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Gladwell Reaches a Tipping Point

michelle's picture

Due to my upbringing on an island isolated in the middle of the South Pacific, I never really got into the mainstream trends of the US. When I came to Bryn Mawr for college, I was astounded by the importance of brand names, and how one’s status could be determined simply by the car they drove, the clothes they wore and even where they went to buy groceries. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell provides great insight into how social trends take off and what factors are the most likely to influence the public’s behavior. However, from a broader standpoint, the book is about change and understanding what events trigger social change.

The Tipping Point explores number cross-disciplinary approaches to understanding social epidemics, and Gladwell sums his findings into three simple rules that can explain the socialization of behavior: “The Law of the Few”, “The Stickiness Factor” and “The Power of Context”. “The Law of the Few” explains how three important people- Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen- all collectively popularize a trend. The law takes more of a sociological standpoint on social epidemics. Mavens discover new ideas and trends because they are adamant about educating themselves in a specific field and likely to share their knowledge with others. Salesmen are highly regarded in the community and start the trends due to a natural social charisma. They are the innovators. With the help of Connectors or translators, the messages can get tweaked before being spread from one social group to another and eventually into the mainstream culture. He explains on syphilis in Baltimore was

In describing the second law, “the Stickiness Factor,” Gladwell neglects to mention what causes trends to be “sticky.” However, he explains how some things can stick better than others. The only way to determine the “Stickiness” of an item is through extensive psychological studies. He describes the application of this law in the creation of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, where the makers went through number of psychological studies with children in order to find out what “sticks”. Therefore, this law takes on a more natural science approach to behavioral changes.

The last law, “The Power of Context” explains from more of an anthropological standpoint why a trend becomes popular based on the specific context of the surroundings. He illustrates this principle with a case study showing how New York City crime was combated by changing the environment through whitewashing graffiti, fixing broken windows, etc, and not by focusing on capturing the criminals themselves. Simple environmental changes led to substantial drops in the crime rate. He also reports another study that took place at Stanford University where volunteers were asked to live in stimulation prison environment. The volunteers, who took on the roles of prison guards and prisoners, soon became unnaturally violent and the experiment had to end early due to the development of a number of psychosocial disorders.

After laying out his theories, Gladwell further applies them to a number of case studies. I found the two case studies on smoking and suicides the most interesting, as they were the most ­­­relevant to my own life. I have often told my friends that my mother pretends to be a smoker while my dad is a real smoker. My mom has had five children and quits smoking during every pregnancy and while breast-feeding. She smokes only when she remembers she’s a smoker, but goes for months sometimes without smoking simply because she does not have the urge. My father on the other hand cannot go a couple hours without smoking. He has tried everything from nicotine patches to Nicorette© gum. I was often curious as to how my father got hooked while my mother had complete control over her habit. Gladwell suggests that a certain amount of nicotine is required to form an addiction or make nicotine “stick”, and this amount varies from person to person based on their genetic make-up. Therefore, people can break their habit simply by consuming less than the “sticky” amount of nicotine. These studies explain the smoking behavior of my parents and many of my friends and also give good insight into combating the smoking habit of people I care about.

I was also intrigued by the “smoking culture”. I had no idea that smokers had higher sex drives, shorter tempers, and are more likely to tell the truth (230). However, I am not completely sure I agree with his belief that the salesmen smokers “weren’t cool because they smoke. They smoked because they were cool.” It seems to be a paradoxical statement because some smokers may begin smoking in order to mimic the behavior of the salesmen. Therefore, resultantly, the followers are highly likely to mimic their other social behaviors as well, such as being more liberal about sexual decisions. Thus, some smokers do not take on this “cool” behavior until after they began smoking.

The case study regarding suicide rates in Micronesia was the most meaningful to me as I grew up in the Marshall Islands and was born on the island of Ebeye, which he mentions in his case study. He describes the suicides as a social trend where a group of men follow a “salesman” R. However, he explains how many of the suicide victims claim that R. and all the others that followed him were haunting them and prompting them to kill themselves. This is where I was deeply troubled by his descriptions of the situation and his interpretations of the causes for the rise in suicides. He neglects to explore one of his own major principles-“The Power of Context”.

The cultural, social and economic factors are likely to be the major causes behind the suicide rates in the Marshall Islands and Micronesia at this time. I can attest to the high suicide rate as I witnessed a number of suicides myself growing up. However, I understood the causes to be a lot different from following a “salesman”. First of all, the Marshall Islands is a third-word country. During the 1960’s when the first suicide cases were reported, the US tested sixty-seven atomic bombs in the Marshall Islands radiating and killing a number of the Marshallese people. The US furthered their influence on the Marshall Islands which forced the Marshallese people to change their lifestyles. Getting food on the table no longer meant that the men went fishing or reefing. The men had to work to buy food. However, in this Western economic system, the Marshallese people were left behind. They were not educated by Western standards and were left to the blue -collared jobs. The Marshall Islands are a collective society where the extended family networks are crucial to survival and having a lot of children is important as they are a sign of wealth and help to spread out the family responsibilities. Therefore, men were not only responsible for feeding their nuclear family, they were responsible for feeding their entire family. I grew up in a small house containing over sixty people and five men were responsible for feeding all of us, paying for the children’s tuition and other basic necessities. Therefore, I believe a feeling of inadequacy and a lack of self-worth in the Marshallese men trying to make ends meet led to destructive behavior Moreover, the dismantling of the communal society due to economic pressures has destroyed the family support system. Therefore, all the dramatic changes the Marshallese people, especially the men, were forced to overcome increased alcoholism, domestic violence, teen pregnancies, and suicides significantly.

The power of context is highly important in understanding the suicides in the Marshall Islands, and although the first suicide may have had an influence of the succeeding ones, the power of context provides better insight into how to combat the issue. As we study human behavior and the meaning of life, we must try to take cross-disciplinary approach. Anthropological studies of human behavior along with psychological and sociological studies can provide a more holistic understanding of human behavior and the initiation of trends.

Reading this book shed light on an important issue that has come up over and over again throughout the course- how to simplify the study of human behavior while simultaneously being sensitive to the variability in behavior and the plethora of factors that may influence behavior. The human mind and human behavior is a vast topic that spans across a number of disciplines. That is why it can be argued that all academic disciplines are dedicated to understanding different aspects of human behavior, human functioning and the meaning of life.

All in all, I feel that Gladwell did a lot of research when writing this book and presents a number of interesting studies. His desire to include all of these interesting studies causes him to digress as he stretches to apply his theories to his findings. However, I feel that most readers, like myself, enjoy the tangents because they flowed with the piece and were presented in very conversational tone, almost like a very interesting dinner conversation. They provided good insight into behavior that the general populace witness on a daily basis, and I found myself continuously amazed by his findings. What is most convincing about his arguments is that his book is a #1 National Bestseller, suggesting he may have utilized the same principles he argues in his novel to drive his book to its own tipping point.