Monday, August 1, 2011

Book Review

Review of The Tipping Point, By Malcolm Gladwell

The external environment is a commodity we take for granted through our experience of everyday life. The people we know and the places we visit all play their unique role in influencing our behavior. Stopping to analyze our environment brings clarity to the impact everyday interactions can have on the choices we make and perceptions we hold. Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a New York Times best-selling author. His work specifically enriches topics in psychology and social psychology. In his book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell offers an exceptional view of the interaction between our mind and our external environment. He uses simple examples to explain why some ideas skyrocket to unimaginable heights and others fizzle like a bad 4th of July fireworks finale.

Gladwell introduces the reader to three factors that help ideas reach a point of rapid growth. They are (1) the law of a few, (2) the stickiness factor, and (3) the power of context. He makes it clear that there is not an absolute way for an epidemic to occur, suggesting that the book is not a how-to guide to influencing behavior change. First, he describes the law of a few. This principal states that very few people can be responsible for a large outcome. To demonstrate, Gladwell uses the mid-90s syphilis epidemic in the city of Baltimore. Research showed that residents from just two neighborhoods, who frequented the same local bars and drug corners each weekend, were responsible for a massive spread of the disease.

Next, Gladwell tells the reader about the “stickiness factor”. A message that is sticky does not just go in one ear and out the other. A message becomes sticky when recalled frequently and long after initial exposure to the message. Many slogans from marketing campaigns come to mind when thinking about stickiness. The example Gladwell (2002) provides is from Winston Cigarettes, and their motto, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should” (p. 25).

The final element introduced is called the power of context. One would expect that a person would make the same choice in any given situation, but research repeatedly demonstrates differently. Gladwell uses an example of people reporting an emergency. When people encounter an emergency alone, they are far more likely to report it than when they are with someone else, or in a group.

In his introductory chapter, Gladwell does a fantastic job setting up the reader for a journey exploring social epidemics. From the start, one of Gladwell’s strengths is using very diverse examples to make his points. Even without psychology background, a reader is captivated, and immediately begins to ponder the application of knowledge from the book to his or her own career. Gladwell continues by telling us the people delivering a message are as important, or sometimes more important, than the message itself. So called, “special people”, is what The Law of a Few is centralized around. Specifically, there are three types of unique individuals. They are known as connectors, mavens, and salesmen.

A connector is someone who is non-judging in nature. Connectors usually have weak social ties with many people. They are satisfied just knowing a little bit about you and not wanting, or needing, to know any more. Connectors are great at bringing people together because they are typically involved in many different activities and get satisfaction from introducing people to each other. Connectors are essential to beginning word of mouth epidemics. Gladwell uses the example of Paul Revere’s midnight ride as an example of how powerful word of mouth epidemics can be. He insists, because Revere was involved in many different social circles, he was precisely the right man for beginning a rally that would eventually lead to a revolutionary war and the independence of America.

The second type of unique personality is known as a maven. Mavens are people who find satisfaction in passing information along to others. Mavens are tuned-in to a specific market. Whether it is culture, travel, or consumer goods, mavens are connoisseurs and passionate about their interests. Mavens are great negotiators; they make compelling arguments that are difficult to resist. For example, when a food maven tells people about a particular new restaurant, they are far more likely to become patrons simply based on who made the recommendation.

The third type of unique person, Gladwell calls a salesmen, has a natural knack for persuasion. A salesman presents him or herself with charisma and confidence. Salesmen are capable of lighting up a room just by walking in. They have the ability to change the emotional state of others around them through subtle, non-verbal cues. To demonstrate the power of non-verbal cues, Gladwell provides evidence that suggests simple physical movements, such as a head nod, can influence an individuals’ perception. Messages are perceived as positive when accompanied by a vertical head nod, and negative if accompanied by a side-to-side head nod.

When describing these unique personalities, Gladwell presents very colorful, convincing information. He implies that these people are essential to quickly passing along information. The strength of his argument is the attention given to word-of-mouth epidemics. If an idea is going to catch on, people need to know about it. However, I found Gladwells’ notion that these people just “are who they are”, and the rest of us are perhaps “normal” to be a weakness. The theory of expertise suggests that with enough practice, and development, anyone can become an expert at a certain skill. The same should be true about becoming a connector, maven, or salesmen. Each of us is capable of fulfilling these three social roles, however, one of the three personalities might just come to us more naturally. Another factor I found to be a weakness was his statement, “The one thing that a maven is not is a persuader” (Gladwell, 2002, p. 69). It is true that persuasion is not the goal of the maven, like it might be for the salesmen. However, the maven is a persuader in a nonchalant way; the maven persuades others through voice inflection, passionate enthusiasm, and just plain being knowledgeable. It might be argued that a maven is more of a persuader than a salesman, because many people tend to take his, or her, advice.

