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Epidemic Proportions

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point, finds that epidemics come in many shapes and sizes

March 29, 2000

In recent years, perhaps no magazine writer has been as reliably unpredictable in his choice of subject matter as The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell has taken on such topics as risk theory; the precipitous drop in New York City's crime rate during the past decade; a grandmother in Chicago who seems to know everybody; hair dye and the world of advertising; the potential demise of blockbuster books; and revisionist theories of early childhood development. Now Gladwell has tied many of these apparently disparate topics together in his first book, The Tipping Point, the subtitle of which -- "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" -- concisely sums up what seems to motivate him as a writer.

In The Tipping Point, which he describes as "an intellectual adventure story," Gladwell suggests that his eclectic collection of subjects and themes are all related by the notion, borrowed from epidemiology, that "ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do." This is not an entirely novel idea, especially within the academic world, but Gladwell has written his book for a general readership, and the scope of his musings makes it clear just how broadly applicable the idea is. All questions of theory aside, of course, Gladwell must be hoping that the idea applies in a very practical manner to the world of publishing, and that sales of The Tipping Point will soon reach epidemic levels.

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Gladwell lives in New York City. Toby Lester recently interviewed him for Atlantic Unbound.

Malcolm Gladwell    

What do you mean by a "tipping point"?

A tipping point is that moment in an epidemic when it reaches a critical mass; it's the point on the curve when the epidemic starts to take off. The AIDS epidemic tipped in a matter of months in the early 1980s. The flu tips each year -- there's a week every winter when everybody suddenly has it. One of the characteristics of epidemics is that there's this moment when they take off. I think that's a very useful metaphor to describe some social phenomena.

How exact a parallel can one draw between medical and social epidemics?

In medical epidemics you don't have much choice at all. All you can do, really, is avoid certain behaviors. In social epidemics you have more choice, obviously, but one of the things I'm interested in is the way in which we tend to overestimate our autonomy in certain kinds of social situations. But the principal difference between medical and social epidemics is that you can intervene in medical epidemics quite precisely. With social epidemics that's a lot harder to do.

One of the virtues of applying the epidemic model to social phenomena is that it restores the mysteries and complexities of human behavior; to understand social phenomena as epidemics is to mystify them rather than to render them transparent. To me, the principal flaw of the old models of behavior is that they were far too simplistic; they suggested that human behavior was a lot easier to manipulate than it actually is.

I kept expecting the word "meme" to pop up in the course of this book. Did you deliberately avoid it?

I did, but it might have been a mistake, if only because a lot of people have expected me to talk about it. The meme theory, which is based on a biological model, says that ideas are like genes, and that successful ideas behave like successful genes -- they do whatever they have to in order to replicate themselves. People become nothing more than hosts. I don't have any real problem with the concept -- I think it's a useful metaphor -- but I don't think it goes far enough.

I use an epidemiological model rather than a biological model. That may seem like a subtle difference, but it's an important one, because epidemiology -- as opposed to memetics -- is profoundly interested in culture. Epidemiologists are only partially, and in some cases trivially, interested in the actual agent of disease. They're usually much more interested in the cultural circumstances in which an epidemic is taking place.

For example, if you try to understand the HIV epidemic, you're of course interested in the nature of the virus, but you also need to consider the fact that the epidemic is a function of attitudes toward sexuality, a function of homophobia, a function of the American inner city, a function of the social and economic isolation of minority groups. An understanding of the epidemic, in other words, requires an understanding of its cultural context, and that requires a multidisciplinary approach to thinking about it. I find that approach much more interesting and much more sophisticated than simply thinking about ideas as genes trying to replicate themselves. What interests me are the fascinating questions of how culture affects behavior.

From The Atlantic's archives:

"The AIDS Exception: Privacy Vs. Public Health," by Chandler Burr, (June 1997)
It's time to stop granting "civil rights" to HIV -- and to confront AIDS with more of the traditional tools of public health.

Who's a person who has had a remarkably large effect on social behavior in a relatively short time?

