Monday, June 04, 2007

04:42 The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell

I borrowed this book – what, three years ago? – from someone at work. Then I quit my job and had no desire to see the person from whom I borrowed the book, so I kept it, unintentionally stealing. Then, as fate would have it, I ended up being rehired at my old job as a temp (I didn’t make enough to be considered a “consultant”). Earlier this year when I decided I was going to quit my job for a second time, I was determined to read and return The Tipping Point before I left. I’m a big fan of closure, though obviously not a big fan of that job.

Why do some phenomena become ubiquitous in the culture, whereas others die a quick death? This is the guiding question in The Tipping Point but you get the sense that Gladwell’s answers could fit on a PowerPoint presentation: he classifies people who carry new ideas as Connectors, Mavens, or Salesman; outlines a “Stickiness Factor,” and the “Power of Context,” all of which explain (or are imposed on) such disparate phenomena as sneaker popularity, venereal disease epidemics, and teenage smoking.

I remember the article in The New Yorker in which Gladwell first articulated his ideas. He used the example of cars parked on a street in an unsafe neighborhood. A number of cars are parked on the same street, similar with respect to price, condition, and age. But if you noticeably damage one of them (for example, cracking the windshield), then that car alone would then be preyed on and further vandalized within a few days, sometimes even hours. All factors were equal save the broken windshield, “the tipping point,” the one extra nudge that would let people in the area know that this car could be damaged without repercussions. This theory, “little things mean a lot,” was behind Giuliani’s crackdown on crime in New York City in the 1990s. Remove the atmosphere that forgives minor crimes and you’ll remove the atmosphere that permits major crime. We may not be able to prevent crimes like murder, but we can stop the small noticeable crimes (graffiti, panhandling) that let people to think they live in a society that ignores all crimes.

Like many books written by journalists, The Tipping Point reads like a series of previously published articles re-written and edited to fit a theme. Gladwell does write well and is able to discuss scientific or sociological studies without wallowing in jargon. The proof offered for his theories ranges from “Sesame Street” to Paul Revere’s ride and seems chosen less for applicability than for the fact that he finds them interesting. As did I. The “Stickiness Factor” and the Connectors aren’t as engaging as the history of “Sesame Street.” For example, before the show aired, child psychiatrists insisted that the Muppets be kept separate from the scenes with live actors because children wouldn’t accept the interaction between fantasy and realistic figures. When they tested the show with children, the kids lost interest as soon as the Muppets were off screen. The producers decided to try an episode in which Muppets and humans mixed. This time, the children’s attention rated higher than it did for either the Muppets of the humans alone, and they never had any trouble with the mixing of fantasy and realism. Makes one wonder what else child psychiatrists have gotten so wrong.

What was most satisfying about The Tipping Point was that it supported two pet theories of mine:

1. The human mind is formed and formatted by narrative, not by language.
Child development experts, psychologists and neurologists have argued that language, initially spoken, then written, is the source of connections in the human mind. Learning language is what sparks growth in our brains as children and it is how our brains are thereafter conditioned. Other factors can be important (images, music) but language is primary.

Doesn’t ring true to me and never has.

I have long believed that it is narrative, little stories, cause and effect, that structures a child’s brain, and remains the underlying way in which they think as they get older. Yes, we use language to express and understand narrative, but narrative is what’s primary, not language. Before children can understand words, they experience life as a simple story, cause and effect: I was hungry, I cried, I got fed. A story with a happy ending. As we grow, the stories become more complex as our brains develop and our understanding of the world increases. Language develops in response to our brains’ growth and its ability to handle more complex narratives.

I’ve never done the requisite research to prove this – I wouldn’t even know where to begin – and I think I’ve only discussed this idea once or twice with others (while a little drunk, no doubt). However, on page 119, Gladwell writes:

The project centered on a two-year-old girl from New Haven called Emily, whose parents – both university professors – began to notice that before their daughter went to sleep at night she talked to herself. Curious, they put a small microcassette recorder in her crib and, several nights a week, for the next fifteen months, recorded both the conversations they had with Emily as they put her to bed and the conversations she had with herself before she fell asleep. The transcripts – 122 in all – were then analyzed by a group of linguists and psychologists led by Katherine Nelson of Harvard University. What they found was that Emily’s conversations with herself were more advanced than her conversations with her parents. In fact, they were significantly more advanced. One member of the team that met to discuss the Emily tapes, Carol Fleisher Feldman, later wrote:

“In general, her speech to herself is so much richer and more complex [than her speech to adults] that it has made all of us, as students of language development, begin to wonder whether the picture of language acquisition offered in the literature to date does not underrepresent the actual patterns of the linguistic knowledge of the young child. For once the lights are out and her parents leave the room, Emily reveals a stunning mastery of language forms we would never have suspected from her [everyday] speech.”

