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Social Epidemics

Lauren McD's picture


      What sets off a new social trend in the adolescent population? What makes one television show more popular than another? What causes crime rates to drop so rapidly? How does any new social epidemic spread throughout the country? In The Tipping Point, these questions are explored, discovering plausible answers that are often counterintuitive. Through a plethora of different examples, Malcolm Gladwell describes the three crucial aspects of a social epidemic: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. (1) These rules help us view social epidemics with structure, and help explain the reasons why some ideas ‘tip’ over others.

      Out of the three aspects, I found the Law of the Few and the Power of Context the most interesting. The Stickiness Factor is somewhat predictable; it states that the physical content of the message is critical to whether or not it will spread, and that presentation hugely affects its ‘stickiness.’ (1) The Law of the Few is a more enlightening view that says there are certain people, called Connectors, Senders, and Mavens, who are more responsible for sending a message than other people. Connectors are particularly social and are a part of many different groups of people. (1) There have been rumors that every person can be connected to any other person through a maximum of six people. After reading this book, this ‘rumor’ solely based in truth is further clarified. Gladwell explains that most of these connections are linked through a select group of people. People are able to be connected to each other because certain people are connected to a lot of different people. (1) This was originally discovered in an experiment asking random people in Nebraska to send on a message through acquaintances ultimately to some stranger in Boston. The letters rarely travelled through more than six hands, and a few select people in the chains passed on a multitude of letters. (2)

      No one really thinks about the Connectors in their individual lives; once I read this section of the book, I began to identify my own Connectors. Further exploring the Law of the Few will help people identify the Connectors in their lives, and perhaps strive to become one. This example of the Law of the Few made me question my own role in spreading messages. Certainly the portrayal of a Connector does not describe my life, but I felt as if being a Connector should be my own responsibility. Maybe informing people about the role that some people already play in tipping ideas will encourage them to broaden their social networks.

      The Power of Context is another interesting aspect of a social epidemic. Gladwell says that the abrupt drop in crime in New York City in the 90’s was not due to morality spreading through the crime population. Instead, the change was based on the local government taking the initiative to ‘clean up’ the city. (1) The Broken Window theory states that if a criminal sees a broken window, he interprets it as a symbol of a lack of authority. Therefore, he will be more likely to commit a crime. If you see someone commit a ‘sin,’ you are given a subconscious ‘permission’ to commit the sin as well. “…[seeing crime] gives other people, particularly those vulnerable to suggestion because of immaturity or mental illness, permission to engage in a deviant act as well.” (1) If a city consists of dirty streets and run-down buildings, it sends the message that crime exists. (1) A criminal will be much less likely to stand out amongst the crowd. The Power of Context is somewhat intimidating because it suggests that we don’t have complete, conscious control over our actions. Instead, our behavior is subconsciously altered by the area we find ourselves in. Perhaps the best way to discourage crime is to take the resources already being spent through rehabilitation programs and put it to better use: improving the aesthetics of crime concentrated areas.

      It is an absolutely incredible idea that people will stop committing crimes merely if the area looks nice. However, it does make logical sense, especially when Gladwell explains the Power of Context in a manner more people can relate to. We are different when placed in different situations. I think most people know they act differently around different people or in different environments. However, Gladwell says that most people describe others with single adjectives, even though those people may act differently at other times. “[Character] isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits…. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent … on circumstance and context.” (1) This makes it easier to decide if you like someone enough to see them again, or to describe him to other people. (1) Learning of the Power of Context will hopefully encourage people to become conscious of the many sides of people that are not initially apparent. People aren’t any single adjective, but instead a pattern of different behaviors in different situations. Optimistically, this idea will force people to slow down before making conclusions on other people’s personalities.

      The Tipping Point mostly discusses interacting, social behavior, which is not a topic that we covered to a great extent in class. Class discussions focused more on the individual and the nervous system. Gladwell certainly does not delve into the world of biology in his discussions, preferring to remain in the realm of psychology. However, the issues raised in this book can still relate to some of the topics we did discuss in class. In the beginning of the year, we spent a lot of time coming to the conclusion that multiple responses can be generated from one input. The simple idea of an input generating a predictable output cannot explain the complexities of human behavior. The nervous system is composed of ‘boxes’ that are interconnected by cables. Differences in behavior are attributed to differences in the connections between neurons; the signals only have meaning through the cables. This can help explain how Connectors are different from the majority of the population. Connectors have different connections in their brains that allow their behavior to interact with more people from different social circles. The behavior of Connectors is partly explained by genes, and partly by prior experience. These people have different patterns of behavior that are responsible for spreading social epidemics.

      One of the other main topics that we explored in class was the novel idea of the ‘I’ function. The ‘I’ function begins development directly after birth. (3) It is the function that we use to identify ourselves and what makes us different from others. It is how we view ourselves. In our original class discussions, I had always expected the ‘I’ function was a set list of ideas and memories. Gladwell’s idea of how people act differently in different situations further defines the ‘I’ function’s definition. Gladwell suggests that the ‘I’ function is not a set description; instead it is a collection of different descriptions that we gather from knowing ourselves in different contexts. While of course we can always identify ourselves, sometimes our behavior can waver off the chart of our normality. Furthermore, our ‘I’ function is constantly being redefined as we find ourselves in new situations each day. We also have to remember that other people’s ‘I’ functions are not as straightforward as we may want them to be. We can never fully understand the ‘I’ function of anyone but ourselves, and we can therefore never truly know anyone else. It is important to keep in mind that no matter how well we think we might understand another ‘I’ function, people can always surprise us.

      I fully enjoyed reading The Tipping Point because of the new ideas Gladwell developed that help explain everyday situations. I most enjoyed his specific examples because they were extremely relevant to his points and could relate to anyone. Looking back, I probably would have chosen a book that related more to our class discussions; I would have benefitted more from further expanding the paths of knowledge we started in class. I enjoy the biological aspect of human behavior more so than the psychological aspect, which is mostly what Gladwell focused on. However, The Tipping Point was still enlightening, and I believe myself and the general public could certainly benefit from understanding social epidemics to a greater degree. I will never simply accept a new trend without understanding the reasons for its spreading due to Gladwell’s interpretive thinking.



1) Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000.

2) Milgram, S., Travers, J. "An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem." Sociometry 32.4 (1969): 425-443. 4 May 2010. <>

3) Varadian, Beth. "Boundaries of the I-Function in Twins." Serendip (1999): 4 May 2010. </exchange/node/2043>