2001-04-23: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point

How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference (2000)

by Malcolm Gladwell (1963-)

Gladwell has written a book about memic phenomena, but without using the language of memetics. It would be interesting to know whether he has been thinking about memetics.

After introducing a couple examples, he says (pg. 7):

The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behavior spread just like viruses do.

He mentions three rules of epidemics: The Law of the Few, the Stickiness factor, and the Power of Context. These mean that epidemics are centered on a few people who have unusually large number of contacts; effective spreading of an infectious agent depends on its “sticking” with the person exposed; and people are more sensitive than usually supposed, but that the expression of their beliefs and attitudes depends on the context in which they act.

Gladwell identifies three classes of the critical few: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. Connectors are people who have mastered “the weak tie”, i.e., they routinely establish weak ties with people they meet, establish lots of them, and are not tied down by them. Connectors communicate readily with lots of people, and when they are asked to find a person with particular characteristics, they can do so readily. The most vivid example is Paul Revere. Gladwell describes two examples he has met, Lois Weinberg and Roger Horchow. He sums them up:

The point is that Lois found him interesting, because, in some way, she finds everyone interesting. Weisberg, one of her friends told me, “always says – ‘Oh, I’ve met the most wonderful person. You are going to love her.’ And she is as enthused about this person as she was about the person she has met and you know what, she’s usually right.” Helen Doria, another of her friends, told me that “Lois sees things in you that you don’t even see in yourself,” which is another way of saying the same thing, that by some marvelous quirk of nature, Lois and the other people like her have some instinct that helps them relate to the people they meet. When Weisberg looks out at the world or when Roger Horchow sits next to you on an airplane, they don’t see the same world that the rest of us see. They see possibility, and while the rest of us are busily choosing whom we would like to know, and rejecting the people who don’t look right or who live out near the airport, or whom we haven’t seen in sixty-five years, Lois and Roger like them all.

If we break down the process of the deliberate communication act, there are at least three parts. There is a sending: a way of putting together ideas, words, gestures, tone and other behavior to construct a representation of a message. There is something (maybe three things) in the middle. There is receiving: the interpretation of the representation of a message to construct a set of beliefs and attitudes about the content of the message and about its sender. Assuming there are people like Gladwell’s Connectors, they must be very fluent at the receiving end. The people who are very good at the sending end, charismatic, might be described as Persuaders.

The word Maven comes from Yiddish and means one who accumulates information. His examples are in the realm of shopping; Mavens not only read Consumer Reports, they write letters to Consumer Reports correcting mistakes. But for Gladwell:

The critical thing about Mavens, though, is that they aren’t passive collectors of information. It isn’t just that they are obsessed with how to get the best deal on a can of coffee. What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that deal, they want to tell you about it too. … Price says, “… This is the person who connects people to the market place and has the inside scoop on the marketplace.” … They are more than experts. An expert, says Price, will “talk about, say, cars because they love cars. But they don’t talk about cars because they love you, and want to help you with your decision. The Market Maven will. They are more socially motivated.”

Gladwell says a Maven won’t twist your arm. He is a teacher, but also a student. He tries to learn something from you, as well as tell you something, to build up his store of knowledge. They are information brokers, sharing and trading what they know, and what you know.

Gladwell uses the term Salesmen rather than Persuaders. In his example using Paul Revere, Revere was both a Maven and a Connector. He collected and analyzed information, and knew the key people who needed to be informed when his analysis indicated the British were about to move against Lexington and Concord. But after Rever had passed a village, and the militiamen had gathered, someone in each place had to persuade them that they needed to take action against a formidable foe:

In a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. But there is also a select group of people – Salesmen – with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.

Gladwell describes some psychological studies that show that some people, his Salesmen, have an extraordinary ability to transmit an emotional response to others. Many of the points he makes are supported by this kind of research. However, I think many people will find his book either unconvincing, or have no idea how to apply its messages.  Still, it’s interesting.

