TED Radio Hour: Malcolm Gladwell: What Does Spaghetti Sauce Have To Do With Happiness? Author Malcolm Gladwell gets inside the food industry's pursuit of the perfect spaghetti sauce — and makes a larger argument about the nature of choice and happiness.

Malcolm Gladwell: What Does Spaghetti Sauce Have To Do With Happiness?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/151899611/151893734" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. Each year, TED conferences bring together the world's most innovative and thought-provoking doers and thinkers. They are given a challenge: Give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes.

Today, on the TED RADIO HOUR, the subject of the show is happiness, which has been a popular topic at TED.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So now, we are going to speak of happiness.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Unsurprisingly, people all 'round the world say that what they want is happiness for themselves, for their families, their children, their communities.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Do we pursue happiness with hostility?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Can psychology actually make people happy?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Happiness can be synthesized.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I mistook happiness for a lot of other things - like numbness, or decadence, or selfishness.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Try to understand now, where in everyday life do we feel really happy?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We are wired to pursue happiness and not to enjoy it, but to want more and more of it. So given that that's true, how good are we at increasing our happiness?

STEWART: When writer Malcolm Gladwell gave his TED talk on happiness, he devoted the entire 18 minutes to discussing the work of one man.


MALCOLM GLADWELL: A man who is a great personal hero of mine, someone by the name of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for re-inventing spaghetti sauce. Howard is...

HOWARD MOSKOWITZ: My name is Howard Moskowitz. I'm...


GLADWELL: ...in his 60s and he has...

MOSKOWITZ: ...67 years old.


GLADWELL: ...big, huge glasses and...

MOSKOWITZ: ...extraordinarily handsome, attractive...


GLADWELL: ...thinning, gray hair and he...

MOSKOWITZ: ...debonair...


GLADWELL: ...has a kind of wonderful exuberance and vitality and...

MOSKOWITZ: ...and quite sweet.


GLADWELL: ...and he - by profession, he's a psychophysicist.

MOSKOWITZ: Psychophysics: the study of perception and how it relates to physical stimuli, with a specialization in taste and smell.


GLADWELL: ...and he graduated with his doctorate from Harvard, and he set up a little consulting shop in White Plains, New York.

MOSKOWITZ: I then started working with Pepsi Cola, working with various kinds of cereals, salad dressing, beverages, and then Campbell Soup.


GLADWELL: ...Campbell Soup. Campbell Soup is where Howard made his reputation. Campbells made Prego, and Prego in the early '80s was struggling next to Ragu, which was the dominant spaghetti sauce of the '70s and '80s. Now...

STEWART: We'll talk more with Howard Moskowitz in just a few minutes. But first, let's hear the rest of Malcolm Gladwell's TED talk and why he believes Howard has, in the last three decades, made Americans happier.


GLADWELL: Prego was struggling, so they came to Howard and they said, fix us. And Howard looked at their product line and he said, what you have is a dead tomato society. So he said, this is what I want to do. And he got together with the Campbell Soup kitchen, and he made 45 varieties of spaghetti sauce.

And he varied them according to every conceivable way that you can vary tomato sauce: by sweetness, by level of garlic, by tartness, by sourness, by tomato-iness(ph), by visible solids - my favorite term in the spaghetti sauce business.

Every conceivable way you can vary spaghetti sauce, he varied spaghetti sauce. And then he took this whole raft of 45 spaghetti sauces, and he went on the road. He went to New York; he went to Chicago; he went to Jacksonville; he went to Los Angeles. And he brought in people by the truckload into big halls, and he sat them down for two hours. And he gave them, over the course of that two hours, 10 bowls - 10 small bowls of pasta, with a different spaghetti sauce on each one.

And after they ate each bowl, they had to rate - from zero to a hundred - how good they thought the spaghetti sauce was. At the end of that process, after doing it for months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. And then he analyzed the data. Now, did he look for the most popular brand, variety of spaghetti sauce? No. Howard doesn't believe that there is such a thing.

Instead, he looked at the data and he said, let's see if we can group these different - all these different data points into clusters. Let's see if they congregate around certain ideas. And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze these - all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups.

There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra chunky.

And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard and they said, are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs? And he said yes.

And Prego then went back and completely re-formulated their spaghetti sauce, and came out with a line of extra chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti sauce business in this country. And over the next 10 years, they made $600 million off their line of extra chunky sauces.

And everyone else in the industry looked at what Howard had done and they said, oh my God, we've been thinking all wrong. And that's when you started to get seven different kinds of vinegar, and 14 different kinds of mustard, and 71 different kinds of olive oil. And then eventually, even Ragu hired Howard, and Howard did the exact same thing for Ragu that he did for Prego.

