Tipping Point

Review of the Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
This book discusses the phenomenon of social epidemics – how they are started, how they take off, and how they reach the tipping point so that they are subscribed to by the majority. Malcolm Gladwell suggests that there are 3 laws that work together to create an epidemic:

1) Law of the few – there three groups of exceptional people out there, 1) ones who are interconnected (Connectors), 2) ones who have lots of information and love sharing that information (Mavens) and 3) ones who are very good at convincing others (Salesmen). These people are vital to the transmission of a new idea. For a new idea to take off, you need groups of these people on board.

New ideas are adopted at different rates by different people. He categorizes people as follows:
• Innovators
• Early Adopters
• Early Majority
• Late Majority
• Laggards

Innovators and early adopters are visionaries and risk takers. They may be the “cool kids”, they may be activists. Many ideas fail to take off because they cannot be translated from this eclectic group to the mainstream of the early majority. You need those special people – Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen – to translate the radical ideas that have been embraced by the innovators, and tweak them and repackage them in a way that the majority can understand. Not only do these special people transmit the message, they send it in the language of the majority.

2) Law of Stickiness – the idea has to be memorable and resonate with people. It has to appeal to them on a deeper level. This can be done by “tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of the idea” (pg 131), and packaging it in such a way to make it irresistible.

3) Law of Context – the situation surrounding a new idea has an impact on whether it will take hold. Ideas hold better in smaller community groups, preferably under 150 people, where everyone knows everyone else. “In order to create on contagious movement, you have to create many small movements first” (pg 192). Also, people are better at looking at complex thoughts when rephrased in the social context. Finally, a new idea will not take hold until the environment is ripe for that idea to take hold.

“Starting an epidemic requires concentrating resources on a few key resources” (pg 255) because small changes to who is delivering the message, how the message is framed, and the context surrounding the message can have a large impact on the success of adoption by the majority. Small changes on the margin are important.

In the end, you must have a belief that people can radically change, with the right kind of impetus.

Application to Climate Change
So can we apply these principals to create a social epidemic relating to action on climate change?

1) Exceptional People
First of all we need those Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople on our side. These are the exceptional people that rapidly translate ideas in a way that the majority can understand. If you are not one of these people, then you must find them, or hope that your message finds them so that they can pass it on. I have often thought that involving celebrity culture may be the ticket, since so much of North America is drawn into that. However, we all know people who know a lot of other people, who are connected, or are natural sales people. If they embrace our message, there is no telling what could happen.

2) A Sticky Message
The environmental dilemma is in itself, is a very sticky idea, as we are talking about the survival of life here on our planet. However, many people either believe that:
• The idea of climate change is a hoax
• There is nothing they can do about it anyway (what difference can one person make)
• If they don’t think about it, then they can convince themselves that it is not real.

How can you increase the stickiness of the idea for these people? For those that think it is a hoax, I am not sure what will change their mind. They probably will only listen and consider information from sources close to them that they trust. This may or may not be you.

For those who think the problem is too big and they will have no impact, remind them that all they have to do is openly live a lower impact life, with less carbon, less garbage, less consumption. Their family and friends will take notice, some will be inspired. The ripple will continue. People who are in denial might start to question themselves, when they see a friend making environmental changes. Also, everyone can vote with the environment as their number one issue. You can send letters to politicians, emails even. We can engage in the political process more than every 4 years people!

Some people may want to do these things, but then not follow through. They are busy and care about other things that have more of their immediate attention, such as providing for their families, and managing their jobs.

But a lot of this stuff is not more work. It is simply making different choices. Stickiness would be increased by showcasing how easy it is.

The idea must also include the human condition, and more personally, how it will impact your family, your children. It must include the message that we must do it for the children. What mother or father or grandparent does not want to secure a sustainable future for their children? This is very sticky indeed.

The idea must be phrased to include some humor. The humor draws people in, so that they can be entertained while being informed. Doom and gloom will probably not draw them in. Most of the people we want to draw in know about the doom and gloom, but are in denial. So lighten it up a bit.

Framing the idea around high tech solutions for use by the everyday person will also increase stickiness among the younger generation. This could include personal applications or devices that they could use to monitor or reduce their carbon footprint, their water footprint, their garbage footprint, their plastic footprint…

The idea has to include urgency, as we really don’t have much more time to wait. Everyone is aware of the problem, but most don’t really know the severity and how much little time left we really do have.

The idea must resonate with hope. Without hope, there is no impetus for change. We have to be optimistic.

3) Context Ripe for Change
Are we finally ready to change? That is the big question. We were definitely not ready 10 years ago. Now however, it seems like there is daily news on developments and setbacks related to the environment, so the information is out there. Most North Americans probably don’t want to change their heavily consumptive lifestyles, but might be willing to buy a hybrid car next time, just to follow a trend. They might live in a large house and commute a long time in a car to work, but would be willing to support caps on emissions as long as it did not reduce jobs. Or would they?

It really comes down to this – whether people individually believe that a vote for the environment will negatively affect the current economic condition in their own family. Some people don’t believe that it will – that we can make up for the downturn in fossil fuels by an increase in green collar jobs. Some people think it will impact the economy and don’t care, they will vote for the environment because they see the bigger picture. Others will never give up something of theirs for the greater good. They especially won’t do this if they don’t believe in climate change.

Let’s face it – people are scared of the impact the environment is going to have on jobs. It is hard for people to get their minds wrapped around what a green economy would look like. People are scared, so they just say no.

Maybe they have to be more scared about climate change than about economic change for this thing to work. However we have already been told that the “doom and gloom” tactics don’t work. So what to do?

