By Malcolm Gladwell
Reviewed by Marty N.
The book table in Toronto’s Pearson International Airport offered a wide range of titles, most of them unfamiliar to me. My hand ranged over the display like a dowsing rod, and when it came to this white-covered paperback, it twitched. The plane was over Nevada before I could put the book down, finished. We all know the miraculous parable of the butterfly whose flapping wings set off an intercontinental storm. The Tipping Point explains how the butterfly did it. Using examples from marketing, medicine, literature, politics and other spheres, Gladwell shows the basic moves and conditions that can transform a small change into a sudden mega-metamorphosis. Along the way, he throws new light on many familiar themes, such as subway graffiti, Kitty Genovese, Sesame Street, athletic shoes, and teenage smoking, to name just a few. A former Washington Post journalist and now staff writer for The New Yorker, Gladwell has put together a well crafted, fast-moving, fact-intensive and highly readable book that deserves its national best-seller rating.
Three factors must be present to tip a social epidemic. Gladwell calls them the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. They’re worth reviewing in some detail.
A gonorrhea epidemic in Colorado Springs affecting thousands of people stemmed from just 168 individuals living in four neighborhoods and frequenting the same six bars. Each of these exceptionally active individuals transmitted the disease to dozens or even hundreds of others. Successful social movements, Gladwell says, are like epidemics. A handful of people makes them happen: people who are unusually energetic, connected, knowledgeable, persuasive, or otherwise influential among their peers. Gladwell finds three types of such extraordinary people: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.
A famous Connector from history was Paul Revere, a member of every militia committee who knew all the important people in the American independence movement up and down the New England coast. When he rode north of Boston at night to warn that “the British are coming,” people immediately paid attention and moved to action, because they knew who he was and he had credibility. His countryman William Dawes, by contrast, carried the same message to other towns, and nobody paid attention, because he was an unknown and he didn’t know which doors to knock on. Modern studies of social networks show a great asymmetry. There are only six “degrees of separation” between everyone and everyone else because a rather small number of people each having vast numbers of connections act as junction boxes. Connectors are “people with a special gift for bringing the world together.” They aren’t intimately familiar with all of them, that wouldn’t be possible. Instead, they cultivate what sociologists call the “weak tie” – friendly acquaintanceship. Many Connectors move between a range of different subcultures and niches, cultivating connections in all of them. They tend to be gregarious, outgoing, helpful, and nonjudgmental. They are the people to know when you need a job, because they’ll know somebody who knows somebody. They’re also the people who need to adopt an idea or a product before it can become an epidemic.
Great networkers, however, aren’t sufficient. Connectors take their cues from information specialists, whom Gladwell dubs Mavens. Marketplace mavens are people who read all the product reviews, know exactly who is selling what for how much, and debunk all kinds of promotional hype. When you’re buying a car or a computer, you naturally turn for advice to a friend or an uncle who is a car nut or a computer maniac, and this person will tell you where to shop and what to look for and how much to pay, and may offer to go with you and help you out. They not only read Consumer Reports, they write letters to it. There are mavens not only in the marketplace, but in every subculture. They make or break the reputation of any new thing that comes along, because they study everything in their area of specialization deeply, share what they know, and win respect for their expertise.
Nothing big would happen, however, without Gladwell’s third type, the Salesman. Connectors connect, Mavens inform, but Salesmen twist arms and motivate people to action. Gladwell profiles several super salesmen. What makes them successful persuaders? Gladwell’s answer is fascinating. Subtle cues in body language, such as facial expressions and head movements, are much more powerful than the spoken message. Microanalysis of videotapes shows that when two people talk, they engage in an elaborate rhythmic dance punctuated by muscle movements (shoulder, cheek, hand, eyebrow, etc.) that quickly synchronize with each other and with the flow of the words. In this synchronicity, one person tends to become the leader or transmitter who initiates muscle movements signaling emotional states that the other person mimics, producing the same emotional state within them. Emotions travel from inside to outside in the sender and then from outside to inside in the receiver. Great salesmen have the ability to enter into this unspoken dance quickly and to establish themselves as the emotional leader or sender in short order. In a fascinating experiment, researchers found that powerful emotional senders could transmit their emotional state and induce the same feeling in more receptive individuals in a matter of two minutes face to face, without a single word being spoken. People who are emotionally contagious in this way are exceptional individuals. When an idea or a product enrolls these essential few -- Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen -- it is well on its way to tipping into an epidemic.