And today, if you go to the supermarket, a really good one, and you look at how many Ragus there are, do you know how many there are? Thirty-six. In six varieties: cheese, light, robusto(ph), rich and hearty, old world traditional, extra chunky garden.

That's Howard's doing. That is Howard's gift to the American people. Now, why is that important?

It is, in fact, enormously important, and I'll explain to you why. Because what Howard did is, he fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy. Assumption number one in the food industry used to be that the way to find out what people want to eat, what will make people happy, is to ask them.

And for years and years and years and years, Ragu and Prego would have focus groups. And they would sit all you people down and they would say, what do you want in a spaghetti sauce? Tell us what you want in a spaghetti sauce. And for all those years - 20, 30 years - through all those focus group sessions, no one ever said they wanted extra chunky, even though at least a third of them, deep in their hearts, actually did.

People don't know what they want, right? As Howard loves to say, the mind knows not what the tongue wants. It's a mystery. And a critically important step in understanding our own desires and tastes is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want, deep down.

If I asked all of you, for example, in this room what you want in a coffee, you know what you'd say? Every one of you would say: I want a dark, rich, hearty roast. That's what people always say when you ask them what they want in a coffee. What do you like? Dark, rich, hearty roast.

What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? According to Howard, somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee - which you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want. Did I want a milky, weak coffee?

So that's number one thing that Howard did. Number two thing that Howard did is, he made us realize - it's another very critical point - he made us realize in the importance of what he likes to call horizontal segmentation. Why is this critical?

It's critical because this is the way the food industry thought before Howard, right? What were they obsessed with in the early '80s? They were obsessed with mustard. In particular, they were obsessed with the story of Grey Poupon, right?

Used to be, there were two mustards - French's and Gulden's. What were they? Yellow mustard. What's in yellow mustard? Yellow mustard seeds, turmeric and paprika. That was mustard. Grey Poupon came along with a Dijon, right? Much more volatile - brown mustard seed, some white wine, a nose hit; much more delicate aromatics.

And what did they do? They put it in a little, tiny, glass jar with a wonderful, enameled label on it. I mean, it looked French, even though it's made in Oxnard, California. And instead of charging $1.50 for the 8-ounce can, the way that - or 8-ounce bottle, the way that French's and Gulden's did, they decided to charge $4.

And then they had those ads, right, with the guy in the Rolls Royce and he's eating the Grey Poupon. And other Rolls Royce pulls up and he says, do you have any Grey Poupon? And the whole thing - after they did that, Grey Poupon takes off, takes over the mustard business. And everyone's take-home lesson from that was that the way to get - to make people happy, right, is to give them something that is more expensive, something to aspire to, right?

Is to make them turn their back on what they like - think they like now, and reach out for something higher up the mustard hierarchy - a better mustard; a more expensive mustard; a mustard of more sophistication and culture and meaning. And Howard looked at that and said, that's wrong. Mustard does not exist on a hierarchy. Mustard exists, just like tomato sauce, on a horizontal plane.

There is no good mustard or bad mustard. There is no perfect mustard or imperfect mustard. There are only different kinds of mustards that suit different kinds of people. He fundamentally democratized the way we think about taste. And for that, as well, we owe Howard Moskowitz a huge vote of thanks.

Third thing that Howard did - and perhaps the most important, is Howard confronted the notion of the platonic dish. What do I mean by that? For the longest time in the food industry, there was a sense that there was one way, a perfect way, to make a dish. You go to Chez Panisse, they give you the red tail sashimi with roasted pumpkin seeds in a something-something reduction. They don't give you five options on the reduction, right?

They don't say, do you want the extra chunky reduction? Or do you want the - no. You just get the reduction. Why? Because the chef at Chez Panisse has the platonic notion about red tail sashimi: This is the way it ought to be. And when that, you know - and she serves it that way time and time again. And if you quarrel with her, she will say, you know what? You're wrong. This is the best way it ought to be in this restaurant.

Now, that same idea fueled the commercial food industry as well. They had a notion, a platonic notion, of what tomato sauce was. Now, where did that come from? It came from Italy. Italian tomato sauce is what? It's blended, it's thin. The culture of tomato sauce was thin. When we talked about authentic tomato sauce in the 1970s, we talked about Italian tomato sauce. We talked about the earliest Ragus, which had no visible solids, right?

