The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.
— Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

During the top half of this weekend, I read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference by Malcom Gladwell, recommended to me by a friend. The most important thing I learned from it is that I have the brain of a child.

In Chapter 3, Gladwell discusses the 'stickiness factor', which is essentially that special something that makes certain epidemics - media, illness, fashion - stick in a world increasingly inundated with too many things vying for our attention, consumption or physical energy. Gladwell uses the children's shows Sesame Street and Blue's Clues to articulate this factor's phenomenon. In one example, an experiment performed by Elizabeth Lorch and Dan Anderson, professionals from Amherst College and University of Massachusetts respectively, it was found that two groups of children - one sat in front of Sesame Street with no distractions and the other with toys in the room - remembered and understood the same amount of information from the show. This is because kids are able to strategically tune in to what was informative while simultaneously doing something else. To all my previous professors, friends and managers, I told you I was listening!*

Overall, the book was a fun read. It reminded me of every textbook I ever read during my undergraduate degree in Communication Studies at The University of Texas, Austin (which got a few shout outs in this book, hey-o!). I forgot how much I loved learning and applying these communication theories, such as the ones presented here on how ideas spread. I remember being in classes like Theories of Persuasion, Lying and Deception, Interpersonal Romantic Relationships, Interpersonal Communication Skills, Interpersonal Health Communication, etc., thinking about how equipped I would be for the real world. I'm living proof, right? (Ha. Hahaha.)

Anyway, Gladwell covers two other rules besides the stickiness factor that help tip certain things over to Mega-ness. One is the 'Law of the Few', in that there are people out there with real superpowers - to connect, to maven (if maven were a verb) and to persuade - that really make all the difference in spreading the word / disease / trend necessary to make a historic impact. Connectors know lots and lots of people, mavens know lots and lots of information and persuaders know lots and lots of subtle, emotional tricks. I am none of the above, not regularly enough to earn the title, but I appreciate the value of all.

The final rule is about the underlying power of context. Making small adjustments to any environment or context might be the thing that tips a situation one way or another. A familiar example was that of the broken window theory. This theory posits that if there is a broken window in a neighborhood, it is a sign that upkeep and maintenance is not of importance to the area. If small vandalism is ignored, perhaps bigger crimes will too be ignored. It is no wonder that the housing crisis in Baltimore in the 80s and 90s took place along the same timeline as the spread of HIV and the rise in the use of crack cocaine. In HBO's show, The Wire, they actually used the city of Baltimore because it worked, raw as it was, to create the necessary context for the show.

I mentioned this theory to a few colleagues at work recently, wanted to tip it (ha) over and put forward a positive possibility for our upcoming Cancer City Challenge. Could evidence of new technologies for cancer diagnosis, treatment and care, such as radiology centers or treatment facilities, strengthen a country's readiness to engage in cancer control, help to debunk myths and misconceptions around cancer and persuade more and more people to go for regular check-ups and screenings? I would like to think so.

Gladwell then goes on to explore a few specific examples where all of these rules work together to cause an epidemic - the marketability of a sports shoe, the prevalence of smoking in teens, the recurring male teen suicides in Micronesia. Its biggest message was that, at a time when we are more exposed to information, isolation and immunity, word of mouth has more power than ever before. These rules - the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context - are increasingly relevant. In my own work, certainly, I hope I can be part of the thinking that tips the global cancer burden toward a downward trend. Where to begin, though, I am not quite sure. The problem with Gladwell's book is that the conclusion to each chapter is always, "Yeah, there's a tipping point, you just need to find it." Ah, the illusive 'it,' whatever it might be. Friends / connectors / mavens / persuaders, any ideas?

There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.
— Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

*Okay, so that isn't the entirety of it. Findings from that study showed that the children looked when it made sense, and looked away when it was too confusing.