|A CONVERSATION WITH...|
May 22, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: The idea that little changes can add up to big results may not rock you back in your chair, but can you explain how it works? Explaining how ideas catch on and spread in an almost organic way led to a book called "The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference." Author Malcolm Gladwell joins us now. Let's start with a tipping point: What is it? See if you can give us an example of how it works.
MALCOLM GLADWELL, Author, "The Tipping Point:" A tipping point is that moment in an epidemic when the epidemic changes state. If you think about, anecdotally, every winter when there's always a point when you look around you and everyone has the flu and no one had the flu the week before, that's because the flu has just tipped. And that's very characteristic of disease epidemics. You know, there's a moment when the AIDS epidemic tipped in the early 1980's. You can actually look on and go back and pinpoint a period of a couple of months when that disease suddenly exploded. One of the ideas of the book is that ideas and products and information and messages undergo the same kind of process -- that they can tip and explode all at once. I'm trying to figure out why that happens in "The Tipping Point."
RAY SUAREZ: So, when you looked at different kinds of things, whether a neighborhood was a hot place to live, whether a certain profession was one worthy of going into, how can you tease out the moment where it crosses that threshold and becomes the next big thing?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Mm-hmm. Well, it differs. I mean, in different cases, it's different kinds of factors that lead to a tipping point. In the first section of the book, for example, I talk a lot about word of mouth, and why do certain ideas take off through word of mouth? And there, it seems to me, that the key lies with there are a very, very small number of people with really extraordinary personalities who are responsible or are the ones who generate these kinds of word-of- mouth epidemics. In other words, if an idea... if someone with-- I call these people connectors, mavens, and salesmen. A connector, for example, is someone who has an extraordinarily large social circle. And there are people, if you... I have a little test in the book where you can sort of get a sense of who these people are. But in any group of 100 people, there's going to be one person whose social circle maybe is five or six times as large as the average in that group. If that kind of person gets a hold of an idea, because they know so many people and they have so many connections, they have fingers in so many worlds, they can single-handedly make that idea tip just because they can send it in so many directions. I'm not a very social person. I couldn't start a word-of-mouth epidemic if I tried. But one of these people can, and I actually sit down with people like this, I find them and sit down with them and try and figure out, now, in what way is this person different from the rest of us? And you get some really... a really sort of fascinating glimpse of how these little, odd-- these people are a little bit odd-- how these sort of strange, unusual personality types play a much larger-than-expected role in the movement of ideas and in sort of explaining why change happens.
RAY SUAREZ: Are some of those viruses, those ideas that act like viruses-- following the epidemic metaphor all the way-- and then subsiding, like a wave that finally breaks and releases all its energy? What's happening on that other end?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, what's happening on the other end, that's a very interesting question, because it is very... just as viruses, disease epidemics fade away at some point, so do these kinds of contagious epidemics of behavior, or... I mean, I have a whole chapter in the book, for example, on crime. And crime in big cities in America started like an epidemic in the late 60's and it ramps up very, very quickly, and it has fallen like an epidemic in the mid-90's. And the only way to understand that kind of really, really rapid rise and decline is to understand that phenomenon as an epidemic phenomenon. What's going on in some of these cases is-- in the case of something like a word-of-mouth epidemic-- it is that the kinds of people who start epidemics quickly become... they're the kinds of people who are constantly searching for the next thing. It is the nature of the sort of person who starts an epidemic that once everybody else is doing what they were doing six months ago, they're on to the next thing. They don't want to be doing what everyone else is doing. There's a kind of restlessness built in to the person, the sort of person who starts any kind of, say, word-of-mouth epidemic.
RAY SUAREZ: I read the section on crime with great interest, because while I think the reporting was right on, what interests me is how people change their behavior and their attitudes toward a place, sort of behind where the actual statistics are. A place may become safer, but people won't necessarily act like it's safer for a little while after that. It's almost like the hip sneaker becoming fashionable, or becoming more widespread and then not hip anymore.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, it's because people don't trust the change. They can see the change happening around them and they're not convinced it's permanent or real until they have more experience with it. What's interesting about the crime example to me is-- and I tried to bring this out in the book-- is that what has happened with crime in major American cities ought to cause us to fundamentally reexamine what we think about crime and what we've said about crime over the last 20 years, because we've said... we thought for so long during the 70's and 80's that crime was a permanent condition of big city life in America. It was here to stay, and all you could do was either get criminals and, you know, lock them up and throw away the key, or run to the suburbs. There was nothing you could actually do about it. It was a permanent feature. But now all of a sudden we've realized, wait a minute, crime is not a permanent feature of big city life; it's an epidemic. It came and now it left. And that, I think, necessarily changes a lot of these very unforgiving attitudes that we develop towards criminally prone neighborhoods or the disadvantage of things, need to be reexamined -- because now we realize, look, crime is not... crime is something that can be affected by relatively small changes in the environment, and it's not permanent. It's something that comes and it goes.
RAY SUAREZ: One thing you demonstrate in the book is that even if we understand how tipping points happen, how they're unleashed, we can't necessarily control when and how it happens, and you use the example of teen smoking.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Yeah, teen smoking is... I mean, the reason I spent as much time discussing that in the book as I did is that it is a fundamentally baffling problem. It's an epidemic that is raging out of control in this country right now, despite the fact that we are spending more time and effort and money trying to combat it than we've ever spent. In fact, it seems that the more we... the louder we shout against smoking, the more teens want to smoke. And that is, to me, very characteristic of what I call epidemics of self-destructive behavior, which, you know, I think Columbine falls, the whole wave of school violence is a mini version of the same kind of thing. In the book, I talk about a suicide epidemic among teens in Micronesia. Again, trying to get at this idea that among adolescent cultures there are certain behaviors that take on epidemic status and get very powerfully entrenched in the culture and defy our best efforts to try and bring them to an end. And the suggestion in that chapter is that we need to fundamentally rethink the way we attack those kinds of problems. The normal... the normal means that we use are simply not sufficient in the case of these extraordinarily entrenched teenage epidemics.
RAY SUAREZ: Have you seen a little bit of your own theories at work in the buzz that's been flitting around this book?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, yes, it has. We... you know, we started... we decided that we would adopt some of these ideas in the way we promoted the book, and so my publisher and I-- well before the book came out, back in January-- we identified, in my word-of-mouth chapter I talk a lot about mavens, the role that mavens play. Mavens are people with specialized knowledge, and they're people we rely on for recommendations. And I think that that kind of personality type is also very important in starting word of mouth. So we sat down and made a list of who we thought the book mavens were in this country, and we spent three weeks traveling from one end to the other, having lunch and dinner with book mavens and trying to say, "look, you know..." We just wanted to get them excited about the book and, you know, we bought them dinner and I gave them a copy, and I chatted about it, and then we went home again and waited for three months. And sure enough, the book from the very beginning had a kind of word-of-mouth momentum, and I think, you know, maybe in some small way we put the ideas of the book into action.
RAY SUAREZ: Malcolm Gladwell, thanks for being with us.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: Thank you.