Creating social epidemics (The Tipping Point)

Why do some ideas, trends and social behaviours cross a threshold or “tip” and take off- and conversely, why do so many more fail?

Extracts from The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)


Three characteristics- one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment- are the same three principles that define how measles moves through a grade-school classroom or the flu attacks every winter. Of the three, the third trait- the idea that epidemcis can rise or fall in one dramatic moment- is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point.

A world that follows the rules of epidemics is a very different place from the world we think we live in now.

Contagiousness is an unexpected property of all kinds of things, and we have to remember that, if we are to recognize and diagnose epidemic change.

The second principle of epidemics- that little changes can somehow have big effects- is also a fairly radical notion. We are, as humans, heavily socialized to make a kind of rough approximation between cause and effect.

As human beings we have a hard time with this kind of progression, because the end result- the effect- seems far out of proportion to the cause. To appreciate the power of epidemics, we have to abandon this expectation about proportionality. We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly. This possibility of sudden change is at the centre of the idea of the tipping point and might well be the hardest of all to accept.

We are all, at heart, gradualists, our expectations set by the steady passage of time. But the world of the tipping point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than a possibility. It is- contrary to all our expectations- a certainty. Why is it that some ideas or behaviours or prouducts start epidemics and others don’t? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?

The Three Rules of Epidemics

These three agents of change I call the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

Social epidemics work the [following] way. They are driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people. In this case, what sets them apart is how sociable they are, or how energetic or knowledgeable or influential among their peers.

This idea of the importance of stickiness in tipping has enormous implications for the way we regard social epidemics as well. We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how to make messages more contagious- how to reach as many people as possible with our products or ideas. But the hard part of communication is often figuring out how to make sure a message doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. Stickiness means that a message makes an impact. You can’t get it out of your head. It sticks in your memory.

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

The key to getting people to change their behaviour, in other words, to care about their neighbour in distress, sometimes lie with the smallest details of their immediate situation. The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem.

The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen [sic]

What makes someone a connector? The first- and most obvious- criterion is that Connectors know lots of people. They are the kinds of people who know everyone. All of us know someone like this. But I don’t think that we spend a lot of time thinking about the importance of these kinds of people. I’m not even sure that most of us really believe that the kind of person who knows everyone really know everyone. But they do.

Connectors are important for more than simply the number of people they know. Their importance is also a function of the kinds of people they know.

If you look closely at social epidemics, however, it becomes clear that just as there are people we rely upon to connect us to other people, there are also people we rely upon to connect us with new information. There are people specialists, and there are information specialists. Sometimes, of course, these two specialities are one and the same.

The word Maven comes from the Yiddish, and it means one who accumulates knowledge.

What sets Mavens apart, though, is not so much what they know but how they pass it along. The fact that Mavens want to help, for no other reason than because they like to help, turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention.

But peer pressure is not always an automatic or an unconscious process. It means, as often as not, that someone actually went up to one of his peers and pressured him. In a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. 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. Who are these Salesmen? And what makes them so good at what they do?

What is interesting about Salesmen is the extent to which they seem to be persuasive in a way quite different from the content of the words. They seem to have some kind of indefinable trait, something powerful and contagious and irresistible that goes beyond what comes out of their mouths, that makes people who meet them want to agree with them. It’s energy. It’s enthusiasm. It’s charm. It’s likeability. It’s all those things and yet something more.

The Stickiness Factor

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 in none of these cases did anyone substantially alter the content of what they were saying. Instead, they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas. The line between hostility and acceptance, in other words, between an epidemic that tips and one that does not, is sometimes a lot narrower than it seems. The Law of the Few says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. The lesson of stickiness is the same. There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.

The Power of Context (Part One)

The third principles of epidemic transmission is the Power of Context. The Law of the Few looked at the kinds of people who are critical in spreading information. The chapter on stickiness suggested that in order to be capable of sparking epidemics, ideas have to be memorable and move us to action. We’ve looked at the people who spread ideas, and we’ve looked at the characteristics of successful ideas. But the subject of this chapter- the Power of Context- is no less important than the first two. Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.

Broken Windows 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. This is, if you think about it, quite a radical idea.

