Reviewed by Chang Yi Ching
In the words of the author, Malcolm Gladwell, this book is “about change. In particular, it’s a book that represents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does. … Ideas and behavior and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious diseases. They are social epidemics. The Tipping Point is an examination of the social epidemics that surround us.”
Social epidemics explain the emergence of fashion trends, the rise and flow of crime, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers. Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do. Social epidemics have several main attributes.
Social epidemics exhibit highly contagious behaviour, just as a yawn is highly contagious. Epidemics are an example of geometric progression – when a virus spreads through a population, it keeps doubling in proportion.
Social epidemics are also often started and affected by little changes. Sometimes, big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly. These changes often happen in a hurry, and they do not build slowly and steadily. In order to create one contagious movement, often, many small movements have to be created first.
The Tipping Point
In order for social epidemics to take off, a tipping point is required. The tipping point is the name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.
There are three factors that cause the tipping point to take place – the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context.
The Law Of The Few
The Law of the Few states that there are certain types of individuals who play prominent roles in the generation of social changes or social epidemics. These individuals can be classified into three categories – Connectors (people with large social networks), Mavens (people who are information specialists) and Salesmen (people who are change experts).
Connectors are people specialists who make friends and acquaintances very easily. Unlike most others, connectors have mastered the ‘weak’ tie, which is a friendly and yet casual social connection. Most people shy away from acquaintances or ‘weak’ ties, as they do not want to be socially committed to them, for example attending birthdays and dinners. Connectors are different – they do not shy away from the obligation that weak ties require. A study done in 1974 shows that majority of those who get a job through personal connections were through ‘weak’ ties. This shows that acquaintances represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have, the more powerful you are.
Connectors are very well-connected people who know a lot of people. But equally are the different types of people that they know. Connectors have ties to people from all walks of life. Connectors occupy many different worlds, subcultures and niches, and they are able to bring people from different worlds together. A good example of a connector is Lois Wesberg. In the span of her life, she knew people such as Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and so on. People like Lois Wesberg are ‘social glue’ as they connect people from different subcultures together. Such people are able to spread messages easily as they have a lot of social connections.
The concept of six degrees of separation shows the network and the importance of connectors. A study conducted in the late 1960s by the psychologist Stanley Milgram discovered that everyone is not linked to everyone else in just six steps, but that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest are linked to the world through these special few, the connectors.
However, connectors are not the only people who matter in a social epidemic. Just as there are people we rely upon to connect us to others, we also rely on people who have the information. These are the Mavens.
Maven is a Yiddish term which means “one who accumulates knowledge”. Mavens are information specialists. The critical thing about Mavens is that they are not passive collectors of information. What sets them apart is that they want to share information, once they figure out how to get that good deal, they want to tell you about it as well.
Mavens are socially motivated to help others. A Maven solves his own problems, his own emotional needs, by solving other people’s problems. They feel fulfilled in knowing that others made a decision, for example buying a car, armed with the knowledge that they have provided. Mark Alpert is an example of a Maven. He is almost pathologically helpful, and has a great amount of information on all sorts of things.
Mavens have knowledge and social skills to start word-of-mouth epidemics. What sets Mavens apart, is not so much what they know, but how they pass it along. The fact that Mavens want to help for altruistic reasons, turns out to be a very effective way of getting someone’s attention.
Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know. In a social epidemic, they provide the message. But for a social epidemic to start, some people have to be persuaded. The people to do this persuading would be the Salesmen.
Salesmen are people who have the skills to persuade when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing. A good example of a salesman is Peter Jennings, the newscaster, from ABC. Studies conducted by psychologists showed that through mere facial expressions, Peter Jennings managed to influence his viewers (who were usually pro-Democrat) into voting for Republican presidential candidates. His usually neutral expression face lit up considerably each time he talked about a Republican candidate, and this was sufficient to unconsciously influence viewers.
This shows the power of subtle persuasion. As one of the psychologists said, “This isn’t an obvious verbal message that we automatically dig in our heels against. It’s much more subtle and for that reason much more insidious, and that much harder to insulate ourselves against.” Little things can make as much of a difference as big things. The subtle circumstances surrounding how we say things may matter more than what we say. It also shows that sometimes, nonverbal clues that are more important than verbal clues.
The Stickiness Factor
Information that is packaged and presented in the right manner can go a long way in providing a tremendous impact on others, and can either prompt them into action or to the extent that it will ‘stick’ in a person’s mind for a long time. If you pay careful attention to structure and format of your material, you can dramatically enhance stickiness. This is the stickiness factor.