But another factor is still lacking, that Gladwell calls “stickiness.” Stickiness is a specific quality of the message that makes it memorable and spurs people into action. Big budget advertisers buy memory space with incessant repetition – it takes at least six repetitions for people to remember a brand name. Stickiness is a low-budget equalizer that grabs people’s imagination on the first or second exposure. A seemingly small or trivial property of the message – the gold box on a record club coupon, a campus map on an informational pamphlet, the mixing of puppets and real people in Sesame Street, the literal narrative format of Blues Clues – resonates with the audience and grabs and holds their attention. The stickiness factor is a simple way of packaging a message that makes it irresistible in the right circumstances.
Circumstances and their decisive influence in creating trends form a major portion of Gladwell’s exposition. He begins with the infamous case of Bernhard Goetz, a white New York stockbroker who shot four young black men on a New York subway in 1984 and was later acquitted on charges of assault and attempted murder. Gladwell points out that New York City was at that time in one of the worst crime waves of its history and that the subway system in particular had degenerated into a hellhole of graffiti, garbage, and lawlessness. Yet a decade later, the crime wave broke, felonies declined steeply, and New York became a much safer city. Why? Gladwell argues that the explanation lies in criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s Broken Window theory. Broken Window theory holds that a seemingly trivial environmental cue, such as a broken window, sends a message that no one is taking care of property, and this is an invitation to all kinds of more serious crimes. Operating on the Broken Window theory, New York transit authorities eliminated graffiti from the trains – how it was done makes a fascinating side story – and then stopped fare-beaters, people whose flagrant jumping and jamming of the turnstiles, although financially trivial for each violation, extended a larger and much more costly invitation to all kinds of lawlessness in the system. Gladwell’s point is that much of behavior is situational. The famous Zimbardo experiments at Stanford, where ordinary ‘normal’ individuals turned into brutal prison guards when placed into a simulated prison setting, showed that the situational context can overwhelm inherent character traits. In another set of experiments, researchers demonstrated that such supposedly inherent character traits as honesty are in reality quite situational – most people will cheat in certain situations, but not in others. There is a name for the common fallacy that attributes behavior to character instead of to context: the Fundamental Attribution Error. People shown two basketball scenes, one in a well-lighted gym and the other in a dark gym where the basket is barely visible, invariably conclude that the brightly lit players are more talented. Thirty-eight people watched Kitty Genovese being raped and killed and no one called for help – precisely because each of them assumed one of the others had already done so. Seminarians on their way to present a brief sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan stopped to help an injured man on the street when told they had a few minutes to spare; if told they were in a rush, they literally stepped over the victim on their way to the pulpit. Their personality profile had no bearing on their behavior. The notion that innate character, disposition, personality, genes, and similar traits determine behavior fails the evidence test. Trying to change people’s “character” is usually a wild goose chase. Making small, seemingly trivial changes in the environment, such as fixing broken windows, is a much more powerful method of starting or stopping a social epidemic, Gladwell argues.
