You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Tipping Point

Ever since I read his book Blink, I've been meaning to read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. It's an overview and analysis of social epidemics and how they spread through society.

Gladwell looks at the types of people who help ideas spread. He calls people who are charismatic and know a lot of people Connectors. They are critical in making lots of connections between people, taking ideas they like and spreading them around. Salesmen are people who excel at persuasion. Mavens are people who are experts in their fields. The special thing about Mavens is not just how much they know but how readily they impart that knowledge, and how people listen to them.

The author also talks a lot about what makes ideas sticky, and why some ideas spread and others don't. I learned all about how the creators of Sesame Street did research and testing to figure out a way to keep kids interested in the show. Some of their first ideas turned out to be bad ones, based on flawed notions of child psychology and how kids learn and watch TV.

He also discusses the context that ideas flourish in, illustrating with the heavy crime of New York in the 1970's and 1980's and the improvement of the 1990's. Lots of different incremental changes happened to make crime go down. The one he focuses on is the "broken window" effect, the influence of a broken down environment including graffiti and trash on crime. There's a real psychological effect based on how people perceive their environment and what they are used to, which affects how they are expected to act. Apparently it's much easier to be a criminal in a criminal world. (I relate this back to Plato, who constructed his idea of a Utopian society based on the question, "How can a man be just?" He claimed that a truly just man must be found in a just society.) When the subways were cleaned up in New York, and the criminals were made to understand that fare jumping and other petty crimes would not be tolerated, serious crime fell.

There's also some discussion of the concept of a hundred and fifty people being the biggest group that can function as a unit with real cohesion. This has been born out in religious communities, factories, and the military. People are more likely to know each other, and thus spread ideas, in these smaller groups.

One of the best examples of stickiness Gladwell uses is smoking tobacco. Apparently there's a limit of about five cigarettes a day for people to be casual smokers, and many don't go on to be hard core addicts who smoke a pack a day or more. There are differences in physiology that are tied to mental illness, including depression, that make one more likely to be a hard core smoker (though I think this should be fairly obvious and straightforward, as someone with an addictive or obsessive personality is more likely to be addicted or obsessive in general). However, I disagree with his suggestion of cutting the nicotine levels of cigarettes so that light smokers never get the high doses that get them addicted. I think people will just end up smoking more, though I am ready to be surprised.

There's a lot of good information here. I especially like the insight into psychology. Particularly useful is the knowledge that people are much more influenced by their environment than we like to believe. Studies have showed that the biggest factor to how someone responds to a situation is the circumstances that led up to it, not their background or beliefs. Counterintuitively, people are less likely to respond in cases of need if they believe their are others around--if no one else is responding, then there must not be a problem!

All this plays into which ideas spread, and how fast. Some of this is disheartening, but with the knowledge we should be able to understand why an idea has taken off, even if we can't predict so in advance. Sometimes the smallest things in environment can make a big change in people's thoughts, which can affect how things tip. I consider it a solid A. It's made me become more convinced of the importance of psychology and understanding how things shape the mind.


Blogger Deirdre said...

I thought Blink was really interesting, if a bit repetitive. I'm looking forward to reading this book.

3:20 PM, February 22, 2008  
Blogger Dylan Peters said...

I think I liked Blink a little better than The Tipping Point, but I don't know if that's because I read it first and it made such an impression on me. I really enjoyed the perspective of psychology in both books.

10:52 PM, February 25, 2008  

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