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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Food for thought from “The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell:
     Sub-title:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

from the frontpiece:
  • “A wonderful page-turner about a wonderfully offbeat study of that little-understood phenomenon, the social epidemic.” – Daily Telegraph
  • “An elegant exploration of how social epidemics work, whether they are fashion trends, diseases, or behavior patterns such as crime ...” – Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
  • “Genuinely fascinating and frequently startling ... It’s the kind of book from which you’ll be regaling your friends with intriguing snippets for weeks to come, in addition to being, potentially, a powerful, practical tool for anyone with an idea to peddle or a campaign to promote.” – Scotland on Sunday (UK)

The point of all this is to answer two simple questions that lie at the heart of what we would all like to accomplish as educators, parents, marketers, business people, and policymakers.  Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don’t?  And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?

And when an epidemic tips, when it is jolted out of equilibrium, it tips because something has happened, some change has occurred in one (or two or three) of those areas.  These three agents of change I call the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

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. . . 56 percent of those he talked to found their job through personal connection.  Another 18.8 percent used formal means – advertisements, headhunters – and roughly 20 percent applied directly.  This much is not surprising; the best way to get in the door is through a personal contact.  But, curiously, Granovetter found that of those personal connections, the majority were “weak ties.”  Of those who used a contact to find a job, only 16.7 percent saw that contact “often” and 55.6 percent saw their contact only “occasionally”.  Twenty-eight percent saw the contact “rarely.”  People weren’t getting their jobs through their friends.  They were getting them through their acquaintances.

[kids watching television, specifically Sesame Street  and  Blue’s Clues] Kids don’t watch when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored.  They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused.  If you are in the business of educational television, this is a critical difference.
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His point is simply that there are certain times and places and conditions when much of that can be swept away, that there are instances where you can take normal people from good schools and happy families and good neighborhoods and powerfully affect their behavior merely by changing the immediate details of their situation.

The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information.  Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context.

Character, then, isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be.  It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized.  Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context.  The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.
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There is a concept in cognitive psychology called the channel capacity, which refers to the amount of space in our brain for certain kinds of information.

As human beings, in other words, we can only handle so much information at once.  Once we pass a certain boundary, we become overwhelmed.  What I’m describing here is an intellectual capacity – our ability to process raw information.  But if you think about it, we clearly have a channel capacity for feelings as well.

Perhaps the most interesting natural limit, however, is what might be called our social channel capacity.

Humans socialize in the largest groups of all primates because we are the only animals with brains large enough to handle the complexities of that social arrangement.

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.  Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited ... if you happened to bump into them ...
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This is the first lesson of the Tipping Point.  Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas.

The theory of Tipping Points requires, however, that we reframe the way we think about the world.

The world – much as we want it to – does not accord with our intuition.  This is the second lesson.

What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.  This, too, contradicts come of the most ingrained assumptions we hold about ourselves and each other.  We like to think of ourselves as autonomous and inner-directed, that who we are and how we act is something permanently set by our genes and our temperament.

We are actually powerfully influenced by our surroundings, our immediate context, and the personalities of those around us.
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