Another dimension of context, Gladwell reasons, is the critical role that groups play in social epidemics. He credits the success of Methodism as a religion to John Wesley’s insight that fundamental change in people’s beliefs and behaviors could not be sustained without creating a community that would practice, express, and nurture these beliefs. The runaway success of Rebecca West’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was in large part a function of the book study groups that sprang up around the work, and of West’s assiduous cultivation of these circles. Gladwell sheds fascinating light on the quantitative aspects of group dynamics. Referring to a function of the brain called “channel capacity,” he argues that groups in which we have deep emotional interactions begin to max out and to cause overload somewhere between 10 and 15 participants. Groups where we have more casual connections, such as schools, workplaces, and other institutions, max out at about 150 people. Working groups larger than this size tend to become dysfunctional and toxic, and cell division is the only cure. The implication for larger movements is that “in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.” (192)
There is much more of interest in the book. Gladwell’s case studies include some fascinating insights into the nature of addiction. He says – rightly, in my opinion -- that the progression into addiction is not a linear scale, where you become a little bit addicted with each dose of the drug. Instead, “there is an addiction Tipping Point, a threshold – that if you smoke below a certain number of cigarettes you aren’t addicted at all, but once you go above that magic number, you suddenly are.” (249) I am skipping over a great deal of additional interesting content here to get to Gladwell’s general conclusions.
If you are interested in starting a word-of-mouth epidemic, Gladwell says, your resources ought to be solely concentrated on the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Beyond that, you need to package your message in ways that are rarely obvious, but that somehow touch a nerve in the messy, chaotic tangle of people’s emotions. To find that nerve, you need to test your intuitions empirically and be ruthless about revising and revising again until you find the sticky point. To engage in this kind of quest, which can take enormous effort and energy, requires “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.” (258) The fact that Tipping Points do occur is “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.” (259)
Naturally, I found this message reinforcing and even inspiring, as have hordes of other readers. The addiction landscape does indeed seem like an immovable, implacable hellhole sometimes, not unlike the old New York subway catacombs. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation rightly concluded a few years ago, substance abuse is the country’s number one public health problem today. There cannot be the smallest doubt that major change is required. Yet the quest for “just the right place” to give this world the “slightest push” that will tip it has so far proved elusive. Despite brilliant marketing and promotion -- brilliant precisely because packaged as non-marketing and non-promotion -- the 12-step movement has made no discernible dent in the monster’s armor. Most people who do get sober don’t use it. Drunks and other addicts, including veterans of 12-step involvement, continue to die prematurely by the hundreds of thousands each year. The social cost of addiction continues to mount into the uncountable hundreds of billions of dollars. Public policy, by and large, is becoming more expensive, more punitive, and less effective over time. If ever a Tipping Point were needed, it is here.
If we follow Gladwell’s analysis, we will look at addiction as an epidemic, much like the HIV plague, and we will try to find the Connectors, the Mavens, and the Salesmen who drive it. Are there people who have a wide network of connections and who promote heavy drinking and drug use? Of course there are. Is anything being done to identify these people, to reach them, and to try to change their message or shut them down? Are there Mavens of drinking and drug use? Yes, there are such people. Is anything being done to identify them, to study their appeal, and to undermine their message? Are there Salesmen of addiction? We know there are, and many of them are hired by the beverage companies to work their emotional charisma on television. Together, the connectors, mavens, and salesmen of alcoholism and addiction are a social scourge comparable to the promiscuous carriers of STDs who infect hundreds of others and cause isolated small problems to escalate into major epidemics. Where is the social service agency, project, or governmental unit that identifies these contagious carriers of addiction and launches effective countermeasures against them?
Addiction is “sticky” by definition, as Gladwell observes in his interesting chapter on combating teen smoking. All the more reason why addiction recovery messages need to develop their own powerful stickiness, to resonate somehow with the addicted person’s own inner strivings to get free of the drug – with their “S.” The traditional message of powerlessness and God resonates only with a small percentage; it drives countless thousands of others away. Many proponents of the 12-step approach take a perverse pride in the difficulty of their road, scorning “softer, easier ways,” as if recovery were like the old Inca capital of Macchu Picchu, reachable only via a steep and treacherous path. We need to redefine the City of Recovery as more similar to a metropolis like Rome – a place reachable by many roads. That is not optimistic propaganda; it is fact.