A significant example is the death of the basketball player Len Bias, which caused teenage cocaine use to tip down remarkably. That was clearly a turning point. It's hard, though, to think of too many famous people who've had this effect. The really important people usually aren't famous, or even well-known. Here's an example that I bring up often. My restaurant choices in Manhattan are fundamentally controlled by my friend Ariel, and I suspect that all of Ariel's friends have their choices fundamentally controlled by her. I've actually been to restaurants recommended to me by Ariel and seen other friends of hers eating there. This suggests to me that the success and failure of restaurants in Manhattan is determined to a surprising degree by people like Ariel, and I don't think that there are really that many of these people. I'd even go so far as to say that Ariel herself plays a huge role in the success and failure of restaurants in downtown Manhattan. Now, she doesn't receive any public recognition for her role, and in fact it didn't even occur to me to think about her as an influence until I sat down and made a list of all the restaurants I had been to and then realized how many of them she had recommended. That's the kind of model of covert social influence and personalized information flow that interests me a great deal.

You talk at some length in your book about "stickiness" -- that is, the notion that certain ideas lodge in our brains and stay there. What would you say are some of the stickiest ideas around today?

The classic example of stickiness today is Pokemon, which I find utterly fascinating for two reasons. Pokemon has stayed around a lot longer than, say, Cabbage Patch dolls, which were a fad. Pokemon is like a complete culture; the level of knowledge that a seven-year-old can have about the world of Pokemon is phenomenal. Somehow that world with all of its details manages to insinuate itself into the brains of pre-adolescents. The amount of learning kids do in Pokemon is amazing. It's a reminder of what awesome learning machines pre-adolescents are, and also of just how social learning is. The other wonderful thing about Pokemon is that it's not top-down: adults aren't sitting down and teaching this stuff to kids. Kids are learning it from each other.

The other sticky thing that's going on these days, tragically, is that we are experiencing a minor epidemic of school violence. There is something about the notion of acting out frustrations with guns in the school setting that has captured the imagination of certain disturbed kids. Clearly, this behavior means something, although I don't quite know what it is. But it reminds me of the suicide epidemic in Micronesia that I mention in the book. Not too long ago Micronesia was swept by a wave of suicide among teenage boys. This is a part of the world that went from having no problems whatsoever with suicide to having the worst suicide problem in the world, all within a couple of years. It involved nobody but teenage boys, who would all commit suicide in the same way, under the same circumstances, in exact mimicry of one another. Weirdly, suicide became for those boys the most articulate way of communicating a kind of social shame and frustration, and the act itself became a kind of proxy for language. The same thing is going on in American schools: these kids are using shootings to say something, and what they're expressing is a complicated set of emotions. Teens always have angst, obviously, but in Micronesia suddenly suicide became the way that the angst was articulated. In this country right now it's school shootings. In both cases, a contagious and sticky idea has taken hold of people.

The emergence of religious movements is probably the perfect example of a social epidemic, isn't it?

The great innovation of many religions was the creation of small cells of believers. That was crucial to making ideas stick. One of the things that fascinates me about the rise of Methodism is the role played by John Wesley, the movement's founder and the one responsible for its extraordinary spread. His travel schedule was phenomenal: he basically spent forty years on a horse, going around and infecting people with the idea of Methodism and then -- importantly -- creating small groups that kept the infection alive. Wesley's ability to spend day after day on a horse is central to understanding the spread of Methodism in the nineteenth century. And that in turn is an example of the larger idea that you need to have someone who has some exceptional connecting ability at the center of any epidemic.

Can you give a couple of examples of people who have intentionally tipped social behavior in a certain direction?

Crime in New York is a very important example. I don't think that the people who set to work cleaning up the subway ever in their wildest dreams imagined that they'd have the kind of influence that they did. They based their work on James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's "Broken Windows" theory -- which is just a version, really, of a tipping-point argument -- and they decided that what they had to focus on was graffiti and turnstyle jumping, and a reduction in crime would follow. That was not an intuitive move at all. They were setting out to engineer an end to a major behavioral epidemic -- crime on the subway -- by focusing on what were considered to be little things.