But what do Broken Windows and the Power of Context suggest? They say that 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. That is an incredibly radical- and in some sense unbelievable- idea. There is an even more radical dimension here. The Power of Context is an environmental argument. It says that behaviour is a function of social context. But it is a very strange kind of environmentalism. In the 1960s, liberals made a similar kind of argument, but when they talked about the importance of environment they were talking about the importance of fundamental social factors: crime, they said, was the result of social injustice, of structural economic inequities, of unemployment, of racism, of decades of institutional and social neglect, so that if you wanted to stop crime you had to undertake some fairly heroic steps. But the Power of Context says that what really matters is little things. The Power of Context says that you don’t have to solve the big problems to solve crime. You can prevent crimes just by scrubbing off graffiti and arresting fare-beaters: crime epidemics have Tippint Points every bit as simple and straightforward as syphilis in Baltimore or a fashion trend like Hush Puppies. This is what I meant when I called the Power of Context a radical theory.

The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information. Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behaviour, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context. We will always reach for a “dispositional” explanation for events, as opposed to a contextual explanation.

Epidemics are, at their root, about this very process of transformation. When we are trying to make an idea or attitude or product tip, we’re trying to change our audience in some small yet critical respect: we’re trying to infect them, sweep them up in our epidemic, convert them from hostility to acceptance. That can be done through the influence of of special kinds of people, people of extraordinary personal connection. That’s the Law of the Few. It can be done by changing the content of communication, by making a message so memorable that it sticks in someone’s mind and compels them to action. That is the Stickiness Factor. I think that both of those laws make intuitive sense. But we need to remember that small changes in context can be just as important in tipping epidemics, even though that fact appears to violate some of our most deeply held assumptions about human nature.

The Power of Context (Part Two)

Psychologists tell us much the same thing: that when people are asked to consider evidence or make decisions in a group, they come to very different conclusions than when they are asked the same questions by themselves. Once we’re part of a group, we’re susceptible to peer pressure and social norms and any number of other kinds of influence that can play a critical role in sweeping us up in the beginnings of an epidemic.

If you want to bring about a fundamental change in people’s belief and behaviour, a change that will persist and serve as an example to others, you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs can be practised and expressed and nurtured.

Small close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea. That conclusion, however, still leaves a number of critical questions unanswered. The word group, for instance, is a term used to describe everything from a basketball team to the Teamsters Union, from two couples on a holiday to the Republican Party. If we are interested in starting an epidemic- in reaching a Tipping Point- what are the most effective kinds of groups? Is there a simple rule of thumb that distinguishes a group with real social authority from a group with little power at all? As it turns out, there is. It’s called the Rule of 150, and it is a fascinating example of the strange and unexpected ways in which context affects the course of social epidemics.

If we want groups to serve as incubators for contagious messages, then, we have to keep groups below the 150 Tipping Point. Above that point, there begin to be structural impediments to the ability of the group to agree and act with one voice.

That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.

Conclusion: Focus, Test, and Believe

Not long ago a nurse by the name of Georgia Sadler began a campaign to increase knowledge and awareness of diabetes and breast cancer in the black community of San Diego. She wanted to create a grassroots movement toward prevention, and so she began setting up seminars in black churches around the city. The results, however, were disappointing. “There’d be maybe two hundred people in church, but we’d get only twenty or so to stay, and the people who were staying were people who already knew a lot about those diseases and just wanted to know more. It was very discouraging.” Sadler couldn’t get her message to tip outside of that small group.

She realized she needed a new context. “I guessed people were tired and hungry after the service,” she says. “We all have a busy life. People wanted to get home.” She needed a place where women were relaxed, receptive to new ideas, and had the time and opportunity to hear something new.

She also needed a new messanger, someone who was a little bit Connector, a little bit Salesman, and a little bit Maven. She needed a new, stickier way of presenting the information. And she needed to make all those changes in such a way that she didn’t exceed the very small amount of money she’d cobbled together from various foundations and funding groups. Her solution? Move the campaign from black churches to beauty salons.

“It’s a captive audience,” Sadler says. “These women may be at a salon for anywhere from two hours to eight hours, if they’re having their hair braided.” The stylist also enjoys a special relationship with her client. “Once you find someone who can manage your hair, you’ll drive a hundred miles to see her. The stylist is your friend. She takes you through your high school graduation, your wedding, your first baby. It’s a long term relationship. It’s a trusting relationship. You literally and figuratively let your hair down in a salon.” There is something about the profession of stylist, as well, that seems that attract a certain kind of person- someone who communicates easily and well with others, someone with a wide variety of acquaintances. “They’re natural conversationalists,” Sadler says. “They love talking to you. They tend to be very intuitive, because they have to keep an eye on you and see how you’re doing.”

