On April 18th, 1775, a young boy living in Boston overheard a British officer stationed in the city talking about “hell tomorrow.” Frightened, the boy ran to Paul Revere, a silversmith, and repeated what he’d heard. Revere had already heard rumors of an impending invasion, but the boy’s story finally inspired him to begin his famous “midnight ride.” Revere rode a horse through Lexington and Arlington, warning of the British invasion. The news spread like an epidemic, as other Americans repeated Revere’s message to their families, and horsemen rode to other towns.
The chapter begins with an example that American readers will probably find very familiar: the midnight ride of Paul Revere. During this event, Revere rode through Lexington and other Massachusetts towns to warn American colonists of the British invasion; in turn, American colonists warned other colonists of the danger, so that the news spread like a virus.
Paul Revere’s ride is one of the most famous examples of “word-of-mouth” in history. But why is it that certain ideas spread via word-of-mouth faster than others? One might think that Revere’s message spread so quickly because his news was so important, but that’s not the case. There were other people, including a man named William Dawes, who also spread a message about the British invasion in other parts of Massachusetts that night. But only Paul Revere’s message “tipped” to cause an information epidemic. This chapter will try to answer the question, What is the difference between Revere and Dawes? Why do certain kinds of people play such a big role in the spread of ideas?
By focusing on two individuals, Revere and Dawes, the chapter will attempt an “experiment” in which the independent variable is the personality of the people spreading the message, and the dependent variable is the success of the social epidemic. Thus, the chapter will study how specific personality types are often conducive to social epidemics.
In the 60s, there was a famous psychological experiment in which scientists mailed packets, each one intended for a stockbroker living in Massachusetts, to 160 people living in Nebraska. Each Nebraska resident was given the same instructions: find a way to get the packet to the stockbroker in Massachusetts. People were supposed to send their packets to acquaintances who lived close to the stockbroker, and those acquaintances in turn were supposed to send the packet to someone even closer to the stockbroker’s address. The idea was that the experiment could measure the number of “connections” or “degrees of separation” between people in the U.S. The experiment concluded that, on average, people in Nebraska could get the package to the stockbroker in five or six steps—hence the famous concept of “six degrees of separation.”
The famous “six degrees of separation” idea (popularized by a famous play, and later a Will Smith movie) suggests that human beings are linked to one another by a “chain” of only six people. One implication of this idea, as it’s usually understood, is that information travels from person to person much faster than it’s generally believed. If a person has some interesting news, that news could pass by word-of-mouth to anyone else on the planet in a mere six steps.
One aspect of the experiment that most people don’t know about is that the packets were eventually mailed to the stockbroker in Massachusetts because of only three different people, named Jacobs, Jones, and Brown. People from Nebraska sent their packets to many different people—and yet, amazingly, the packets ended up in the hands of these three people who knew the stockbroker. Gladwell uses the word “Connectors” for people like Jacobs, Jones, and Brown—“people with a special gift for bringing the world together.”
The “six degrees of separation” theory is usually interpreted to mean that human beings have a lot of power to spread information via word-of-mouth. But in reality, the experiment that inspired the phrase, “six degrees of separation” suggests a slightly different conclusion: certain people, Connectors, have much more power to spread information than others. (Note, however, that this experiment has since been retested with a larger sample size, and found little evidence of “Connectors.”)
Why do certain people become Connectors? First, Connectors know lots of people. For the most part, older people know more people than younger people, as they’ve accumulated more acquaintances (not necessarily friends) over the course of their lives. But even within a certain age range, there are huge disparities between the sizes of people’s social circles. For example, at City College in New York, tests have shown that there are some students who know four or five times as many people as other students.
Connectors are gregarious, friendly, and make friends effortlessly because they genuinely enjoy the process. Intuitively, one might think that all people have social circles of approximately the same size—or at least in the same order of magnitude. The existence of Connectors, however, suggests that certain people have social circles that are many times larger than others.
Gladwell discusses a man named Roger Horchow, whom he met in the course of writing his book. Roger is an extraordinarily social man, who’s worked in theater, business, and many other avenues. Roger, Gladwell writes, “collects people”—he loves talking about his acquaintances. But Roger genuinely enjoys his friendships with others—he’s not just “hoarding” friends. Most remarkably, Roger differs from most people in that he seems to value acquaintances as much as most people value friendships. For most, an acquaintance is a potential friend: we make acquaintances thinking that they may or may not become our close friends. Then, these acquaintances either become our friends, or they remain just acquaintances. Roger, however, finds great pleasure in just making casual acquaintances—a personality trait that few people have, but that might be essential to being a Connector.
