Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Tipping Point

     Malcolm Gladwell landed on my (obviously incredibly astute) radar a little over a year ago, when I noticed a trend in minimalist book covers. I decided to get in on the action and read Outliers—a book that induced my distrust of Korean airliners with its impressively memorable anecdotes. This non-fiction “Story of Success” is only one of Gladwell’s numerous bestsellers. His five books mostly revolve around principles of social psychology, offering a fusion of research and entertaining stories. My biggest take-away however, was the author’s phenomenal hair. 

I couldn’t resist trying another one of his books—The Tipping Point*. With a look like that, I thought, “alright, how about just the tip”. Instead, I ended up reading the whole thing.

     Tipping point: “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire” (Gladwell, back cover). Tipping points are striking instances in which everything changes. For instance, in Baltimore (go Ravens!), the number of infants born with syphilis increased by 500 percent from 1995 to 1996 (Gladwell, 15). That’s not casual. Something happened to stimulate that unprecedented boost. Gladwell argues that sociological trends can follow epidemic-like patterns similar to that of viruses. He introduces three agents that are instrumental in facilitating a social “outbreak”:
  • People! But only certain kinds. The “Law of the Few” holds that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts” (Gladwell, 33).  This notion is akin to the economic “80/20 principle” whereby “80 percent of the ‘work’ will be done by 20 percent of the participants. [For example], in most societies, 20 percent of criminals commit 80 percent of crimes” (Gladwell, 19). This elite 20 percent is critical in the spread of information to the rest of us peasants. It is made up of three kinds of characters:
a) Connectors. Incredibly extroverted people with an extensive network. Someone with a gregarious personality capable of confidently linking people from different social spheres.

b) Mavens. I know this sounds like a tribe from Game of Thrones, but it’s not. Mavens are information experts; they accumulate knowledge and share that knowledge with others. Non-mavens turn to them for answers because they are always in the know.

c)  Salesmen. Or women! These people possess the power of persuasion. They are unconsciously charismatic and expressive to the point that they can convince us one way or another via nonverbal cues.

These personality types are not mutually exclusive and they can have an enormous effect when combined. They reduce the complexities of the world by making information-processing more manageable. As a result, society at large tends to follow their advice. What they like, everyone ends up liking. Can I get a connector-maven-salesperson up in here to start advocating this blog so that it blows up and I become rich and famous?
  • Stickiness. Formerly, Gladwell touched on the characteristics attributable to those responsible for the spread of an idea. Now, he focuses on the features of the idea itself: it must be memorable. It has to stick to become popular enough to “tip”. In this chapter, he interestingly discusses the fruitlessness of certain advertising techniques and dives into the background behind successful educational programs such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. (Remember when Steve left the show and all these rumors about a heroin overdose and him being this uncontrollable Satanist surfaced and all your childhood hopes and dreams vanished? No? Just me? That’s fine. Turns out he’s totally straight, he was just tired of the show after six years. But then they replaced him with Joe and Joe was mad lame).  
  • Context. This chapter refers to the environment in which ideas proliferate. Gladwell employs the “broken windows theory”, a criminological belief that “crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread” (Gladwell 141). Nobody likes a broken window, guys. That’s how you get cold. Basically, according to this view, the little things matter. New York City in the 1980s was completely crime-ridden, averaging “well over 2,000 murders and 600,000 serious felonies a year” (Gladwell, 135). This is not the New York City that I know; hell, I traipse around the streets at 4 AM like I own the place. And that’s because in the 90’s, the situation tipped. Crime rates suddenly shot down at an extraordinary pace. Gladwell credits this transformation to increased efforts in addressing seemingly insignificant crimes like fare-beating and vandalism. The new police chief in charge cracked down on graffiti, actively stripping subway cars of markings even right after they occurred. He also made it less cumbersome to arrest those who tried to jump the turnstiles and created an environment in which it was nearly impossible for someone to get away with the act. Except that’s not entirely true, because I’ve done it once. According to Gladwell, these slight changes in context actually had a wide-scale effect on unlawful activity. Would-be criminals were no longer surrounded by disorder, so they did not behave in a disorderly fashion. Gladwell encourages readers to reframe the way we look at the world; what may be most effective is not always the most intuitive. This conception of crime stems from an atypical line of thinking. It implies that criminals are not criminals because they have innate illicit tendencies; rather, their environment nudges them to engage in illegal behavior. It is a perspective that counters a defeatist, prevention-laden approach; instead of honing in on criminals themselves, we can fix more minute problems within the environment. Food for thought.
The book as a whole serves as a guide on how to focus your efforts more productively to create change. You can manipulate the connectors/mavens/salespeople, strive to mold a particularly “sticky” message, modify the context in which your message is received, or all of the above. “What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus” (Gladwell, 258). Gladwell leaves us with this grandiose suggestion, but does the data back it up? It is hard to say. Critics protest his fairly undeniable oversimplifications as well as his particular usage of one-sided stats and ad hoc anecdotes which bias his message. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for literature (duh), but I am also thankful for the critical method that readers can utilize to challenge authors and generate an ongoing conversation.

Personally, I do not necessarily place a ton of weight in his conclusions; yet, he raises intriguing solutions to problems that I think are worth investigating. For instance, he proposes a laudably pragmatic approach to combating cigarette addiction—a pitch that, as a head and neck cancer researcher, I find especially worthy of further assessment. He also incidentally provides readers with the history behind cool concepts that I have taken for granted up until now, like the meaning behind “six degrees of separation”. Furthermore, Gladwell is a careful writer who emphasizes clarity. The book has a straightforward structure that clearly explains each factor involved in a tipping point and then ties them all together to really drive his message home. Taking both the negative and positive factors into account, I give The Tipping Point 3 out of 5 camel humps. There is always value in reading something that encourages you to look at the world in a different way, but it is heedful to take his ideas with a grain of salt.

*Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. New York: Back Bay Books, 2000. Print.

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