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I had drinks with a top lawyer friend who just started her own law firm recently. She used to be a director/partner at a top big elite law firm in Pretoria.

The reason she left it is because even though the firm was top and elite, she didn’t get enough exposure with the right cases as compared to her peers in lower ranked firms.

Off-course she got paid well with very nice perks, but she could not rank higher in terms of exposure when compared to others in lower, less elite firms.

But why did she leave?

This reminded me of when I used to work for two of the top big 4 accounting firms in South Africa. These firms are top in name but as an article clerk and later manager, your exposure was always limited to few clients.

You could only do less prestigious clients such as government/public entity as clients.

We all wanted to audit or do tax work for JSE listed entities, but no matter how hard we tried, we got no exposure to top elite listed entities.

We only did public sector clients from first year to last year articles, no exposure to private sector clients.

Top private sector clients were reserved for certain elite staff members.

The fact that I worked for 2 of the top 4 firms boosted by resume, it boosted my work ethic immensely, but it meant less in terms of overall exposure.

Mostly it was smokes and mirrors.

As a result we are unable to get exposure in certain key areas in our field.

This is not a complaint whatsoever, it is just a realisation and an indication of how elite institutions sometimes messes us up.

Human beings always want the best, we want to take our kids to the best schools, best universities so that they get to work for the best firms.

Malcolm Gladwell says that sometimes our obsession with elite institutions messes up in more ways than we realise.

Sometime as human beings we tend to overstate the significance of elite institutions and grossly underestimate the cost of being at the bottom of a hierarchy. This syndrome or disorder is called Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder.

Gladwell is just a genius in our books. And Google thought so too, they invited him at come in to give a talk at their Google Zeitgeist in 2013.

And what did he talk about?

He spoke about the reason he actually accepted his invite to speak, all for zero payment.

Gladwell’s major comment was on a theory he called EICD or, Elite Institute Cognitive Disorder, something he said, we are all guilty of doing.

His explanation linked this back to the SAT scores of various students attending colleges in North America to study Mathematics and Sciences, and ultimately how those attending top institutions [such as Harvard] tend to publish less in terms of research.

Why do graduates from elite institutions publish less than their peers from less elite institutions?

They are confident enough that they are at such a renowned bastion of academics that they feel less need to publish their research.

Gladwell has some fascinating data regarding the distribution of STEM degrees depending on students’ math SAT scores at institutions of varying caliber [top college vs middle-of-the-road].

In particular his data suggests the distribution is rather stationary, that is, does not depend on the institution, although the students at the top institution are supposed to be “smarter” than the students at the not-so-well-known college.

This is why Gladwell argues that people make their decisions by comparing themselves to the people around them, and lose track of the big picture.

He talks about the syndrome called Relative Deprivation Disorder.

What is Relative Deprivation Disorder?

We all have people to whom we compare ourselves. Don’t worry, it’s natural.

But relative deprivation is when you have the perception that you are worse off than these other people you compare yourself to.

Having this feeling typically leads to frustration.

So, what does this mean?

According to Gladwell, it seems to be that most people are better off away from elite institutions.

But also that “humans underestimate the cost of being at the bottom of a hierarchy.”

Imagine a world without all of this, he says. Watch the video of his talk below – it is worth the 19 minutes.

2 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell on Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder [EICD]

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