Stickiness is the aspect of a message or behavior that makes one who experiences it willing to experience it again. The message is accompanied by something that stimulates some sort of positive feeling. His (somewhat overworked) example of teenage smoking stresses that teens don’t smoke because smoking is cool, but because they perceive smokers as cool, and by extension become cool themselves. He devotes a lot of space to the children’s TV shows Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. Both are successful, but are very different. Both have a lot of stickiness, which was deliberately included in the shows as a research of application of careful research.

While discussing these shows, and the kind of minds they are trying to reach, Gladwell cites an interesting study. The parents of a girl named Emily noticed that she talked to herself after they put her to bed, and recorded her conversations with herself. He includes the transcript of one such monologue, when Emily was 32 months old:

Tomorrow when we wake up from bed, first me and Daddy and Mommy, you, eat breakfast eat breakfast like we usually do, and then we’re going to play and then soon as Daddy comes, Carl’s going to come over, and then we’re going to play a little while. And then Carl and Emily are both going down the car with somebody, and we’re going to ride to nursery school [whispered], and then when we get there, we’re all going to get out of the car, go into nursery school, and Daddy’s going to give us kisses, then go, and then say, and then we’re going to play at nursery school. Won’t that be funny? Because sometimes I go to nursery school cause it’s a nursery school day. Sometimes I stay with Tanta all week. And sometimes we play mom and dad. But usually, sometimes, I, um, oh go to nursery school, But today I’m going to nursery school in the morning, Daddy in the, when and usual, we’re going to eat breakfast like we usually do, and then we’re going to . . . and then we’re going to . . .  play. And then we’re, then the doorbell’s going to ring, and here comes Carl in here, and then Carl, and then we are all going to play, and then . . .

The point is that narrative is very important to children’s understanding of the world. Sesame Street is nearly devoid of narrative, and seems successful despite it. Blue’s Clues is rich in narrative:

“If you think about the world of a preschooler, they are surrounded by stuff they don’t understand – things that are novel. So the driving force for a preschooler is not a search for novelty, like it is with older kids, it’s a search for understanding and predictability,” says [Blue’s Clues’ Daniel] Anderson. “For younger kids, repetition is really valuable. They demand it. When they see a show over and over again, they not only are understanding it better, which is a form of power, but just by predicting what is going to happen, I think they feel a real sense of affirmation and self-worth. …”

Gladwell points out that “We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present.” But all of the successful examples he presents result from tinkering with minor aspects of presentation, to make the message conveying the ideas more “sticky”, with little change to the message content.

The Power of Context is Gladwell’s term for the effect of the situation in which a message occurs, or even the implicit message in a situation. An example is the Broken Windows theory. He attributes a lot of the reduction in crime in New York City to the deliberate efforts of a few key players to eliminate tolerance for a shabby environment, that says “nobody around here cares”.

Among the sources Gladwell acknowledges is The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Harris. This might be an interesting work. It addresses the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which says that when we interpret the behavior of others, we invariably overestimate the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimate the importance of situation and context. For instance, everyone “knows” something about the effect of birth order on personality. The reality (he says) is that birth order mostly affects our behavior when we are around our families, not in other situations. “Character … isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.”

He describes an experiment in which seminary students were told (one at a time) to present a short talk on some subject, then to walk to another building to present it. They were first given a questionnaire about why they had chosen to study theology. Some were asked to talk about the relevance of the professional clergy to the religious vocation; others were asked ot talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Some were told they were late and had to hurry to give their talk; some were told they were early, and would arrive early. All were set up to encounter a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. 10 percent of those who thought they were late stopped to help the man; 63 percent of those who knew they had time to spare stopped. No other factor mattered.

Another contextual factor, poorly related to the premise of the book, is the magic number 150. This appears to be the maximum size for a coherent group of people. In a group of this size, each person can have 149 relationships with the other members, and be aware of 22,052 other relationships. As groups become larger, the number of relationships increases as the square of the size, exceeding the capacity of its members to remain aware of all the others. Above this size, a group tends to split into smaller, close-knit subgroups.

Gladwell uses two case studies to pull his ideas together. In the first, he describes the spread of innovation (in seed corn and sneaker fashion). He introduces the groups of people who adopt innovations: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards. The Innovators and Early Adopters thrive on and tolerate risk, in co

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