Much of addiction treatment today is based on the Fundamental Attribution Error. Persons who get addicted are defined as having an addictive personality, and are told that their character defects lie at the root of their addiction. That seems to be intuitively correct. But decades of psychometric research have blown the “addictive personality” theory out of the water, and we now know that most of what we label character traits, such as the honesty/dishonesty axis, is predominantly situational. Addicts tend to show negative character traits because addiction tends to lead us into negative situations. The quest to cure addiction by reforming character is tilting at windmills.
Groups, finally, are critical to starting or stopping epidemics, if Gladwell is correct. The existence of groups that perpetuate the epidemic of addiction is obvious. Most bars, cocktail lounges, and dispensaries of illegal addictive substances contain the nodes of such groups – informal social networks that push the substance, glorify its consumption, lie about or minimize the risk of addiction, and rationalize away the harmful consequences. On the legal side, powerful economic interests protect these networks and provide public validation for them. On the underground side, no less powerful economic interests do essentially the same. Hundreds of thousands of new recruits enter into these networks each year and some of them, sooner or later, join the ten per cent of drinkers who consume 90 per cent of the booze – the alcoholic heart of the beverage economy. Although the basic sickness of beverage economics is well known and there are good exposures of the industry, as far as I know very little has been done to identify the informal social networks that perpetuate addiction, and to intervene in their process. In the early 1900s, a woman driven to desperation by the harm of alcoholism seized a hatchet and began smashing bar rooms. Surely there must be methods more sophisticated than Carrie Nation’s blunt surgery for disrupting the social networks that spread addiction. One of the great merits of Malcolm Caldwell’s Tipping Point is to raise this kind of question.
A Postscript for LifeRing Convenors:
If you are concerned as I am with making LifeRing grow into a beneficial social epidemic, you will read Gladwell’s book as a how-to manual. For the past five years or more I have been urging LifeRing participants to connect with treatment professionals to the extent possible, because each treatment professional is a gatekeeper who may steer hundreds of recovering people into support groups every year. Thanks to Gladwell’s book, we now have a new term for such professionals; they are a kind of Connector. They have contact – weak contact, but contact – with much larger numbers of recovering people than any ordinary person has, and enlisting their support is absolutely crucial to the growth of our network. Another aspect of this point is that LifeRing convenors are themselves Connectors. The basic role of the convenor, to bring people together in recovery, is core Connector work. Effective convenors act as Connectors far beyond the limited circle of the meeting. They connect different meetings together. They connect the meetings with treatment professionals and with other healing institutions. They connect with many other forces in the larger community and mobilize those connections to grow the organization. Such convenors make a big difference in a community. A good example is Jason Kelly in Guelph. I was impressed during my recent visit by the great number of people in diverse circumstances in the town who knew Jason and whose support he had enlisted for the 2005 LifeRing Congress. With even just one such Connector/convenor in a community, LifeRing quickly becomes a real presence. In towns where our convenors are not also Connectors beyond the circle of the meeting, our network languishes.
Mavens exist in the recovery world, as everywhere else. One of Gladwell’s omissions is the fact that Mavens frequently disagree with one another, and one Maven may dispute another’s expertise. Recovery has long been a field where cacophony reigns among Mavens. It is hopeless to try to win a Maven consensus in this field. The best we can hope for at the outset is recognition and validation from at least a few. As the new kid on the block and the underdog, we have to present real achievements to win Maven endorsements. In this regard, we have the material in the Presenting LifeRing Secular Recovery booklet, we have the 300-p. Recovery By Choice workbook, and we have the 250-p. convenor’s manual, How Was Your Week. Much of this is material is Maven food. These books contain enough hard substance to pass the scrutiny of open-minded Mavens and elicit their commendation. Author William L. White, for example, is a recovery Maven par excellence. His signed endorsement for the back cover of How Was Your Week, and his co-authorship of a forthcoming journal article with an identified LifeRing spokesperson, are important Maven nods. Alan Ogborne and Ronald Warner, who spoke at our Guelph Congress, are Mavens in Canada. There are many more Mavens to reach, but we are well on our way in this area.
