Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.
Three Characteristics of a Tipping Point: one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment.
I give you a large piece of paper, and I ask you to fold it over once, and then take that folded paper and fold it over again, and then again, and again, until you have refolded the original paper 50 times. How tall do you think the final stack is going to be? In answer to that question, most people will fold the sheet in their mind’s eye, and guess that the pile would be as thick as a phone book or, if they’re really courageous, they’ll say that it would be as tall as a refrigerator. But the real answer is that the height of the stack would approximate the distance to the sun. And if you folded it over one more time, the stack would be as high as the distance to the sun and back. This is an example of what in mathematics is called a geometric progression.
As human beings we have a hard time with this kind of progression, because the end result—the effect—seems far out of proportion to the cause. To appreciate the power of epidemics, we have to abandon this expectation of proportionality. We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly.
The idea of the importance of stickiness in tipping has enormous implications for the way we regard social epidemics as well. We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how to make messages more contagious—how to reach as many people as possible with our products or ideas. But the hard part of communication is often figuring out how to make sure a message doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.
We’re friends with the people we do things with, as much as we are with the people we resemble. We don’t seek out friends, in other words. We associate with the people who occupy the same small, physical spaces that we do.
Six degrees of separation doesn’t mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.
The word Maven comes from the Yiddish, and it means one who accumulates knowledge.
The fact that Mavens want to help, for no other reason than they like to help, turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention.
In a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. But there is also a select group of people—Salesmen—with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word of mouth epidemics as the other two groups.
“If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed.” ~Gau
Nonverbal cues are as or more important than verbal cues. They subtle circumstances surrounding how we say things may matter more than what we say.
When two people talk, they don’t just fall into physical and aural harmony. They also engage in what is called motor mimicry. If you show people pictures of a smiling face or a frowning face, they’ll smile or frown back, although perhaps only in muscular changes so fleeting that they can only be captured with electronic sensors.
Emotion is contagious. In a way, this is perfectly intuitive. All of us have had our spirits picked up by being around somebody in a good mood.
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.
“Broken Windows” was the brainchild of the criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crime.
Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), 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 circumstances and context.
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.
Most of human evolution took place before the advent of agriculture when men lived in small groups, on a face to face basis. As a result human biology has evolved as an adaptive mechanism to conditions that have largely ceased to exist. Man evolved to feel strongly about few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time; and these are still the dimensions of life that are important to him.
At a bigger size you have to impose complicated hierarchies and rules and regulations and formal measures to try to command loyalty and cohesion. But below 150, Dunbar argues, it is possible to achieve the same goals informally: “At this size, orders can be implemented and unruly behavior controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct man to man contacts. With larger groups, this becomes impossible.”
“When each person has group acknowledged responsibility for particular tasks and facts, greater efficiency is inevitable,” Wegner says. “Each domain is handled by the fewest capable of doing so, and responsibility for the domains is continuous over time rather than intermittently assigned by circumstance.”
All kinds of high tech products fail, never making it beyond the Early Adopters, because the companies that make them can’t find a way to transform an idea that makes perfect sense to an Early Adopter into one that makes perfect sense to a member of the Early Majority.
Most of us believe that we are like our parents because of some combination of genes and, more important, of nurture—that parents, to a large extent, raise us in their own image. But if that is the case, if nurture matters so much, then why did the adopted kids no resemble their adoptive parents at all? The Colorado study isn’t’ saying that genes explain everything and that environment doesn’t matte. On the contrary, all of the results strongly suggest that our environment plays as big—if not bigger—a role as heredity in shaping personality and intelligence. What it is saying is that whatever that environmental influence is, it doesn’t have a lot to do with parents. It’s something else, and what Judith Harris argues is that that something else is the influence of peers.
Nicotine appears to do exactly the same thing with the other two key neurotransmitters—dopamine and norepinephrine. Those smokers who are depressed, in short, are essentially using tobacco as a cheap way of treating their own depression, of boosting the level of brain chemicals they need to function normally.
What we should be doing instead of fighting experimentation is making sure that experimentation doesn’t have serious consequences.
Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas. (See “Essentialism” and why we should reduce the clutter in our lives.)
A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history, Band Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band Aid Solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost. We have, of course, an instinctive disdain for this kind of solution because there is something in all of us that feels that true answers to problems have to be comprehensive, that there is virtue in the dogged and indiscriminate application of effort, that slow and steady should win the race.
The world—much as we want it to—does not accord with our intuition.
Merely by manipulating the size of a group, we can dramatically improve its receptivity to new ideas. By tinkering with the presentation of information, we can significantly improve its stickiness. Simply by finding and reaching those few special people who hold so much social power, we can shape the course of social epidemics. In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at th world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.