Which were thin, you just put a little bit over and it sunk down to the bottom of the pasta. That's what it was. And why were we attached to that? Because we thought that what it took to make people happy was to provide them with the most culturally authentic tomato sauce, A. B - and B, we thought that if we gave them the culturally authentic tomato sauce, then they would embrace it, and that's what would please the maximum number of people.

People in the cooking world were looking for cooking universals. They were looking for one way to treat all of us. And there's good reason for them to be obsessed with the idea of universals because all of science, through the 19th century and much of the 20th, was obsessed with universals.

Psychologists, medical scientists, economists were all interested in finding out the rules that govern the way all of us behave. But that changed, right? That's - what is the great revolution in science of the last 10, 15 years? It is the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability.

Now in medical science, we don't want to know how necessarily - just how cancer works. We want to know how your cancer is different from my cancer. Genetics has opened the door to the study of human variability. What Howard Moskowitz was doing was saying, this same revolution needs to happen in the world of tomato sauce. And for that, we owe him a great vote of thanks.

Howard not only believed that, but he took it a second step - which was to say that when we pursue universal principles in food, we aren't just making an error. We are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice. And the example he used was coffee. And coffee is something he did a lot of work with, with Nescafe.

If I were to ask all of you to try and come up with a brand of coffee, a type of coffee, a brew that made all of you happy, and then I asked you to rate that coffee, the average score in this room for coffee would be about 60, on a scale of zero to 100.

If, however, you allowed me to break you into coffee clusters - maybe three or four coffee clusters - and I could make coffee just for one of those - for each of those individual clusters, your scores would go from 60 to 75 or 78. The difference between coffee at 60, and coffee at 78, is the difference between coffee that makes you wince, and coffee that makes you deliriously happy.

That is the final and, I think, most beautiful lesson of Howard Moskowitz - that in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a sure way to true happiness. Thank you.

STEWART: That was writer Malcolm Gladwell, speaking at a TED conference in 2004. The subject of his talk - Howard Moskowitz - is here with me in the studio. Howard, how has this TED talk changed your life or your life's work?

MOSKOWITZ: Do you know that the Malcolm Gladwell video has been seen by millions of people. And what's surprising is, I get these calls out of the blue. Some of them are about food, but an awful lot of them are about some of the most interesting things.

STEWART: Like what?

MOSKOWITZ: One of them was surprising - the law. Can we use the Prego example as a way of understanding the mind of the juror? Another one was fascinating - something I had never thought of - which was, if we knew the mindset of people in conflict, and we knew the language to which each responded - like the different Pregos - we ought to be able to come up with words and language for conflicts that will end them.

If we only knew what to talk about that was common, that turned both people on, both mindsets on, and if we could do it scientifically, imagine what a wonderful world we might have. If we could go in to conflicts, bring the two sides together and identify rather rapidly what's both good for them, what's bad and say, let's build based upon what's good.

STEWART: Malcolm presents, as a thesis, that you've made people happier.

MOSKOWITZ: I don't know if I've made people happier. I mean, it's a wonderful encomium. I would love to have that on my epitaph: He helped make people happier. I would say, I've helped people get what they want by recognizing that there's no perfect product. I helped identify the fact that there's a plurality of perfection, and that what you like is not necessarily what I like.

You know, there's a - I think in "Candide," you know, tend to your own garden. Yours may be of some, and mine may be of another. Both are equal.

STEWART: How does the work, and the science, that you study relate to happiness?

MOSKOWITZ: Malcolm uses it in a much broader way. I'm really interested in simpler terms like, do you like this? Would you buy this? Do you enjoy it when you eat it? So the word happiness - he uses it in a grander way than I do. I would use - not the word happiness, but pleasure.

STEWART: Because you deal with the senses, the sensory.

MOSKOWITZ: I deal with the senses. When it comes to conflict resolution, is this sustainable for a peaceful relation? Not a happy relation; is this sustainable for a peaceful relation?

STEWART: Did you ever think your work would be used for a higher purpose?

MOSKOWITZ: Truthfully? My father, the late Moses Moskowitz, told me 40 years ago that he had hoped that my doctorate might be used for something beyond simply making better food for people. And here I am, with the blessing of a man dead now 22 years, actually applying these principles of science to conflict resolution, to the law, to helping people understand themselves. So yes, the answer is yes. I feel very blessed by that.

STEWART: Howard Moskowitz, thanks so much for joining us.

MOSKOWITZ: Thank you so much.

STEWART: You can find links to Howard Moskowitz's work on our website: ted.npr.org, and you can watch another TED talk by writer Malcolm Gladwell, and dozens of others, about what makes us happy. Go to ted.com.

I'm Alison Stewart. You've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.