In the South Pacific islands of Micronesia, there was a teenager named Sima. Sima’s father woke up him one morning and ordered him to find a pole knife in town. Sima was unable to find such a knife, and his father was so furious that he kicked Sima out of the house and told him to never come back. Shortly afterwards, Sima hanged himself. At the time, suicide was almost unheard of in Micronesia. But within the intervening four decades, suicide has become hugely common in Micronesia—roughly eight times the suicide rate of the United States. The prevalence of suicide in Micronesia is particularly unusual because almost all of the suicide cases are teenaged boys who experience arguments with their families or lovers. Anthropologists have even argued that suicide is a established part of Micronesian culture, expressed and even celebrated in music, literature, and film.
In the final case study in the book, Gladwell discusses a few different forms of teenaged epidemics: suicide in Micronesia and smoking in the United States. Suicide is a social epidemic in the same way that Hush Puppies or Airwalks were social epidemics: when certain people committed suicide in Micronesia, other people wanted to do so, too. Previously, Gladwell has mostly withheld moral judgment from the trends and social epidemics he’s discussing (which has caused him to be criticized by some), but in this chapter Gladwell takes a stronger stance against suicide and smoking.
Suicide in Micronesia is strikingly similar to the teenage smoking epidemic in the United States. Teenagers smoke in the U.S. despite being fairly aware of the health risks of doing so. Furthermore, the large anti-smoking movement in the U.S. in the 90s seemingly had little effect on teen smoking—in fact, smoking among students and teenagers increased during the 90s. Gladwell proposes that teen smoking, like Micronesian suicide, can’t be combatted with education or any other methods of rational persuasion. Instead, teen smoking is a form of “complex ritual,” governed by irrational psychological factors.
When analyzing suicide in Micronesia and smoking in the U.S., Gladwell applies the same laws he’s already discussed. In particular, he argues that human beings are more easily swayed by irrational, sometimes subconscious changes in their environments, peers, and products. Therefore, the best way to change teenagers’ destructive behavior is to use the laws Gladwell has described, rather than explicit, rational appeals.
It is a well-established fact that suicide can inspire other suicides. When a prominent person commits suicide, there is usually a wave of copycat suicides soon afterwards (for example, after Marilyn Monroe killed herself, the national suicide rate increased by 12 percent). Indeed, it’s possible to interpret a suicide wave as a form of social epidemic. In Micronesia, there was a suicide epidemic that began when R., the son of a famous family, hanged himself because he couldn’t decide between his two lovers. In Gladwell’s terminology, the son who hanged himself is a Salesman, persuading other Micronesian people to kill themselves in the same way.
While it may be disturbing to think that suicide is just a “trend,” not so different from a trend in shoes, Gladwell convincingly shows that suicides often inspire a “wave” of copycats. The epidemic nature of suicide is particularly striking and counterintuitive because suicide would appear to be an extremely personal decision, on which other people’s actions have no bearing. But in fact, teenagers who commit suicide act like Salesmen, “persuading” others to commit suicide as well.
In order to test his hypothesis that teen smoking is a social epidemic that follows the characteristics he’s discussed in his book, Gladwell conducted a survey in which he asked people to describe their earliest experiences with cigarettes. The vast majority of the responders gave a version of the same answer: their earliest memories associate smoking with maturity and sophistication, usually embodied by a “cool friend” or older sibling. Smoking, one could say, becomes an epidemic when Salesmen (friends, older siblings, or movie stars) persuade people to try smoking. Gladwell posits that there is a “smoking personality”—the kind of person who is charismatic, sexually precocious, confident, and extroverted, and who smokes. People with a smoking personality will be likely to inspire many others to smoke, beginning an epidemic. In all, the key similarity between smoking and suicide is that in both cases, a small but influential group inspires a wave of copycats.
The Salesmen that Gladwell identifies in his informal survey have many things in common: they’re charismatic, and seem to take keen pleasure in influencing other people’s behavior. As the Law of the Few would suggest, a small group of charismatic, influential smokers inspired a large group of other people to take up smoking as well.