The growing priority at this point is to develop more and better Salesmen. I have seen one or two charismatic persuaders emerge in the past, but they had trouble selling themselves on sobriety. In our field, perhaps more than in others, you have to walk the walk in order to sell the talk. We have some relatively new convenors now coming to the fore who display the talents that Gladwell finds in great Salesmen. In order to attract such people, you have to have a product that inspires deep confidence. I’m beginning to sense that the LifeRing package is eliciting that kind of emotional investment from persuasive people. If so, we will have strength in all parts of Gladwell’s trilogy of the Influential Few. It would not hurt if LifeRing convenors were to reflect on how each of us can do a better job transmitting our positive feelings about LifeRing recovery whenever we do what Gladwell calls the dance of conversation with a newcomer. A much bigger problem for us is developing what Gladwell calls “stickiness.” He uses the word to mean retention in memory, which leads to name recognition, which translates as acceptance, and motivates action. This is related to but different from “stickiness” as used by web designers, namely the propensity of visitors to view many pages and to make many return visits to a site; and it is different also from “stickiness” in meeting attendance. Gladwell’s mnemonic stickiness may be a matter of making trivial changes in packaging and presentation, or it can involve the narrative sequence, content, and format of the message. The developers of Sesame Street, Gladwell relates, had an excellent gauge for measuring the stickiness of episodes before they aired. They would sit kids in front of a screen showing the episode, with another screen next to it that displayed rapidly changing randomly sequenced images of animals, landscapes, geometric figures, whatever. They called this device the Distractor. They tracked the kids’ eye movements between the episode and the Distractor. If the episode wooed the kids’ attention away from the Distractor less than 80 per cent of the time, it went back to the drawing board. We could use a similar device to refine our message. One reason why I encourage as many convenors as possible to stand up in front of groups and speak about LifeRing is that this multiplicity of voices acts as a sort of random mutation generator. Most of the small variations that different presenters introduce into our basic message have no deeper significance, but one of these days someone is going to hit on a phrase or an image that taps straight into the collective subconscious of a recovery-hungry culture and makes bells ring. The A and S circle diagrams that I like to use in my talks come close to achieving this kind of memory registration. I have seen audience members reproduce them almost perfectly a week afterward. I would also like to run some side-by-side comparisons of our stickiness when we use the name LifeRing Secular Recovery v. the name LifeRing Recovery in our print materials. Achieving stickiness, Gladwell advises, is an empirical quest – you have to try it out and see.
When it comes to changing the larger external conditions that affect change, there is not a great deal that we can do at this time. However, there may be some important visual cues in our immediate environment that are within our power to influence. On the walls of some meeting rooms in treatment centers, there are large posters containing the program or organizational principles of a recovery group other than our own. Never mind that this implied merger of the treatment center and the recovery group violates that group’s own professed principle of separateness from institutions. For us, the presence of these posters in the meeting room is a “broken window” that signals our second-class status. This signal invites unequal treatment for us in referrals, and inspires covert or overt bashing of the LifeRing approach in the facility where it is tolerated. Where these posters are fixed to the meeting room wall, we need to ask respectfully to have them removed. Where they are mounted on roll-up shades, we need to roll them up while we occupy the room, and if the shade mechanism is rusty or broken, the facility needs to replace it. Moreover, we need to develop our own poster-size displays and ask for wall space on a parity basis. In this regard, it may also be well for convenors to remember the importance of LifeRing door signs and directional signs. When these are missing, the Force is disturbed: a hesitant newcomer may not reach us, and six months later there is no capable new convenor to carry on the meeting. Small environmental cues, as Gladwell reminds us, can tip major long-term consequences.
In many ways, The Tipping Point is a goldmine for LifeRing convenors. Its basic thesis is one in which we, as a fledgling social movement, are deeply interested. Although Gladwell’s exposition may overlook some important constriction points in the transmission of ideas – I am thinking of factors such as the concentration of the press and electronic media, censorship, the chilling impact of terror and other violence, and the role of the institutionalized transmission of ideas in schools – the work is a fresh and stimulating read that encourages all of us little people to follow our big dreams.