She gathered a group of stylists from the city for a series of training sessions. She brought in a folklorist to help coach the stylists in how to present their information about breast cancer in a compelling manner. “We wanted to rely on traditional methods of communication,” Sadler says. “This isn’t a classroom setting. We wanted this to be something that women wanted to share, that they wanted to pass on. And how much easier is it to hang the hooks of knowledge on a story?” Sadler kept a constant cycle of new information and gossipy tidbits and conversation starters about breast cancers flowing into the salons, so that each time a client came back, the stylist could seize on some new cue to start a conversation. She wrote the material up in large print, and put it on laminated sheets that would survive the rough and tumble of a busy hair salon. She set up an evaluation program to find out what was working and to see how successful she was in changing attitudes and getting women to have mammograms and diabetes tests, and what she found was that her program worked. It is possible to do a lot with a little.

Over the course of the tipping point we’ve looked at a number of stories like this and what they all have in common is their modesty. Sadler didn’t go to the National Cancer Institute or the California State Department of Health and ask for millions of dollars to run some elaborate, multi-media public awareness campaign. She didn’t go door to door through the neighbourhoods of San Diego, signing women up for free mamograms. She didn’t bombard the airwaves with a persistent call for prevention and testing. Instead she took the smalll budget that she had and thought about how to use it more intelligently. She changed the context of her message. She changed the messanger, and she changed the message itself. She focussed her efforts.

This is the first lesson of the Tipping Point. Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas. The Law of the Few says that Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen are responsible for starting word-of-mouth epidemics, which means that if you are interested in starting a word-of-mouth epidemic, your resources ought to be solely concentrated on those three groups. No one else matters.

The theory of Tipping Points requires, however, that we reframe the way we think about the world. I have spent a lot of time, in this book, talking about idiosyncracies of the way we relate to new information and to each other. We have trouble estimating dramatic, exponential change. We cannot conceive that a piece of paper folded over 50 times could reach the sun. There are abrupt limits to the number of cognitive catagories we can make and the number of people we can truly love and the number of people acquaintances we can truly know. We throw up our hands at a problem phrased in an abstract way, but have no difficulty at all in solving the same problem rephrased as a social dilemna. All of these things are expressions of the peculiarities if the human mind and heart, a refutation of the notion that the way we function and communicate and process information is straightforward and transparent. It is not. It is messy and opaque. Who could have predicted that going from 100 to 150 workers in a plant isn’t a problem, but going from 150 to 200 is a huge problem?

The world- much as we want it to- does not accord with out intuition. This is the second lesson of the Tipping Point. Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right. They deliberately test their intutitions. To make sense of social epidemics, we must first understand that human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.

What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behaviour or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus. This, too, contradicts some of the most ingrained assumptions, we hold about ourselves and each other. We like to think of ourselves as autonomous and inner-directed, that who we are and how we act is something permanently set by our genes and our temperament. But if you add up the examples of Salesmen and Connectors, the Rule of 150 and the Fundamental Attribution Error, they amount to a very different conclusion about what it means to be humna. We are actually powerfully influenced by our surroundings, our immediate context, and the personalities of those around us. Taking the graffiti off the walls of New York’s subways turned New Yorkers into better citizens. Telling seminarians to hurry turned them into bad citizens. To look closely at complex behaviours like smoking or suicide or crime is to appreciate how suggestible we are in the face of what we see and hear, and how acutely sensitive we are to even the smallest details of everyday life. That’s why social change is so volatile and so often inexplicable, because it is the nature of all of us to be volatile and inexplicable.

But if there is difficulty and volatility in the world of the Tipping Point, there is a large measure of hopefulness as well. Merely by manipulating the size of a group, we can dramtically improve its receptivity to new ideas. By tinkering with the presentation of information, we can significantly improve its stickiness. Simply by finding and reaching those few special people who hold so much social power, we can shape the course of social epidemics. In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push- in just the right place- it can be tipped.


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