As we have seen, the teen smoking epidemic is a good example of the Law of the Few—the few charismatic smoking personalities who inspire a lot of other smokers. But the smoking epidemic also an interesting case of the Stickiness Factor. Smoking itself can be an addictive habit. But it’s not equally addictive for everyone. There are people who smoke, but not regularly—indeed, 20% of all American smokers do not smoke every day. This suggests that for some smokers, smoking is contagious (i.e., it’s a glamorous behavior that people want to imitate) but not sticky (i.e., it’s not addictive). Studies show that mammals can ingest nicotine periodically without developing a chemical addiction to it; these studies might suggest how certain human beings can smoke occasionally without becoming addicted to nicotine.
Perhaps the most obvious and literal way to apply the three laws of social epidemics to the teenaged smoking epidemic is by using the Stickiness Factor—cigarettes are, after all, “sticky” in the sense that they can be highly addictive. Interestingly, Gladwell shows that cigarettes aren’t equally sticky for everyone (echoing his observation in Chapter Three about how TV shows have different degrees of stickiness for adults and children).
A question then arises: how best to fight the teen smoking epidemic? Should officials concentrate on limiting the contagiousness of smoking, or reducing the stickiness of smoking?
Out of this discussion of teenaged smoking, two possibilities seem to emerge.
Beginning with contagion, Gladwell considers the possibility of convincing teenagers to ignore smoking personalities and “look elsewhere, to get their cues as to what is cool, in this instance, from adults.” The problem with such a strategy is that parents don’t wield much influence over their children’s personalities, or the kinds of role models that children respect. In general, scientific studies have called into question whether parents ultimately play much role in shaping their children’s personalities at all. Examining adopted children over time, numerous studies suggest that an adopted child’s personality barely correlates with the personality of the child’s adopted parents. This would suggest that genetics play a far greater role in shaping a child’s behavior than nurture, contrary to what almost all parents believe. The point of these studies isn’t that environment plays no role in children’s development; it’s that parents are a surprisingly minor part of a child’s environment.
Gladwell argues that it would be extremely difficult to interfere with the contagiousness of cigarettes. One reason for this is that parents—in theory, a child’s most important role models—are less influential in a child’s personal development than they would appear. Numerous studies suggest that a parent’s primary contribution to a child’s behavior is genetic. Therefore, it follows that changes in parents’ behavior with regard to smoking (for example, the parent telling the child not to smoke, or, if the parent herself smokes, not smoking in front of the child) will be relatively unlikely to change the child’s behavior.
Gladwell acknowledges that the idea that parents are a relatively unimportant part of a child’s environment is controversial. Nevertheless, the idea can be applied to the teen smoking epidemic very easily. Children of smokers are more likely to become smokers than children of nonsmokers. But this is largely genetic, not environmental. Teenagers imitate other people—but they’re most likely to imitate their peers, not their parents.
Attempts to undermine the contagiousness of cigarettes run into the problem that teenagers don’t always imitate their parents—teenagers are more likely to imitate other teenagers, instead. Previous attempts to change contagiousness have focused on celebrities and parents—two groups whose behavior, according to Gladwell, is far less contagious than the behavior of other teenagers.
Following the social epidemic terminology, one way to fight the teen smoking epidemic would be to limit the power of Salesmen—the people who persuade teens to smoke. But unfortunately, attempts to do so often end up strengthening the Salesmen’s power by making their product seem more glamorous and alluring.
Another problem with interfering with the contagiousness of smoking is that attempts at interference just make teens more likely to smoke—if ordered not to smoke, the proverbial “rebellious teenager” will just smoke more.
Is there any way to reduce the stickiness of smoking? In a perfect world, it would be possible to give people pills to reduce their tolerances to nicotine, meaning that people would smoke less. Some ways of reducing the stickiness of cigarettes have been attempted, such as the nicotine patch. The nicotine patch reduces the “comparative stickiness” of cigarettes by providing an alternative to a cigarette. However, it’s clear that smokers prefer cigarettes because of the high intensity of nicotine in a single puff.
A second strategy for reducing the teen smoking epidemic is to reduce the stickiness of the cigarette itself; i.e., to make the cigarette less chemically addictive. One way of competing with the stickiness of the cigarette is to popularize the nicotine patch. Yet the nicotine patch has mostly failed to compete with the stickiness of the cigarette.
