Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell always seems to bring a fresh perspective to society's behavior. In this book, he talks about the causes that lie behind fads, crazes or waves that behave almost like an epidemic in our society, whether it's the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies shoes, teen suicides, or falling crime rates.

He identifies three agents of change that most of these things have in common: The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few says that "in a given process or system some people matter more than others." We can see this in the 80/20 rule known to economists, but "when it comes to epidemics, though; this disproportionality becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of the people do the majority of the work."

"The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes."

"The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem."

Gladwell talks about a personality type he calls a Connector. These people just seem to know everybody, across all different groups of professions, ethnicities, and geographic areas. One example of Connectors he mentions strikes a chord with me, as I just got done traveling to Philadelphia, and one of the tour guides said much the same thing. Paul Revere was a classic Connector. He knew hundreds of people all around the countryside, and he was well liked and respected by everyone. When he made his "midnight ride" to warn of the British coming, people listened and responded. William Dawes rode in another direction. Dawes was not a Connector, and he didn't know many people well enough to knock on their doors and disturb them. In the end, very few responded to his message.

I think we all know some Connectors. They're the folks who listen to your complaints and then say, "I know a guy..." (Jersey accent optional)

There are some people, whom Gladwell calls Mavens. Mavens are extraordinary experts in one or more areas, and just love to share their knowledge with others. They're the folks, for example, who read all of the computer magazines and keep up on what Apple and Microsoft are developing, then they try it out and write reviews, share their information online, or babble to their friends about the latest, greatest widget. If you're really lucky, you'll have a financial planner, CPA or stockbroker who's a Maven in his field.

And then there are the Salesmen (or women). "Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue, they spread it...Salesmen...with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing."

One of the key illustrations Gladwell uses in talking about Stickiness is the development of the children's tv show, Sesame Street. Most of what "everyone knew" about how children learn by watching tv turned out to be wrong, and the producers of Sesame Street (and Blue's Clues, which came along later) spent a great deal of time studying children while they watched the show, and adapting the show to be better all the time. It's super successful today, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues from its licensing agreements (so don't let anyone tell you defunding Big Bird is going to be a huge tragedy, ok?).

"Kids don't watch tv when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored. They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused."

I wonder if this phenomenon might be observed in adult populations at times, as well.

When the show first aired, the animation and muppet segments were kept completely separate from the live action sequences. Children rapidly lost interest in the live shots - adults talking probably sounded to them about like the teachers in the Charlie Brown special. When the muppets were brought into the street scenes, the kids suddenly started paying attention to the dialogue. Developmental psychologists told the producers that children were too easily confused by blending fantasy and reality, but in order to make their message more "sticky" Sesame Street broke the rules, and gained enormous popularity, teaching children around the world. I think it might have made Jim Henson a famous man, as well.

A real world example of the power of Context is drawn from a crime epidemic in New York City in the 1980s. Oddly enough, it wasn't tightening up sentencing guidelines and sending more murderers and rapists to prison that brought about a sudden reduction in those crimes. It was adopting a zero tolerance policy for a whole slew of lesser crimes that turned things around. When the city declared war on grafitti, subway fare-beating, public drunkeness, vandalism and other quality-of-life crimes, the whole environment was changed, and "the criminal - far from being someone who acts for fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world - is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him." Criminals appear to know from the way that society reacts to the most minor of criminal acts whether their more heinous ones are going to be taken seriously.

Have you ever heard (or voiced) the complaint "You act differently when you're around your friends than when you're around your family." or "You're a whole different person at the office Christmas party."?

It seems that some studies have been done that show, according to Gladwell, that:

"Character...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."

A really odd and scary thing about context (and I've seen some of this before with teen suicide "waves") is that not only are more suicides attempted after highly publicized suicides, but in a study done by sociologist David Phillips in L.A., "on the day after a highly publicized suicide, the number of fatalities from traffic accidents was, on average, 5.9 percent higher than expected. Two days after a suicide story, traffic deaths rose 4.1 percent. Three days after, they rose 3.1 percent and four days after, they rose 8.1 percent." So, the contagion of suicides is even higher than most of us know.

Gladwell's book is chock-full of interesting things to ponder. You might even find some innovative ways to make your ideas contagious.


ProudHillbilly said...

Blink was also very good.

Jon said...

If I can find Blink for a quarter at a yard sale, like I found this one...