Small Things Make A Big Difference

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March 2000


Small Things Make A Big Difference

An Unintended Primer for Political Activists

By Timothy Noah


The Tipping Point

By Malcolm Gladwell
Little Brown

Click on the title to buy the book

In 1966, Robert Kennedy gave the speech in South Africa that included his now-famous statement about the improbably large changes for the good brought about through individual bravery and idealism. "Each time a man stands up for an ideal," Kennedy said, "or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance." Not only can, but in the case of South Africa, did, just one generation later.

But how? How were Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and others able to defeat apartheid? Why have their counterparts in China and North Korea failed to defeat communism? And why have their counterparts in Russia and Eastern Europe been successful in defeating communism? Malcolm Gladwell, the author of this gem of a book, would say that events in South Africa, Russia, and Eastern Europe reached a "tipping point," while events in China and North Korea did not.

Gladwell, a talented staff writer for The New Yorker who began his career writing for conservative publications like The American Spectator, is not the sort of person who's burning to change the world. There is, in fact, nothing in Gladwell's book about turning the tides of history or throwing off the shackles of oppression, and quite a lot about how to devise a successful children's television show or sell a new brand of sneaker. Even when Gladwell writes about emotional issues like teenage suicide, he does so with a detachment that can seem other-worldly. Nonetheless, The Tipping Point could well prove to be an influential text for political activists.

Gladwell's book is built around the theory that ideas, trends, habits, and other kinds of social behavior spread much the same way that infectious diseases do. This idea is not a new one. Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, coined the term "meme" (from the Greek "mimesis," which means "to imitate") to describe the non-biological mechanism by which certain behavioral patterns spread through the human race. What genes do through reproduction, memes do through imitation. Aaron Lynch, in his 1996 book, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, elaborated on Dawkins' idea and demonstrated the ways that memes for such various things as parenting strategies, religious convictions, sexual habits, and political beliefs replicate themselves. In Lynch's view, people don't acquire ideas so much as "ideas acquire people."

One particularly compelling example Lynch cites is the seemingly irrational taboo regarding teenage masturbation. As Charles Peters recently observed in these pages, it's one of the most efficient ways for young people to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Yet when promoted, especially within the political realm, it draws snickers at best and strong moral disapproval at worst. Why? According to Lynch, the taboo is self-perpetuating: People who have no other outlet for their sexual urges will likely marry young, have many children, and then teach these children that masturbation is wrong. People who masturbate, however, will likely stay single longer and do other "immoral" things like have premarital sex using birth control. The downside to separating the pleasures of sex from the necessities of procreation, in other words, is that you end up spreading your memes to fewer offspring.

Where Dawkins and Lynch described, on a fairly abstract level, the march of memes from one generation to the next, Gladwell describes, much more concretely, how particular behavior patterns spread within a few months or years. According to Gladwell, behavioral patterns (he doesn't actually call them "memes") don't change gradually; they change quite suddenly when a small but critical number of strategically-placed converts reaches a tipping point.

The "tipping point" term was first used by social scientists to describe the number of black families moving into a predominantly white neighborhood that it takes to trigger "white flight"--i.e., a mass exodus of white families that effectively resegregates the neighborhood, this time as predominantly black. But it can also be used to describe more favorable trends--for example, the point at which a few, seemingly symbolic policing policies in New York City (such as a crackdown on subway farebeaters) triggered a massive decline in murders and other violent crimes. And it can also be used to describe trends that are neither particularly good nor particularly bad, like the revival of Hush Puppies as a popular shoe brand in the early 1990s.

In Gladwell's scheme, behavior patterns are transmitted by "mavens" (experts), "salesmen" (people who go to unusual lengths to persuade others to do a certain thing) and "connectors" (people who have an unusually large number of social contacts with whom they swap information). Gladwell's example of a classic "connector" is a woman named Lois Weisberg who is Chicago's commissioner of cultural affairs. By Gladwell's count, Weisberg is connected to eight disparate subcultures: the worlds of actors, writers, doctors, lawyers, park-loving conservationists, politicians, railroad buffs, and flea market aficionados. This places her at the axis of an amazing number of people. An example of her extraordinary reach is that even though I live in Washington, not Chicago, and am not especially sociable, I myself know at least half-a-dozen people who know her. (Her son Jacob is a friend and Slate colleague.)