For an epidemic to take off, the delivery of the message has to be just right. If a message is memorable, the perceived importance of that message is increased. In order to make this point clear, Gladwell uses examples from children’s television programs. Television programs are successful when they receive high ratings, in other words, when many people view the program. Gladwell discusses the success of Sesame Street and Blues Clues. Writers of these programs have identified a few important things that make children television show sticky. Writers know stories make sense for young children. Storytelling, either fiction or non-fiction, is the basis for all children’s television. Repetition is a key element of stickiness for children. Blues Clues plays the same episode five days in a row. Gladwell explains, this is because each time children watch a show they view it differently than the time before. It is as if they are watching it for the first time, and they derive the same satisfaction from the experience. In sports, we should follow this model and structure our training and practice time to include fundamental activities every day. Timing is also very important in television. If a segment is too long, children become distracted; too short, and the stories do not make sense. Sesame Street and Blues Clues have been successful because they have balanced each of these elements to create highly sticky programs.

A strong point Gladwell makes is the connection to motivation. Messages become sticky when they are committed to memory, and memory is enhanced when a person feels a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These three needs play essential roles in a theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory. Gladwell also points out how individual perception is responsible for forming memories. The content is very similar to that found in another book called, Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. Gladwell also does a fine job outlining the learning process his section on stickiness. However, an aspect I considered to be a weakness was that he focused so much on stickiness in children. Gladwell made very little mention of stickiness research in teen, or adult, populations, or even if the learning process is the same? Fortunately, when Gladwell later introduces a case study about the Airwalk Shoe Company, he revisits this topic and fills in some of the blanks.

You now know that both the person delivering the message and the message itself are important to influencing behavior. Another important element influencing behavior is the environment in which a message is presented. Gladwell calls this the power of context. He uses an example of toll skipping on the New York City subway. This petty crime was rarely policed which lead to vandalizing, which lead to drug trafficking, which eventually lead to an increased rate of violent crime. People stopped riding the subway, because they were afraid. If you let the little things go a strong message is sent, and people accept it as the norm. As you can see, this mentality has a snowball effect. In order to alter behavior in a positive way, it is important to create a situational environment that supports a favorable outcome.

Adding context to a situation includes more than just the interaction with our surroundings; it includes the interaction with others in our surroundings. Being able to influence other people is an important part of epidemics and a major means of creating change. Earlier I pointed out that people react differently when they are placed in different social situations. Peer pressure and social norms often take precedent over individual perception. Gladwell suggests that this is because a salesman is most likely included in the group. To further explain peer pressure, Gladwell discusses the effect of group size on individual behavior. He explains that when a group grows beyond 150 members there is a loss of personal pride and personal connection within the group. Gladwell sites specific examples from history that use the same logic including, military units and nomadic tribes of Austrailia and Greenland. The logic is based around peer pressure. In smaller groups peer pressure to perform well is very high, and this force becomes much more powerful than a boss telling someone what to do.

Gladwell nicely combines all of the elements that influence behavior. He pulls together how influences from individual perception, our surrounding environment, and others within that environment affect our behavior. Speaking about group size and culture is very reminiscent of theories in sport psychology such as, group dynamics and organization. The section also drew upon thoughts from a book by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom called, The Starfish and The Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. Their book also explains how social pressure in a flat business structure has a greater motivating influence than in a typical hierarchy structure. Another strength of this book is Gladwell’s discussion of how a persons’ character is a dynamic set of traits, which become more or less prominent depending on the environment they are in. We all own many masks and wear a different one depending on the situation, and which character we want to portray to the world around us.

To summarize, The Tipping Point acknowledges the details that make significant alterations to our behavior. Gladwell writes about social epidemics by combining research facts with easy to understand language, suitable for a non-academic audience. For a teacher, business manager, or coach The Tipping Point is more useful as a motivational tool, which points out the possibility of behavior change, than it is a literal how-to guide to influence change.

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