Little Things Make A Big Difference

Mimi N.'s picture

In his bestseller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell attempts to contrive an epidemiology of social and cultural behavior by explaining how phenomena such as crime rate, fads and teen suicide get started and spread like disease viruses. According to him, a distinct set of factors and agents helps to create a ''tipping point,'' the “one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once,” that turns behaviors, ideas, individuals, messages or products into an explosive trend or mass acceptance. In this paper, I will review the three principles of change that Gladwell explores: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context and also the three types of agents he claims can hugely affect social and behavioral epidemics: the connectors, the mavens and the salesmen.

The Law of the Few asserts that the quality or work of the few exceptional people that make an idea or behavior spreads. There are the connectors, the network people who know a lot of people and who can influence a lot of people on their word alone (p48). There are the mavens, people who can focus on detailed knowledge that others turn to them for advices and who are willing to share information with others (p59). Lastly, the salesmen are the people with talent and enthusiasm for a product that can change our mind and can sale a lot (p91)

The stickiness factor, Gladwell says relates to the content of the message. It has to be memorable to entice change. He chooses the Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues television programs. The creators of the Sesame Street show came up with a way to measure the attention the children paid to the show. Using a shiny blinking light next to the TV, they noted that the children were distracted by it. They got distracted more easily when there were just people talking to each other. Finally, they paid attention when the muppets were brought out. What is needed here is a significant change in presentation to make the message stick. Blue's Clues, learning from some of the mistakes of Sesame Street, create “one of the stickiest television shows ever made". The techniques they use are repetition and narrative as the key ones to encourage children to pay attention and to remember. The information in the program, initially thought to be too long and confusing to them, stuck with that audience. Later, Blue’s Clues applied many of these same techniques to Sesame Street and the program has helped improve children’s logic and reasoning abilities.

Gladwell considers the power of context to demonstrate that “our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances”. He cites the well-known Stanford University psychological mock prison experiment to show how much influence immediate environment have on the way people behave (p152-155). Normal, healthy and pacifist student volunteers were divided into two groups. The prisoners went through all the prison procedures before being incarcerated and the guards were instructed to keep order in the prison. The guards became serious disciplinarians and got more and more cruel and abusive toward the prisoners when they rebelled. What entailed shocked the researcher and forced him to end the study early. We discussed in Neurobiology and Behavior that behavior is a product of social context and this study reinforces my understanding that our inherent predispositions can be overwhelmed by environment and situations.

Gladwell also defines how events are perceived. In 1984, on a New York subway, four teenagers menaced and mugged rider Bernie Goetz who, instead of giving five dollars to them, shot them. He was heralded as a crime fighter and a hero because during that period the city was laden with crimes. If that happened today, Goetz would have been booked for homicide. Furthermore, Gladwell considers the effect of visual cues on crime. Using the Broken Window Theory (p150), he shows that in the cities, relatively minor problems like graffiti, panhandling, pickpocket and broken windows are invitations to more crimes being committed there. Cleaning up these visual cues can have a major effect on the crime rate. In an unkempt setting, people are more apt to misbehave than in formal surroundings. I see here that our brain acquires the elements of the environment through interaction, processes them and then generates behavior.

Other aspects related to neurobiology that I found in The Tipping Point is the social channel capacity observed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar (p177-178). He found that the human and primate have the biggest neocortex in all mammals. He argues that their brains evolve and get bigger in order to handle the complexities and intellectual burden of their larger social group. He believes that 150 is the ideal size of a human social group because the ratio of the size of our neocortex to the size of the whole brain is 1 to 150. The rule of 150 is a factor that can make a big difference in communities such as the Hutterites who function well in groups less than 150. It is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.

Gladwell, who started his career in journalism as a science writer, explains psychological experiments thoroughly but sometime goes into so much details that the reader is lost. His discussion goes off his main premise quite often, sometimes 20-30 pages long, and he has to repeat his point again. He makes his arguments quite compelling though. He also gives insight for the reader to apply his model . I wish he described more examples of actual tipping points.


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