In short, we have to assume the context is ripe for change, as we really don’t have much more time to wait.

What caused me to change? It was a sequence of exposures to the idea, over and over, that caused me to get to my tipping point. The ideas became stickier with each repetition. I watched a few documentaries on the idea, and that got me voting for the Green Party. However, I did not really change the way I was living or talk too much about it with other people or engage in political discussions. Then I read the book, Now or Never by Tim Flannery which really had an impact on me and forever changed how I see this issue. However, I am not sure that I would have tipped if I did not have children; that was my context. The future scares me. I love my children so deeply that I felt that I had no choice but to try and do my part to make the Earth a good place for them to live.

I believe that the only way people who are not yet convinced to join us early adopters, is to hear it from us directly. They probably won’t listen to the next documentary, or listen to the next news issue on the environment. They will probably change the channel because they don’t believe it, don’t want to believe it, or don’t believe they can make a difference anyway.
They may listen to their neighbour though, or see what their co-worker is doing and take pause. They might hear their daughter talking about it over Christmas dinner, and what was at first dismissed, is now mulled over with deeper reflection. If they have young children or grandchildren, they might stop for a minute and think about the world they will be inheriting.

That is why we all need to deliver a sticky message. We all need to provide it through living as an example. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. We must deliver our message with sincerity, with humour, with urgency and yes, with hope.


10 thoughts on “Tipping Point

  1. Thanks so much for this summary! It’s an interesting way to view the problem and perhaps how to go about fixing it. Alas, I’m pretty sure that I’m neither a connector nor a salesman, and don’t have enough science under my belt to be a maven. (Any room for thoughtful introverts?) Good idea about the doom and gloom. I need to keep that one in mind!

    • Alas, I don’t think I am a connector or a salesman, either. I would also describe myself as a introvert! However I find that I am pushing myself in social situations to casually talk about the issues more. Casually. I don’t want to look like a nut and have them automatically dismiss me. I can also see myself becoming more of a maven… not scientifically, but in a practical way. Maybe I can be a good source of information for changes people can make in their everyday life. Maybe I can give them some ideas, just casually tossed in here and there. That really, is the whole reason for my blog. Everyday changes for everyday people.

  2. I’ve been meaning to read Malcolm Gladwell for a while, Sherry, so thanks for this summary; it’s thought-provoking.
    I find it helpful to focus on doing what I can do, to the best of my ability on this issue. I have run across deniers, but the people I find most disturbing are the ones who have given up, especially if they are parents. Communicating hope is SO important as we spread the message that it’s time to face this crisis head on. For the sake of our children and grandchildren.

  3. On the theme of hope – the book that turned this issue around for me is “The Geography of Hope” by Chris Turner, a Calgary-based journalist. I can’t recommend it highly enough – he spends a year traveling around the globe seeing where people/communities are already “getting it right” on the issue of sustainability. He was inspired to do this after the birth of his daughter.

    • Christine – I read a review on that book on Amazon a month ago, but could not remember the name or author. Thanks for reminding me! The review on Amazon included this passage from the book, which really struck a cord with me:

      “It makes me positively ache in places I didn’t know I had until [my daughter] was born that I can’t make her any promises,” Turner writes. “I can’t even tell her with any confidence that there is a future with sufficient durability to serve as a drawing board for her lifelong dreams. There’s a legitimate possibility that she’ll face calamity on a scale I can’t imagine, on a scale beyond anything humanity’s ever seen. This is a prospect that makes it hard to think, makes my vision cross with angry, impotent tears. It terrifies me.”

      This is exactly how I feel – cross with angry, impotent tears!

      • Let me know what you think after you’ve read it – like I said, that book was one of the pivotal experiences I had in the last few years that galvanized me into action. Before, I felt hopeless and impotent, too (I still do some days…:)

  4. Sherry, Thanks so much for this great, in-depth review and your own perspective on applying it to climate change. I might consider myself a maven, though ultimately I see myself as simply a thoughtful introvert. The criticism and dis-interest of others really quashes my motivation to talk about the things I know. For all thoughtful introverts, I think it’s really important for like-minded people to come together, discuss the issues, and build community. We aren’t going to create a mini-movement by staying as thoughtful introverts.

    I’ve realized in making connections with people, that it’s not about the number of people, it’s about their role. Connecting with people of diverse skillsets is really important.

    Repeatedly exposing people to sustainable lifestyle behaviors would help create stickiness. Reusable bags are more fashionable now because they’ve been promoted so much. But, like you said, that’s just an isolated incident for one behavior.

    I want to say a change in mindset, a collective awakening to the human condition and our relationship with nature, is the best momentum for cultivating sustainable lifestyles. It sounds big, heavy, almost impossible. But if, in general cultural terms, it was cool to care about the earth and how we as humans were impacting it, then it seems it would be much easier to incorporate behavior changes.

    • Lynn – you are right, it needs to be “cool” to protect the Earth, and to be part of our cultural fabric, to get this off the ground. On the bright side, I have found that the “millennial” generation has a more community-based and earth-friendly conscience, more so than in my generation. Perhaps the ones after that will be even better (I am already instilling with my kids an appreciation for the beauty of Mother Earth). The problem is that we don’t have too much time left for all this generational eco-maturity to happen. What will it take? I keep coming back to the young people, since they are not so set in their ways and perhaps more open for change. All we can do is to keep delivering our message and hope it reaches the right people for this thing to “tip”. I find that knowing that there are others out there like you that think like me, very motivating. So thank you!

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