To demonstrate the historical impact connectors can have, Gladwell cites Paul Revere. It's well known that Revere's midnight ride in 1775 alerted the people of Boston and its environs to the imminent British attack, and helped the colonial militia defeat the British at Concord. Less well known is that a tanner named William Dawes simultaneously tried to spread the word through an alternate route, but that the towns he rode through failed to rally in any significant numbers against the British. The reason, Gladwell theorizes, is that Dawes didn't know the right people to contact--that is to say, he didn't know the key people who would activate participation the next day by lots of other people. Dawes, according to Gladwell, was just an ordinary guy, whereas Revere, an intensely social person, was "the Lois Weisberg of his day." (As this example shows, Gladwell has a gift for making his points with great economy and humor.)

Simply communicating information, however, doesn't necessarily create an epidemic. Another crucially important factor, according to Gladwell, is "stickiness." By this Gladwell means that the information has to be compelling. Inherent worth helps, of course; in the example of Revere's ride, there was obviously great interest in the impending invasion. But gimmicks can work too. Gladwell tells the story of a hugely "sticky" direct marketing campaign launched in the 1970s for the Columbia Record Club by a man named Lester Wunderman. Wunderman took out TV ads in the wee hours of the morning directing viewers to look up print ads for the club in certain publications. If a viewer found a little gold box on the coupon in the ad, he got a free record. Even though the TV ads reached a small audience, and even though the gold box gambit was, as Gladwell puts it, "a really cheesy idea," and even though (as Gladwell is too polite to point out) the Columbia Record Club is probably a pain in the ass to belong to, the campaign got lots of people to examine print ads for the club, which in turn got huge numbers of people to sign up. It was, in a word, "sticky."

The final component of Gladwell's scheme is context. One of Gladwell's more intriguing examples of context is the story of Kitty Genovese, a young woman in Queens who was stabbed to death in 1964. The story is a famous example of urban horror because it later came out that 38 neighbors watched the stabbing from their windows, but none called the police. As articulated at the time by Abe Rosenthal (then the Times city editor) and others, the presumed lesson was that big-city life makes people monstrously insensitive. But Gladwell cites a study by two New York City psychologists to argue that, in fact, the problem was that the eyewitnesses were too acutely sensitive to what was going on. Each eyewitness was aware not only that Genovese was being stabbed, but that many others were watching the horrific scene; each assumed one of the other eyewitnesses would alert the authorities. "The lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that 38 heard her scream," Gladwell sums up pithily. "It's that no one called because 38 people heard her scream. Ironically, had she been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived."

Gladwell writes early on that the big change-the-world question his eclectic research raises is: "What can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?" This question is what makes Gladwell's book of great interest to political activists. Of course, trying to figure out the dynamics of an epidemic after the fact, though far from easy, is a lot easier than figuring them out before the epidemic occurs. (Baby boom readers will recall the public health scare in 1976 surrounding an anticipated "swine flu epidemic" that proved a dud.)

Gladwell's one feint in the direction of do-gooderism is a chapter where he recommends that the government stop funding anti-smoking ads aimed at keeping teens away from cigarettes, and instead focus on developing and distributing cigarettes with lower levels of nicotine and drugs like Zyban that could help addicts kick the nicotine habit. (Another interesting idea along these lines that Gladwell doesn't mention is forwarded by John Slade of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Slade says: Take out the tar, the stuff that makes cigarettes deadly in the first place. Then who cares how addictive they are?) Gladwell is a little too dismissive of the idea that public-service announcements can work: They were sufficiently effective in the late '60s that cigarette companies voluntarily pulled their own TV ads just to make the public service spots go away. Remember the coughing cowboy ad--where a Marlboro Man knock-off strode into a saloon, six-shooters at the ready, and dissolved into a seizure of hacking? Gladwell may well be right that his tactics would be more effective, but one senses in this part of the book something largely absent from the rest--an ideological distaste for certain categories of behavior-changing efforts (in this instance, one that smacks too much of ambitious government regulation).

Overall, though, and in spite of the fact that Gladwell's no liberal, The Tipping Point delivers a message that could help revitalize liberalism. The feeling is widespread that government action aimed at solving big problems is futile. But the thrust of Gladwell's book is that seemingly small gestures can have fantastically large and rapid outcomes. Mightn't government programs--strategically conceived and executed--constitute the sort of leverage he's talking about? Even though Gladwell doesn't have much to say about that in his important and compelling book, many others who are inspired by Robert Kennedy's famous words likely will.

Timothy Noah, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, writes Slate's "Chatterbox" column. You can email him by clicking here

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