Feldman was referring to things like vocabulary and grammar and – most important – the structure of Emily’s monologues. She was making up stories, narratives, that explained and organized the things that happened to her.

Emily is making up stories to make sense of the world around her, and to entertain herself before she goes to sleep. The story is primary; language is merely the tool to express it. This reminds me of my own experience as a child. Language and words were not that important to me or any of the children I knew. But stories were. Not only as entertainment, but as a way of processing and passing on information and solving the mystery of the world into which we are born.

2. Individual psychology is overrated; group psychology is underrated.
For a while, I’ve been interested in what I think of as group dynamics: the way that people assume roles when in a group, modifying their personalities or behavior based on how best to fit in or what they think the group needs. Consequently, I see individual psychology as only significant when an individual is alone, and how often is that? Otherwise you have to take the group dynamics into account when discussing someone’s personality or actions. In other words, personality is not fixed and rigid, but depends on context.

This idea came from observing people act differently depending on who they are with. When I was younger I judged this as hypocrisy; now I accept it as human. I recall a few years after college seeing a group of friends and being annoyed at how they kept treating me as the person I was rather than who I thought I had become. The irony was that, under their influence, I began acting like that person again, reverting to my old self. At the time I thought “This isn’t who I am anymore. Why am I behaving this way?” My answer was to attribute it to the power of group dynamics. Gladwell would call it the power of context.

To demonstrate this, Gladwell writes about a study conducted by Hugh Hartshorne and M. A. May in the 1920s to measure the honesty of children using several kinds of SAT-type tests. I won’t go into the details of the study, but the results did show consistent patterns, though not as consistent as one might think. The researchers concluded that most children

Will deceive in certain situations and not in others. Lying, cheating, and stealing as measured by the test situations used in these studies are only very loosely related. Even cheating in the classroom is rather highly specific, for a child may cheat on an arithmetic test and not on a spelling test, etc. Whether a child will practice deceit in any given situation depends in part on his intelligence, age, home background, and the like and in part on the nature of the situation itself and his particular relation to it. (from Hartshorne and May)

Gladwell continues:

This, I realize, seems wildly counterintuitive…All of us, when it comes to personality, naturally think in terms of absolutes: that a person is a certain way or is not a certain way. But what…Hartshorne and May are suggesting is that this is a mistake, that when we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situations, we’re deceiving ourselves about the real causes of human behavior…

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 circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.

So it’s not just group dynamics that determines an individual’s behavior, but everything about a situation. It was acutely painful for me when I believed in consistent individual psychology because that was not how I experienced the world. In Western psychology, I thought of my personality as “fragmented.” Not dysfunctional, but without a clearly defined core “self.” I was too aware at how I would change based on the immediate situation. It was a relief when I read that in Eastern religions, not clinging to a rigid sense of “self” and being able to go with “the way” are goals that one should work towards.


Carol said...

Great post. I have often said that children (and pets) are as smart or dumb as you treat them. If you assume they have a brain, they use it. This is definitely true for language, so it doesn't surprise me that we underestimate the verbal capacity of our kids as a general rule.

Noticed you changed your byline -- architecture?

Always fascinated by whatever twists and turns your brilliant mind takes.

the hanged man said...

Carol! How are you? I have been falling behind in my online reading, so I have not had a chance to check out your blog recently. I will head over soon and see what I have missed.

Off topic: I got an email from my mom - Jane Gregg is retiring this year. Makes me feel sad for the kids who won't experience her as a teacher. It also makes me feel old. She was one of the best.

I also think kids understand at an early age that you behave one way around adults and another way with kids or when you are alone. This is covered in The Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris which I'll be writing about eventually.

I change the bylines every once in a while. This one comes from (where else?) Monty Python. In the skit where Sir Philip Sidney is tracking down Tudor pornography, one of the magazines he discovers is titled "Tits and Bums: A Look At Church Architecture."