with Barry at his condo.

And I'd read all that stuff about him-- half the players disliked him, the other half hated him. And I kind of braced myself before I met him. But I liked him.

Or maybe it makes more sense to say, that I really admired him. Because I finally understood what someone like Rick Barry stands for. It's perfectionism.

And what is a perfectionist? Someone who puts the responsibility of mastering the task at hand ahead of all social considerations, who would rather be right than liked. And how can you be good at something complex, how can you reach your potential if you don't have a little bit of that inside you?

I know we've really only been talking about basketball, which is just a game in the end. But the lesson here is much bigger than that. It takes courage to be good, social courage, to be honest with yourself, to do things the right way. I think Barry understands the price he's paid for being the way he is. It kept coming up.

Rick Barry

I'm a good friend. I'm going to be honest with you. I'm going to be there if you need me. I'm a good person. Yet, a lot of people don't think I am.

Malcolm Gladwell

He's not describing an easy life. But think of what he gained. Rick Barry was the best basketball player he could possibly have been. And Wilt Chamberlain could never say that.

Rick Barry

It's almost incomprehensible to me that someone could have that attitude, to sacrifice their success over worrying about how somebody feels about you or says about you. That's sad, really.

Malcolm Gladwell

Barry says that years after the two of them stopped playing, he used to go to Wilt Chamberlain, and tell him, you should have come to me. I could have helped you.

Ira Glass

Malcolm Gladwell, he's the host of the brand new podcast, Revisionist History. It's produced by Panoply. It's free, and you can subscribe at www.revisionisthistory.com. Coming up-- those who don't pump Trump, hit a bump, get stumped, now chumps. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme. Today's show, choosing wrong, the stories of people looking at the right choice, considering the right choice, and then rejecting the right choice.

So coincidentally, the week that we were making this show, there was this big vote in Britain. And now people in Britain are fretting over the choices. Some of them are, anyway. Tom, for example, is 23.

He voted to leave the European Union, and then woke up the next day to see Britain's currency plunge to the lowest level in 30 years. The stock market crashed. The prime minister resigned-- because of his vote and people like him.

Tom

It was shocking. It was scary. And I think there was a lot of people that was scared as well. They were unsure that they'd done the right thing. It's just jumping into the unknown, isn't it? No one really knows what was going to happen.

Ira Glass

People did predict that British stocks and currency would drop if they left the EU. Tom says he didn't totally understand the pros and cons of Brexit. So in the end, he just voted his feelings.

Tom

I didn't really know what to vote for. But I just felt like, I kind of think it was a guess. I'm kind of regretting it now.

Ira Glass

What do you do for work?

Tom

I work in a bank.

Ira Glass

You do?

Tom

Yeah. So the shares, you know, at work, they did drop.

Ira Glass

Did they drop a lot?

Tom

Yeah.

Act Two. Poll Dance.

Ira Glass

Which brings us to Act 2, in which people in our country-- political experts, in fact-- second guess their own political judgments with the benefit of hindsight. Anybody can get this stuff wrong. Act 2 of our show is called "Poll Dance".

So when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, the media was surprised. Well, to be more precise, what happened over the course of a few months, there was this slow dawning realization, like, oh, this is really happening? Oh, how did we not see this?

But the funny thing is now, when you look back on the polling data, you can see, actually, the evidence was there, ready to be seen, that Trump was going to win. And it had been there for months. And most of the media whose job it is to read the polls and the politics correctly and predict what would happen, they just got it wrong.

Perhaps the most epic of these failures came with the website FiveThirtyEight, which is a journalistic outfit whose entire reason for existence is to predict outcomes, and not in the vague imprecise way that political pundits have always in the past, by interpreting insider gossip and reporting about the candidates. FiveThirtyEight is backed up by data. It's entirely about numbers and using statistical analysis.

FiveThirtyEight called every single state correctly in the last presidential election. They are just spectacular at political prediction, totally bungled it on this one. Zoe Chace went to talk to them about how exactly they got it wrong.

Zoe Chace

FiveThirtyEight is the first to say they screwed this up. And at FiveThirtyEight, if you get something wrong, you go back into the data and you figure out why what happened happened, and why you got it wrong. And then explain that with more data. I talked with one of their senior writers, Harry Enten.

Zoe Chace

So let's talk about Trump.