Gladwell proposes two possibilities for fighting the teen smoking epidemic through stickiness. First, he notes the correlation between smoking and depression—smokers are much more likely to report depression than the average American. There are many possible explanations for this correlation. It could be that the social factors that push people to become smokers—susceptibility to contagion—also push people to become depressed. It’s also possible that depression and addictiveness have the same genetic root; in other words, nicotine is more addictive when the smoker is depressed. Thus, it’s possible that one could improve the smoking epidemic by treating depression more carefully. Indeed, there is a drug called Zyban that increases dopamine levels in the brain in order to fight depression. The drug has been shown to be effective in fighting nicotine addiction since, in increasing dopamine levels in the brain, it provides a substitute for the “rush” of a cigarette.
While it’s true that cigarettes are sticky because nicotine is chemically addictive, it’s also true that nicotine can be especially chemically addictive when the smoker suffers from depression. Therefore, it might be possible to reduce the stickiness and addictiveness of cigarettes by treating teenagers for depression. Gladwell acknowledges that the scientific evidence on addictiveness and depression is far from conclusive; he’s simply offering a suggestion for how we might go about fighting the teenage smoking epidemic.
Another potential way to fight the teen smoking epidemic would be to mandate that tobacco companies have to reduce the quantity of nicotine in a cigarette. In this way, smoking a cigarette wouldn’t be as sticky as it is now (though it would still be somewhat sticky). Teens would continue smoking cigarettes, since smoking is a contagious habit. But they wouldn’t develop a chemical addiction, or at least they wouldn’t be as likely to develop such an addiction.
A more straightforward way to reduce the addictiveness of cigarettes is to pass a law mandating that tobacco companies put less nicotine in their products. In this way, teenagers would ingest less nicotine per cigarette, and perhaps become less addicted to cigarettes. (One potential objection to this idea: wouldn’t teenagers just smoke extra cigarettes to compensate for the reduced nicotine?)
For the most part, the war on teen smoking has focused on fighting the contagiousness of the habit—the government has tried to reduce tobacco companies’ broadcasting time and replace pro-smoking messages with anti-smoking messages. The problem is that contagiousness is difficult, if not impossible, to fight—Salesmen are too powerful and persuasive. A better strategy for those who would seek to curb teen smoking might be to focus on the stickiness of smoking itself.
Ultimately, Gladwell’s ideas about the teen smoking epidemic are useful because of the way they frame the problem, not the specific solutions they detail. Government officials have spent huge sums on reducing the contagiousness of cigarettes—it might be time for the government to switch its strategy to reducing the stickiness of cigarettes.
One advantage of the focus on stickiness is that it would allow for a more reasonable approach to teenagers experimenting with cigarettes. Often, opponents of teen smoking speak as if trying one cigarette is the same as becoming addicted to nicotine. This isn’t remotely close to the truth, either with cigarettes or with hard drugs. Teenagers will inevitably experiment with smoking cigarettes or other comparably rebellious behaviors—and perhaps they shouldn’t be punished too harshly for doing so. Experimentation is not addiction.
A final problem with the anti-smoking movement’s emphasis on contagion is that the only good way to reduce the contagiousness of smoking would be to prevent teenagers from being teenagers: i.e. to prevent them from trying ideas and products, looking for new role models, and experimenting in general.
To return to the Micronesian suicide epidemic: many of the teenagers who killed themselves first found out about suicide as younger children. They thought of suicide as a game to play, not a life-ending experience. The danger with this behavior, of course, is that suicide shouldn't be experimented with. In the case of cigarettes, however, it might make more sense to allow teenagers to experiment with tobacco and concentrate instead on controlling the Tipping Points of the addiction process, reducing the stickiness of nicotine.
In the final case studies in his book, Gladwell adopts a more explicitly moral stance on the social epidemic he describes. The suicide and smoking epidemics, he argues, must be stopped in order to save lives. Using the lessons of social epidemics he’s detailed in his book, Gladwell tries to provide some potential solutions for these serious problems.