The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell

I think I saw this recommended for me by Amazon, and when I saw it in a bookstore, and paged through it, it looked interesting. And it was. The subtitle of this book is "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference". It tries to set out some basic requirements for a phenomenon to "tip", to turn the corner from a minor problem to an epidemic. Gladwell is trying to develop a general theory, applicable to the rise of Hush Puppies in fashion, to teen-age cigarette smoking, to venereal disease in Baltimore.

Gladwell identifies three principles of an epidemic. The Law of the Few, which states that only a few people matter. There are people who are more socially connected than others, and thus have a much greater effect on the spread of an epidemic. In the case of a social phenomenon, they know the right people to talk to, or they cross social boundaries, living comfortably in several worlds at once, or they are just good salesmen. He includes the tale of Paul Revere, which everyone knows. What most people don't know (including me) was that another man, William Dawes, also rode to alert the countryside that night with the same message. However, he didn't know the right people to alert, and though he visited as many villages as Revere, the villages he visited only turned out a few people in the morning's battle. Gladwell's hypothesis is that this is because Revere was somebody who knew all the right people to alert in each town, and had the salesmanship power to convince them of the urgency of his message.

The interesting thing to me about this idea is what it tells us about advertising. It's stupid to try to convince everybody to use your product. All you really have to do is convince a few leaders, and let them do the rest of the work. In fact, Gladwell recounts a successful advertising campaign run along these lines by a skateboarding apparel company named Airwalk.

The second law is the Stickiness Factor, meaning the length with which an idea or disease stays with you. The longer it does, the more time you will propagate it. Gladwell takes an interesting angle on this phenomenon by examining the success of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues in exploiting stickiness. I had no idea that Sesame Street had been so designed to make lessons stick with children. Gladwell quotes a study demonstrating that watching Sesame Street regularly as a child was correlated with a GPA increase of a 0.25 in high school. And they accomplished this sort of stickiness by doing study after study, understanding how 5-year-olds watched TV, and what they remembered afterwards. Blue's Clues goes one step further, learning from some of the mistakes of Sesame Street, and making what Gladwell calls "maybe one of the stickiest television shows ever made". He mentions the techniques they use (repetition and narrative being the key ones) to encourage children to pay attention and to remember.

The last law is the Power of Context, stating that environmental influences play a far greater role than we give them credit for. For example, Gladwell recounts a study at the Princeton Theological Seminary. They asked each seminarian "to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a given biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The question was, who would stop and help?" (p. 164) The researchers included three variables: (1) the background of the subject - whether they had entered seminary as a way of helping people or not, (2) which parable they were to prepare - several were given the Good Samaritan parable as their subject, and (3) a time context, saying either that they were running several minutes late and should hurry up, or that they were early and had some time to spare.

The results were astonishing, at least to me. The first two variables had no effect. Whether somebody had devoted their life in service to their fellow man, or even whether they had just been reminded of the value of altruism by preparing a speech on the Good Samaritan, had no effect on whether they stopped and helped. "The only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush. Of the group that was, 10 percent stopped to help. Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63 percent stopped." (p. 165) In other words, all of one's attitudes and feelings are over-ridden by subtle clues in the environment. Gladwell claims that this is why New York City's zero tolerance campaign has worked in dropping the crime rate, for instance.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It was fairly light reading, but had many great anecdotes, and several interesting ideas to tie social phenomena together. It provides a framework for further discussion, which I find fairly useful.

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