The Tipping Point: Explanations for Subconscious Social Behavior

jpena's picture

Malcolm Gladwell’s, The Tipping Point, attempts to uncover the environmental inputs and functions of the human mind that influence everyday social behaviors. He focuses on behaviors for which neurobiologists may not have concrete explanations. Through his analysis Gladwell discovers some general principles that may provide reasonable frameworks for predicting human behavior in certain situations. More specifically, he identifies environmental cues that influence behavior in ways that one might not expect. He also finds that the human mind has qualities and limitations that govern social interactions. The common theme uniting these findings is that they each one involves subconscious inputs and limitations of the mind in order to contribute to behavior. Among the principles Gladwell explains are the “stickiness factor”, the “Broken Windows theory,” and the “transactive memory system”. This paper will review each of these three principles in more detail in the hopes of linking them to neurobiological explanations of behavior.

The stickiness factor, as Gladwell calls it, is a principle explaining the quality of messages being delivered and processed by the human mind. The primary example Gladwell uses to demonstrate the stickiness factor is children’s television shows. He uses it as an explanation for why children are so receptive to the messages coming from programs such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. Initial studies showed that messages from Sesame Street were not being well received by children and were not memorable. Through experimenting with small changes in the show’s format and presentation, the producers were able to find specific qualities to incorporate that made the show more memorable and could hold the attention of young children better. These qualities are said to increase the stickiness of a show. By identifying qualities that maximized stickiness in Sesame Street, the creators of Blue’s Clues found great success in making a show that had a very high stickiness factor from the start. They managed to create a formula incorporating auditory and visual stimuli that held the attention of children continuously throughout the show and kept them watching regularly. Through trial and error research, the producers of these shows were able to generate stronger messages and inputs to send out to children. Slight changes in the inputs received by children allowed their brains to process them more effectively and to somehow retain information more effectively as well. The changes, however, were only observed subconsciously; children were completely unaware of what was different about inputs they enjoyed more versus inputs they found uninteresting.

The Broken Windows Theory that Gladwell explains applies to patterns and waves of crime. It is based on the notion that if people see broken windows that are untended to, then they will assume it is acceptable to break more windows. This example may have more a conscious component but the principle can be applied to other situations as well. The example Gladwell uses to demonstrate this principle is the crime epidemic that occurred in New York City in the 1980s. Subway systems were plagued by petty crime which could be explained by the Broken Windows theory. The subways were also covered in graffiti which is analogous to a broken window as explained before. The graffiti served as a visual symbol of the presence of crime in subways. When people enter an environment marked with crime they are more inclined to commit it themselves. This became evident when a clean up program implemented by the city sought to eliminate graffiti from the subways. After achieving this goal the crime rate began to fall, indicating that the environmental variables were playing an important role in controlling the crime rate. It is very likely that individuals are unaware of the environmental factors influencing their behavior. People planning to commit crimes on the subway were probably not looking for graffiti before the act but its presence may have contributed to their desire to do so. Sensory inputs generated from a person’s external environment are processed subconsciously in the brain and affect social behavior of individuals who are unaware of the process. As demonstrated in this example, some inputs can be very small but when they enter the brain can generate significant behavioral responses.

The transactive memory system is the method by which individuals use external sources for the purpose of maintaining memory. It can take on different forms. Most people don’t memorize large amounts of detailed information such as phone numbers. Instead people store that information in phone books or electronic devices. A similar method of memory storage is used through interpersonal relationships. Close-knit groups of people often rely on each other to store information for them. Perhaps one individual will have limited knowledge about a topic or procedure but can rely on another individual as a reference to recall information that they themselves have not memorized. This dependency contributes to the special relationships people have with one another. For the most part, however, people are unaware that they use a transactive memory system. This method of storing information might be a result of social evolution. Humans have subconsciously adapted a system that enhances efficiency in completing tasks by allowing for specialization within each person in a group. This same pattern can be observed in sports teams, businesses, and families alike. Any group of people that interacts closely will naturally adapt a strategy of specialization using their transactive memory system.

In this course I have learned that my brain has more control over my mind and body than I thought. Tipping Point continues to support this same notion. Gladwell demonstrates several points about how human behavior operates and is subconsciously controlled in the brain. Though he leaves out neurological analysis of why sensory inputs and cues affect us in the ways that they do, he does draw strong correlations between small changes in environment and significant behavioral changes. The subconscious nature of the brain’s power over mind and body leads me to the conclusion that the brain is indeed, “wider than the sky”. No matter how much autonomy we think we have in our minds and bodies, the brain will always be one step ahead of us.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002.


Wood's picture

Subconscious Social Behavior

This article was written in 2007. Now look at the advances we have made in our environment between 2007 and now. It appears our environment has generated more intelligent behavior, not to say The Broken Windows Theory will ever vanish but could be controlled through learned behavior, All in all we are who we are by our experiences and what we learn from day 1(controlled by the Subconscious), so in theory we could predict future human behavior based on the advancement of technology which would be an advancement of knowledge. Improved Knowledge in a society will and can improve human behavior.

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Maurice Prout

I found your association very meaningful to understand how behavioral aspects are directly related to morality. There’s no doubt that since birth we learn to distinguish the right from the wrong attitude, prevalent in society, which leads us to be accepted among our peers. I had studied several well written articles about behavioral and cognitive theories by Maurice Prout at His writings are a great source for those who want to know more about behavioral conditioning and the process in which moral behavior takes place in our daily attitudes.

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