Harry Enten

Donald Trump.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, that guy. So I want to ask you to read something to me. And I'm not trying to torture you. I'm just trying to set the mood here, of what we're going to be covering.

Basically, when Trump had just decided to enter the race, you wrote something. What did you write? Can you read it to me?

Harry Enten

Are we talking about Why Donald Trump Isn't a Real Candidate in One Chart? Is that the piece we're referring to.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, by Harry Enten.

Harry Enten

By Harry Enten. Ah, OK. So "Trump has a better chance of cameoing in another Home Alone movie with Macaulay Culkin, or playing in the NBA Finals, than winning the Republican nomination."

Zoe Chace

He wrote that a year ago, just before Trump entered the race. When I first heard Harry talk, I assumed he was about 60 years old, because he says stuff like this--

Harry Enten

We'll get another primary, God willing, if I'm alive for that primary, in four years. And--

Zoe Chace

In fact, he's a 28-year-old stats nerd. He describes his job like this--

Harry Enten

I'm looking at a lot of different data. I've researched a lot of past years. I've downloaded data. I've looked into files. I've built my own data. Because sometimes the original data is in such a messy case, whereby, I have to piece together data.

Zoe Chace

And at the end of every year he does a piece about what he got wrong. In 2015, it was Trump. And let me say, you do a story on what you got wrong if you get most things right. Harry's usually very on point. So what did he miss?

Harry Enten

It's really as simple as this-- if all I was looking at was the horse race polling numbers, if all I was looking at were the polls, if I had trusted the polls, if I had trusted that people, when they said they were going to vote for Donald Trump, would vote for Donald Trump, then I would have said that Donald Trump was going to be the Republican nominee, and probably as early as August of 2015.

Zoe Chace

And why didn't you?

Harry Enten

The reason we didn't look at those polls was because Trump's lead was A, not necessarily all that big. But B, in the past we had seen candidates who lead in the early polls and then did not become nominees. And they were pretty clear.

I mean, just go back to four years ago. Michele Bachmann was leading in Iowa in the early polls. Herman Cain was leading in the early polls. Newt Gingrich was leading in the early polls, Rick Perry. And they didn't go on to win nominations. You go back to '08, Rudy Giuliani led in the national primary polls, and his entire bid fell apart.

Zoe Chace

No respectable analyst takes the horse race polls too seriously. One minute you're up, the next you're down. No context, no long-term meaning. Harry ignored them. Instead, he wanted to look at something that has a history of being right, not a history of being inflated by the media coverage of the moment.

The data he focused on the morning Trump announced his bid was what he'd seen be a good predictor before-- favorability. Do people like this candidate? It's just how people answer this question.

Harry Enten

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of businessman, Donald Trump? And the question is usually is as simple as that. And what we've found in the past was that that type of question, although it couldn't tell you who would necessarily win a nomination, it would tell you who probably wouldn't win a nomination.

And essentially, what I did was I threw together a chart in which I looked at all these presidential candidates who had run since 1980, and said, OK, how popular were they? And I essentially looked at that data. And I said, wow, Donald Trump is really unpopular.

He's a lot more unpopular than previous candidates who have won the nomination. And pretty much, a lot more unpopular than candidates who even run for major party nominations. I mean, in reality, no one was even anywhere close to being as disliked as Donald Trump and went on to win a nomination.

Zoe Chace

But what Harry couldn't see was what was about to happen next in this race. The day Trump announced his candidacy, June 16th of last year, Trump gave a speech, the highlight of which was this--

Donald Trump

I would build a great wall. And nobody builds walls better than me, believe me. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.

Zoe Chace

And right after this speech, those favorability numbers turned upside down. Trump went from minus 35 to plus 17. More Republican primary voters had a favorable view of Trump than an unfavorable one. It was a really big turnaround.

Harry Enten

That switch, from negative 35 to positive 17 is just really unusual. I don't think I've ever seen that before. And it was something that I couldn't have possibly have predicted. But I wish that when I saw that, I might have said, hmm, maybe these numbers are more malleable than we thought on Trump. Maybe we have to be a little more cautious.

Zoe Chace

Harry thinks that of everything Trump said that day, it was probably the wall that pushed his numbers the most. Because other pollings showed that of the voters who said immigration was their number one issue, Trump was far and away their favorite guy.

Harry Enten

He was more trusted on the issue of immigration than any of the other candidates were. So to me, it was very clear, looking at the polling, that the more that the discussion focused on immigration, the more Donald Trump benefited from it.