I had a long conversation with David Gunn, the guy who was the head of the MTA at the time. He was under incredible pressure -- everyone kept asking, "Why are you spending all this time on removing graffiti?" The list of the problems on the subway in the mid 1980s was endless. People were saying, "This is ridiculous: we've got this out-of-control situation and you're spending all your time and energy removing graffiti." It's actually really hard to remove graffiti from the subway, both because there are so many trains and because the kids were just coming back every night to paint the trains again. Logistically, the cleanup operation was incredibly complex, but to his enormous credit, Gunn stuck with it. The project took five years, and he had to stare down the critics during that whole time. But you know what? He was right. Crime went down. A change in the context led to a change in behavior.

In the book you give a wonderful example of the power of context: the experiment done on the seminarians.

Oh, yes. There was a study done at a seminary in the 1970s, in which seminarians were told to prepare a religious paper that they then were supposed to deliver as a speech in a conference hall in a nearby building. The architects of the experiment made sure that as the seminarians were walking to the conference hall they would pass a man writhing on the ground in pain. The question was, Who would stop and help? The experiment was set up with three variables. First, all of the seminarians were given a questionnaire asking them why they had gone into the ministry. Was it to help people? Was it for spiritual and intellectual stimulation? Second, some seminarians were told to prepare their paper on the story of the Good Samaritan, and to make it the subject of their speech. Finally, some of the seminarians were told that they had to hurry, that they only had a very limited amount of time before they had to give their speech; others were told that they had a lot of time. The question was, Which variable would be most important in determining who would stop to help the man writhing on the ground?

The seminarians' stated reasons for being in the ministry didn't seem to have much impact on their behavior as they passed the man writhing on the ground. Whether they had just studied the story of the Good Samaritan had no impact. The only thing that really seemed to matter was whether the seminarians were in a hurry: those who were didn't stop. To me that's just a wonderful example of how important our immediate context is in determining our behavior. I'm sure these seminarians were all very kind, thoughtful, generous people, but the point of the story is that there are certain contextual conditions in which all of those intrinsic personality traits can be thwarted. To me, there's a powerful lesson there, which can be applied to the control of problems like crime -- namely, that there are conditions that can allow people to express their better side. Maybe what has happened in a lot of our inner cities is the equivalent of the seminarians' having been told to hurry: situations have been created that cause people to act like jerks.

What have you thought of the book's reception so far?

Most of the reviews have been positive, but in a couple I thought the reviewers failed to see the fun in the book, and instead treated it like a serious work of scholarship. There was a review in The New Republic, for example, in which Cass Sunstein accused me of discussing an incomplete theory, and the implication was that I hadn't made a real contribution to the academic literature. Now, I'm truly flattered by the fact that Cass Sunstein is writing five thousand words about my book -- he's a giant in his field -- but I'm not sure this book should have been reviewed by somebody like him. He's not the intended audience. I'm trying to reach a general readership that has probably never come across these ideas before.

This is an important issue. The non-academic population suffers, I think, because so little of what goes on in academia is ever made accessible to it. I see my role as a writer to act as a kind of translator between the academic and non-academic worlds. There's just all sorts of fantastic stuff out there, but there's not nearly enough time and attention paid to that act of translation. Most people leave college in their early twenties, and that ends their exposure to the academic world. To me that's a tragedy. So what I'm trying to do in this book is to package a lot of the wonderful work that has gone on in the worlds of psychology and sociology and epidemiology, and to present it to people who would otherwise never encounter it.

The power of this sort of thing hit home recently, when I was out on my book tour. In the book I talk about "transactive" memory -- the idea that one of the places that we store a lot of the information in our memory is in other people. According to this theory, memory is a social construct: we store important pieces of it in our friends and our co-workers and so forth. This is part of a scholarly theory put forth by Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. There's an observation that he makes that I just find extraordinary: he says that one of the reasons that divorce is so painful is that in divorce each party is literally losing a portion of their mind, because if you live with somebody for a number of years, your memory and your emotions and so on are stored in your partner. When you break up a marriage, you literally break up a mind. The responses I've had from people about that insight have been amazing. I can't tell you how many people have told me that when they read that their own divorce finally made sense. I felt happy that I had been able to take a theory from inside the academic world, where it had been read by perhaps five thousand people, and bring it to a much larger audience, on whom it had a positive effect.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Toby Lester, formerly an editor at The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound, is now the editor of Country Journal.

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