It sometimes takes hard work to find the stickiness factor that will turn ordinary information into memorable information. For example, the producers of the children’s educational television shows ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Blue’s Clues’ went through a lot of work in order to make sure that each episode is ‘sticky’ and educational to the young viewers.
At other times, finding the stickiness factor happens by chance. Often, the elements that provide the stickiness factor are small and trivial. A good example is an experiment conducted by a social psychologist, Howard Levanthal. He wanted to see if he could persuade a group of college seniors at Yale University to get a free tetanus shot. He thought that providing pamphlets with great details of the high risks and pain together with colour photographs would prompt the students to take the shot, rather than pamphlets with toned down language describing the risks and omitted photographs. However, he found out that this was not true. Instead, the stickiness factor that prompted the students to go for the shot was merely to include a map of the campus with the location of the university health building clearly marked, with times when the shots were available.
The content of the message does matter. This explains why some messages are more easily conveyed and better remembered compared to other messages. However, there is a simple way to package info that, in the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find the stickiness factor. This is very important, especially when we suffer from information overload these days. Capturing someone’s attention and getting the information to stick is paramount, regardless of whether we are talking about advertisement or education and so on.
The Power of Context
Social epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur. Some situations are more ripe for social epidemics than other situations. This is the Power of Context.
The Power of Context also states that in many cases, small and almost unnoticed aspects of a setting can trigger large changes. People are more than just sensitive to changes in context. They are exceptionally sensitive to them.
The ‘Broken Windows’ theory, which is the brainchild of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, argues that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people passing by will conclude that no one cares or is in charge, and soon, more windows will be broken and the sense of anarchy will spread.
An example of the ‘Broken Windows’ theory at work is the dramatic reduction in violent crime in New York City in the 1990s. New York City clamped down severely on petty crimes such as littering, graffiti, aggressive panhandling, fare-beating on the subway system and so on. The great reduction in petty crime in turn led to a great reduction in major and violent crime. Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes, were Tipping Points for violent crimes. According to this theory, the criminal is someone who is incredibly sensitive to his environment and is alert to all sorts of cues. He is prompted to commit crime based on his perception of the world around him. Change the environment, and his urge to commit crime lessens.
The ‘Broken Window’ theory and The Power of Context are one and the same. They are both based on the premise that an epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment. The Rule of 150 is also consistent with this fact.
The Rule of 150 suggests that the size of a group of people is also one of those subtle contextual factors that can make a big difference. It is an example of the ways context can affect the course of social epidemic. Small, close knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea. This relates back to the number 150, which has been found to be the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship with, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.
When a group goes beyond 150 people, the group dynamics and relationships of the group members change for the worse – they are more difficult to manage; there is less control and coordination; rules and regulations become necessary as opposed to relying on peer pressure, self-regulation and direct contact; the close-knit fellowship starts to unravel; and so on. Crossing the 150 line is a small change that can make a big difference.
Gore Associates, a privately held, multimillion-dollar high-tech firm, follows The Rule of 150 diligently. Once a plant has more than 150 staff, they build a new plant. This company policy has served them well over the years. Despite having thousands of staff, Gore Associates has managed to create a small-company culture that is highly infectious, sticky and effective. It consistently appears on the list of best American companies to work for. It has also managed to survive their growth into a billion-dollar company.
Conclusion & Afterthoughts
This book explains the factors that are necessary in order to start a social epidemic – the Law of the Few (which describes the three types of people who are crucial, the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen), the Stickiness Factor (which explains the importance of finding the one important factor that will tip the interests of people), and the Power of Context (which explains that some situations are better than others in starting an epidemic). These factors are Tipping Points of a social epidemic.
This has been an extremely easy, interesting and insightful read. It provides useful pointers on the resources or factors that we should focus on should we wish to start an epidemic. The points that the author is trying to make are interweaved nicely into the plentiful examples and stories, and this style of writing further enhances the points that are driven across.
It is written in (what I call) a storybook format. While this makes it easy to read, it also means that at times, it is difficult to decipher the point that the author is trying to make. Furthermore, certain examples were given too much descriptions and details, particularly the story on the birth and trials of the children’s educational television show, Sesame Street. However, all in all, I think this book is useful and I highly recommend it.
Contributed by CHANG YI CHING