Zoe Chace

So that data was out there. But still, Harry ignored it. He didn't see the truth. He still thought that Trump couldn't win. Here's Harry back in October, 2015, on the FiveThirtyEight Elections Podcast, which is a great podcast, by the way.

Harry Enten

Trump is just somebody who is a show. It's a show. People are interested in a show. Politics as reality TV. When it gets down to actual voting, we've seen over and over again, shows do well early. But then actual politicians tend to do well late.

Zoe Chace

A few weeks ago, when Harry went back to dissect what he got wrong, he found something else, something important. In fact, the biggest thing that he'd missed the first time. It was in those favorability numbers.

If you look deeper into those numbers, there was one very significant group of voters. These were the people who told pollsters their view of Trump was not just favorable, it was strongly favorable. These are the diehards. They will not change their minds.

Think of this group as the Deadheads who actually go on tour with the band. Trump had this core group of strongly favorables that he could rely on in every primary. It was solid. It was a superpower that no one else in the field had.

Harry Enten

Trump's strongly favorable rating was 30% in that ABC News Washington Post poll by early July. 30%, which was basically where he was polling at for a lot of the primary season. You know, sometimes he was a little bit below 30, in the 20s. Sometimes he was a little bit above 30, say about 35%.

And that is a very important ally to have when the field is 15, 16, however many candidates we ended up with. Because that means that all you really need-- remember, what percentage of the vote did he win in the South Carolina primary? He won only 32%. That's right around that 30%.

Zoe Chace

Now, Harry saw the 30%. But at the time, he completely misunderstood it. Instead of seeing it as the army that would win primary after primary, instead of seeing it as Trump's super power, he thought it was a problem for Trump.

He thought the 30% was a ceiling, the maximum that Trump could get. I remember at the time, FiveThirtyEight and lots of political writers were saying, this was Trump's Achilles heel. He would never be able to get more than 30% of Republicans to like him. In retrospect, Harry says, it wasn't a ceiling.

Harry Enten

That 30% might have been more of a floor. That is, that there was this 30% of the public who really, really like Donald Trump, and would vote for him no matter what. He could count on that 30% that was going to be there for him through thick and thin.

Versus say, a candidate like Jeb Bush, who may have had a number of people at the beginning saying, well, I have a more favorable view of Jeb Bush than of Donald Trump. But those views aren't really strongly held. They aren't something that I wouldn't be willing to give up the more information I learn about Jeb Bush.

Zoe Chace

Which is exactly what happened to Jeb Bush. The longer he was in, the more his numbers fell. Even though he was the early party pick, the establishment favorite, the second heir to the throne. There's a theory in political science called The Party Decides. And most people thought the Republican elite would be the ones to pick the Republican candidate.

Zoe Chace

OK, so another thing that you thought was that the Republican party was in control.

Harry Enten

Oh, how silly I was.

Zoe Chace

Yeah.

Harry Enten

How silly I was.

Zoe Chace

Well, it's hard to imagine now. But I also remember thinking, oh, it's just not that complicated. The Republican party is not going to allow this to happen. I just assumed that.

And I think a lot of people did. And I guess what I'm wondering, is well, why did you think that? Why did I think it? But why did you think it?

Harry Enten

Well, what we know in the past is that when one candidate is very well liked by the party elites or the party actors, they tend to win nominations.

Zoe Chace

And when the candidate is not liked, he says, it's the opposite. The party comes together to stop them.

Harry Enten

I'll give you a perfect example. If you go back to the 2012 campaign, and Newt Gingrich starts leading Mitt Romney in a number of primary polls, or then Newt Gingrich wins the South Carolina primary. What you see are a whole bunch of Newt Gingrich's ex-colleagues coming out and saying, he was awful for us.

He was terrible. He led us to disaster. People like Dick Armey, for instance, said that. People like Bob Dole said that.

Zoe Chace

Just to show you how different things are this year, the party elite freaked out about Donald Trump. But that didn't stop him. And now, not only has Bob Dole endorsed Trump, but he's advocating for Newt to be Trump's VP, which might mean that Bob Dole actually hates Trump.

The whole purpose of the work that's done by people like Harry-- data journalism-- is to essentially draw conclusions that are free of assumptions. There's this one bias I found though, even in the unflappable Harry Enten. FiveThirtyEight has an allergy to media hype. They have this aversion to frothy, splashy coverage of a person or an event.

