Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Tipping Point

For those of us who want to facilitate change toward sustainability the idea is to find the point of leverage where a small effort can create a big change in behaviour. According to the latest research, one underestimated and underemployed lever is our perception of what other people do in our neighbourhood and community. We think we do things because of the kind of person we are, but much behaviour is contagious. If we see others doing something in a certain situation, we are more likely to act in the same way.

“When it comes to interpreting other people's behaviour, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context.” So writes Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. The Premise behind Gladwell's book is that while the world might seem like an “immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.”

According to Gladwell, the key to finding tipping points is to see social change as like an epidemic. Social behaviour is contagious, and there is always a minority of people who seem to have an inordinate influence on shaping new social trends, just as there are certain people who contribute more than their share in disease epidemics because they are great social mixers.

For instance, teenage suicide is a good example of a contagious behaviour. When one charismatic teenager in Micronesia committed suicide, a rash of similar suicides erupted in these islands over the months and years that followed. There is evidence that when a prominent suicide is featured in major newspapers, the rate of suicide temporarily increases afterwards.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell features James Q Wilson's and George Kelling's “Broken Windows Theory of Crime” as a prominent example of epidemic behaviour. If a window is broken and left un-repaired, then people walking by will assume no-one cares and no-one is in charge. This sends a signal that anything goes, which encourages criminal behaviour.

In the 1970's and 80's a crime wave swept the inner cities of America. In New York, the subway system became dysfunctional as graffiti, litter, fare-jumping, public disorder, and muggings increased dramatically. In the the late 1980's and early 1990's the New York Transit Authority hired David Gunn and William Bratton, both disciples of George Kelling, and his broken windows theory of crime. Subway cars were kept clean, graffiti was painted over, and fare jumpers were prosecuted. They believed that graffiti, and fare beating were small expressions of disorder that invited much more serious crimes. Bratton went on to become head of the NYPD, where he applied the same strategies to the city at large. The result was a dramatic decline in serious crime in New York by the late 1990's.

Following from the idea that social change is like an epidemic, Gladwell lists three guidelines for finding tipping points They are: “The Law of the Few”, “Stickiness”, and “The power of context”.

“The Law of the Few”, states that certain kinds of people are critical in spreading information. These are people that can manage to take new innovations and translate them into something that the rest of us can understand. They often cultivate large circles of friends and are up on all the latest information. Gladwell calls them “Connectors”, “Mavens” and “Salesmen”.

While contagion is a function of the messenger's behaviour, “stickiness” is a function of the message. Messages that have stickiness are messages that are memorable and that move us to action. By tinkering with the presentation of messages we can significantly improve their stickiness. Gladwell goes into some detail to show how by progressively honing the message through continually testing on preschool audiences, the makers of the children's TV shows – Sesame Street and Blue's Clues were able to get and keep the audience's attention and promote learning.

The Power of Context is essentially a generalized version of the broken windows theory. “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places they occur.” “ We are more than just sensitive to changes in context,” says Gladwell, “we are acutely sensitive.” “The power of context says what really matters are little things... It is possible to be a better person on a clean street or in a clean subway than in one littered with trash and graffiti."

Hence the potential power of such programs as Communities In Bloom and Civic Pride. If people in Prince Rupert participate together to clean up and beautify their property - clean up litter, plant flowers, cut down weeds, and do some landscaping, they feel pride in having a cleaner city and pride in having contributed. Neighbours are inspired to clean up their yards Social trust increases and more and more people are willing to pitch in and cooperate in other public projects. A better looking city stimulates tourism and discourages crime. The small effect of a group of people cleaning up their yards can have big effects on their city. That's the idea behind “The Tipping Point”. Major positive change can come about from small changes in people's behaviour because behaviour is contagious.

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