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"The Tipping Point" in Social Phenomena

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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"The Tipping Point" in Social Phenomena

Sylvia Ncha

How does an epidemic begin? What is that spark that causes an epidemic? "The Tipping Point" is the book that I read and the author Malcolm Gladwell tried to answer these questions. In search of answers, he looked at various social epidemics for example, the sudden resurgence of Hush puppies in the mid to late 90s and the spread of syphilis in Baltimore in the summers of 1995 and 1996. Gladwell also mentions how certain behaviors such a yawning can be emotionally contagious. Throughout the book, Gladwell reveals to the reader the power of word-of-mouth, the strong affect that a person of a certain character can have on a group of people, the affect of population size in the diffusion of responsibility in a social setting, and much more. He believes that social phenomena can be better understood by the principles of epidemiology, so ideas, behaviors, and products spread basically in the same manner as viruses do. Furthermore, to understand the sudden emergence of otherwise unpopular trends we should think of them as epidemics. The moment where behavioral changes reach epidemic proportions is what Gladwell calls the "tipping point".

Gladwell described three kinds of people who disproportionately affect social and behavioral epidemics, and from there he explains how the behavior of each type of person can get the ball rolling in any situation. For example, Connectors are people who know a lot of people and can spread an idea through any type of community; they are the ones who cause the word-of- mouth epidemics. Connectors are good at taking an idea and making it contagious. They also have a significant infectious influence on the preferences of people exposed to them. Gladwell then introduces a theory of "stickiness" that makes people who hear about a new idea actually remember it, and at some point they act or respond to the idea. He proposes that little changes in presentation of an idea can lead to a large outcome or can spark a potential epidemic. For the most part, Gladwell succeeds in getting his message across in how to cause a tipping point but in many parts of the book he goes of into a huge tangent especially when he is telling a story and he gets real into it, he just makes the great divergence into a whole new idea.

The most interesting part of this book, well at least one of them, was the infamous case of Bernhard Goetz, a white New York stockbroker who shot four young black men in 1984 on a New York subway and was later acquitted on charges of assault and attempted murder. New York City at the time was in one of the worst crime waves of its history and the subway system particularly had turned into a war zone full of garbage, graffiti, and pure chaos. This is partly the reason why in some areas of NY, Goetz was regarded as a hero. Gradually crime had dropped steeply and New York became a much safer city. To explain the reason for this, Gladwell argues in support of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's Broken Window theory.

This theory says that an environmental cue, such as a broken window, launches a message that no one is taking care of the window i.e. the property, and this is an open invitation to more serious crimes. So from this broken window theory, NY transit authorities removed all the graffiti from the trains and reprimanded fare beaters. I think Gladwell's point was that a lot of behavior in general is situational. Gladwell I think backs this idea up with another interesting example of the Zimbardo experiment at Stanford University. Here a few individuals were turned into prison guards and some were prisoners in a replicated prison setting, the purpose of this was to see how the situation would affect a person's psyche and mental state. From this experiment and from the way crime was in NY, I think it is safe to say that a given situation can definitely dictate how a person or a group of people will act, rather than actions based on their own dispositions. These situations show that stable people can become so degraded and animalistic in a short period of time given the right conditions. I found it a bit hard to tie in things that we talked about in class to this book because this book does not focus too much on the neurobiological aspects of epidemics or situational behavior; however the Zimbardo experiment reminded about the discussion we had in class on language.

We all grow up learning some language and overtime it gets harder for us to learn a second language. However, like the prison experiment, if you put someone in a situation by which all the people around them are speaking a certain language, then the person is forced to eventually pick up the new language. This seems a bit off from the Zimbardo experiment but this is how I understand it best, if you remove someone from their normal environment and put them in a new environment or situation, they will perform the necessary duties that will help them adjust best to the environment. With this idea, the way people live in prison today makes sense. It makes sense that one must join a gang in prison because if your are not in one, you are easy prey. So though you are from an outside world that did not require you to be on guard 24/7, you must now learn to be because that is what your new situation requires. This I think can be another example of the situational behavior that Gladwell refers to. People are influenced by their surroundings and the personalities around them, and we see this with the prison guards in the Zimbardo experiment.

Furthermore, "The Tipping Point" was a good account on just how much influence a person or a given situation, can lead to an epidemic or change in a person's behavior. There are many examples of how one can make a small change and in turn create a big change. Gladwell said that those people who succeed at creating social epidemics are good at testing their intuition and going past what is considered to be the norm, after all, the world does not accord with our intuition. An epidemic is successful once it is understood that great change is in fact possible.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company, New York. 2002