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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.1 (2001) 139-142
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The Tipping Point
The Tipping Point. By Malcolm Gladwell. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. Pp. 279. $24.95.
In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen attacked a central assumption of 19th-century political economy: that autonomous and rational consumers would enter the marketplace to make independent choices. Working from Lewis Morgan's and Franz Boas's anthropological studies of emulative behavior, he argued that what appear to be individual decisions are in reality deeply shaped by the behavior of others. In this sense, Veblen is an unacknowledged precursor of the ideas explored by Malcolm Gladwell in this book.
Gladwell, a staff writer on the New Yorker, believes that social phenomena [End Page 139] can be explained by the principles of epidemiology: ideas, products, and behaviors spread in essentially the same way as viruses, and to understand the emergence of otherwise bewildering trends we should think of them as epidemics. He acknowledges that this is by no means a new idea, and the book claims to be nothing more than a synthesis of existing studies, with lively contemporary examples.
The social scientific application of epidemiological methods began in mathematical sociology during the 1970s, with attempts to model racial re-segregation in suburban America. These studies investigated how a gradual increase in the number of African-American families in a community would eventually trigger a much faster influx and a corresponding incidence of so-called "white flight." Though Gladwell doesn't mention it, at around the same time natural scientists also began to take an interest in the transmission of behavior-changing ideas and trends, most notably in the field of memetics pioneered by the zoologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976).
In Gladwell's terms, a social epidemic occurs when a relatively small change in the behavior of only a few people induces similar behavioral change in others, in geometrically increasing numbers. The moment at which the behavior change reaches epidemic proportions is the "tipping point." Gladwell's impressively eclectic catalogue of examples range from the spectacular revival of Hush Puppies in the mid-1990s to the alarming proliferation of teen suicides in Micronesia over the past two decades. The ambitious purpose of the book is to explain to a general readership how such sudden changes take place, and to suggest strategies of intervention to stimulate positive trends and ameliorate negative ones.
There are, according to Gladwell, three components to a social epidemic. First, there is the "Law of the Few." In social--as in viral--epidemics, some people will contribute disproportionately to the spread of a "contagion" because of the nature and frequency of their social interactions. Unusually sociable, knowledgeable, or persuasive people will simply exercise a disproportionate influence over the rest of society. The second component is the "Stickiness Factor." The content of the message transmitted by the Few must be "sticky," or durable, as in the case of the successful children's television shows "Sesame Street" and "Blue's Clues," both of which drew on studies in child psychology to devise new ways of holding their viewers' attention. The third component, the "Power of Context," is the environmental dimension to the argument, according to which our behavior is largely a function of time and place. This is to say that in everyday life we all unconsciously take cues from our surroundings. We are far less autonomous in our decision-making than we commonly understand: the context in which we operate produces alterations in our internal mental states that make some modes of behavior more likely than others. Consequently, our behavior should change with transformations of setting. It is this emphasis on environment that places The [End Page 140] Tipping Point closer to epidemiology than to memetics. It is the crux of the argument and the apparent genesis of the author's interest in the subject.
In June 1996 Gladwell wrote an outstanding New Yorker article on the spectacular drop in the New York City crime rate, a result which he attributed to Commissioner Bratton's...