Harry Enten

The bias that we have is towards our priors, to use a Bayesian term, is towards the status quo.

Zoe Chace

Right.

Just meaning it's hard for those guys to admit something new is going on that doesn't fit the model, particularly when it's dressed in hysterical cable-news clothing. And that, I believe, is why Harry and all journalists, basically, missed the real phenomenon lurking underneath the hype.

Zoe Chace

OK, I don't mean to ask you a total stoner question here at this point.

Harry Enten

I'm breaking out the weed.

[LAUGHTER]

Zoe Chace

OK, great. Because that's kind of what this question is going to be like--

OK, here's my question. Since his statistical models are based on what happened in the past, how can you predict something that's never happened before, like Trump?

Harry Enten

Well, sometimes there are ahistorical candidates that you try and fit into history and maybe they shouldn't be. Oftentimes it's not a perfect fit. Usually though, the fit is good enough that it tells us what's going to occur.

But apparently in this case, it was not. And maybe we should have been a little more cautious and understood that Trump was a unique character. And what had worked in the past wasn't going to work for him. Because simply put, he broke the mold.

Zoe Chace

Is it frustrating? Do you feel like, oh this thing that I relied on is not as reliable as I thought?

Harry Enten

Well, of course it's frustrating. Nobody likes to be wrong. I think this is one of the funniest things that people think.

Oh, you were biased. Oh you were this. Oh, you know, you've been bought off or whatever. You get that a lot from the Sanders folks.

What a ridiculous concept. You want to get things right! That's what we're here for.

You don't want to get wrong. You don't want people jumping into your Twitter feed or sending you e-mails, telling you you're an idiot. No one wants that.

When you look at the data, you obviously want that data to lead you to the right conclusion. And it's frustrating when you feel like the data that normally had worked lets you down. You want to be able to go to bed at night thinking hey, I'm not a complete fraud.

Zoe Chace

The last thing Harry pointed out is this is a really small data set to draw conclusions from-- presidential primaries-- it just is. 1972 is when primaries started actually choosing their party's nominee. There have only been 14 presidential primaries since then, without an incumbent president. So really, in order to see Trump coming clearly, we need to see a lot more Trumps. We need a Trump precedent. Precedent, I said.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace, she's one of the producers of our program. She takes no position on whether Donald Trump should be president.

Act Three. Post-It Not.

Ira Glass

Act 3, post-it not. So we end our show today with this example of somebody knowingly choosing wrong. In this case, choosing wrong for his own amusement. Comedian Kurt Braunohler tells the story.

Kurt Braunohler

I've been writing all of my stand up on these giant poster-sized post-it notes. They're, like, big. And so when you come into the first room of my apartment, it is literally covered in my writing.

And my friend, Albertina, came over the other day. And she was, like, you can't bring a woman back here because you look like the Unabomber. And I was, like, these are all funny jokes.

And she said, it just says here, "Do bad decisions exist?" And I was, like, that's a funny joke. And she's, like, that's a [BLEEP] crazy-person thought.

But this was her idea. She said, what you should do is you should write on your wall, "List of people I need to kill". And then have, like, eight names with the first one crossed off.

I was, like, that is funny. So I did that. And then I thought it would be even funnier if the last name just said Random.

So then flash forward, like, three months. And I have finally convinced a young lady to come back to my apartment with me. And as I'm putting the key in the door, I remember that I have a list of people I need to kill on my wall that needs some explaining.

The door opened. She sees it. She freezes.

I kind of go into repair mode. I'm like, I'm a comedian. This is a joke. And I calm her down.

But then I just can't help myself. And I slowly cross off Random.

Ira Glass

Kurt Braunohler, he's a stand-up comedian and recording his first one-hour special for Comedy Central this September. That clip was courtesy of Comedy Central.

Well, our program was produced today by Dana Chivvis. Our production staff, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Karen Duffin, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robin Semien, Lyra Smith, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney and Nancy Updike. Our editor is Joel Lovell. Editorial help from Julie Snyder and Elna Baker. Music help from Damien Gray, from Rob Gettis.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS].

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. His reaction to the Brexit vote? No surprise, same as usual.

Harry Enten

I'm breaking out the weed.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week, with more stories of This American Life.