When Malcolm Gladwell’s book first came out it had a massive impact on those trying to understand cultural changes.The premise of this book is a desire to explain sudden massive changes in human behaviour. It’s not that one big thing changes but lots of people make a small change which results in a change of epidemic proportions.
In order to define this Gladwell comes up with the 3 rules of epidemics. He looks at the American shoe brand Hush Puppies which went from 30 000 sales to 430, 000 in the space of a year. The brand’s attractiveness spread like an epidemic and the turning (tipping point) from falling to rising sales came between 1994 and 1995. The change seemed to be the result of some key trendsetters making it cool and then the brand was being picked up by the fashion media, taking it to the masses.
When he explores crime figures in poor parts of New York the figures show that within a 5-year period in the 1990’s murders dropped 64% and total crimes by almost 50%. Although many economists and criminologists would say the fall was down to rising economic conditions, decline of the drug trade and an ageing population, none of these changes are enough to explain the dramatic change in crime. He asserts that lots of small changes eventually made a huge difference. These little things involved cleaning up the city physically and making it clear that previously ignored low level crimes (on subways, street corners,) would not be tolerated. Eventually people felt safer and less vulnerable to crime which made them more confident and more likely to report criminal activity as they now believed someone would take it seriously. It’s an explanation that sees crime influenced more by the environment than the individual. There are cultural thinkers who disagree with Gladwell’s analysis of that time.
Gladwell sees epidemic changes as being:
(ii) little changes can have a big effort
(iii) change happens dramatically not gradually
This third point is what he calls ‘the tipping point’ which tries to explain how a trend can change direction quite suddenly
So what 3 rules govern this tipping point? Gladwell’s research has led him to believe that these are:
1 the law of the few (connectors, mavens and salesmen)
2.the stickiness factor
3.the power of context.
Gladwell uses Stanley Milgram’s 1960’s experiment to illustrate. In the experiment Milgram recruited 160 strangers to get a package to one particular man in Boston he found that most people achieved this in around 6 steps (through six people). This led to the idea of 6 degrees of separation. Surprisingly 50% of these random strangers were sent their package via 3 individuals. These 3 people are what Gladwell calls connectors, they know a wide range of people, belong to many niches and bring different people together.
So whilst connectors help to spread the message Gladwell turns his attention to the message itself. For these he uses the Yiddish word maven: mavens are people who accumulate knowledge. They absorb information about different places, prices and products and want to share it with others.
Finally he identifies salesmen as those who persuade us of the importance of the message. Through various examples he shows how we can be persuaded through nonverbal cues.
His third rule is the stickiness factor. He uses this to explain that the message needs to stick to persuade us to do something differently.
Gladwell makes use of Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment which showed how assigning regular people to the roles of prisoners and guards had a massive impact on their behaviour and their feelings. Changing ones situation can have a dramatic impact. This is how context relates to epidemics.
Think of how you decided on the last place you visited or the last thing you bought, whose words encouraged you to make that choice?