This passage, in which Gladwell describes his acquaintance with Roger Horchow, a textbook Connector, is a good example of Gladwell’s journalistic approach to studying social epidemics. In the book, he often begins with a specific, personal example—his discussions with a specific person, or his visit to a specific place—and then uses the anecdotes to generalize to a law or rule. Gladwell’s interactions with Roger suggest that Connectors’ real power isn’t making lots of close friends, but rather knowing lots of acquaintances.
Consider the popular game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” which is based on the idea that all actors either appeared in a movie with the actor Kevin Bacon, or appeared in a movie with someone who appeared in a movie with Kevin Bacon, and so on. On average, all actors in Hollywood can be “linked” to Kevin Bacon in this way in only 2.8 steps. The most “connected” actor in Hollywood history—i.e., the actor who, on average, can be linked to other actors in the smallest number of steps—is Rod Steiger. Steiger has been in more than 100 films, of many different kinds—period piece, drama, comedy, etc. Steiger’s connectedness to other actors is a product of his versatility as a performer. By analogy, the same is true of Connectors in real life—they have friends in many different “genres” or avenues.
A social epidemic is most “successful” when the information spreads to people from many different walks of life: ideas and products are only “trendy” if they expand from a particular niche to reach everyone in society. Therefore, Connectors play the biggest role in a social epidemic when they have acquaintances in many different “genres” of life: in this case, the Connectors spread information in many different directions, maximizing the pervasiveness of the information.
Gladwell remembers meeting a woman in Chicago, Lois Weisberg. Weisberg worked at the Commission of Cultural Affairs for the City of Chicago, and she was one of the friendliest, most social people Gladwell ever met. At various points in her life, she ran a flea market, worked for a railroad, practiced law, composed music, and worked for the municipal government. To use the Rod Steiger analogy again, Lois acted in many different “genres” throughout her life—business, art, government, etc.
Lois Weisberg is another good example of a Connector, and in particular, a Connector whose friends hail from many different walks of life. In a social epidemic, Lois could potentially play a pivotal role, because she can spread awareness of the information, idea, or product to many people—and, crucially, many different kinds of people.
Another important fact about Lois: in the 1950s, she hosted Friday night salons in which she invited talented authors, singers, poets, etc. Her salons were famous in Chicago, not only because of the talent of the guests but because they were open to both black and white performers—a rarity at the time. Gladwell speculates that black and white people have begun socializing with one another more and more, due to people like Lois—gregarious, open-minded people who, as Connectors, naturally bring different kinds of people together under one roof.
Gladwell posits that the process of racial integration in the U.S. occurred partly because of a few gregarious people like Lois (minimizing, as some frustrated critics have pointed out, the political victories of civil rights activists, government officials, city planners, etc.).
In the 1970s, there was a study of professionals in Boston. Of people in Boston who were trying to find a job, the majority found their job through a personal connection. Somewhat surprisingly, most of the people in the study who got jobs through a personal connection said that the personal connection was “weak” in the sense that they didn’t know the connection particularly well; more often, the connection was a “friend of a friend.” The study concluded with an interesting point: when it comes to getting a job, finding new information, or generally getting ahead in life, “weak ties” are more important than “close ties.” A person who has few friends, but lots of “friends of friends” may be more likely to find an interesting new job opportunity than a person with many friends but few friends of friends.
The study of professionals in Boston suggests the exponential nature of the word-of-mouth phenomenon. While two people may have vastly different numbers of close friends, there will be an even bigger difference between their number of friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and so on. This helps to explain why people like Roger Horchow, who have huge numbers of acquaintances, have so much social clout: their “friends of friends” probably number in the hundreds of thousands.
Let’s return to the concept of “word-of-mouth.” When it comes to the spreading of information, not all “mouths” are created equal. Gladwell guesses that one of the reasons that trends like Hush Puppies reach their Tipping Point is that they’re discovered by someone like Lois Weisberg or Roger Horchow—someone who has friends in many different areas of society and, just as importantly, many friends of friends. So ultimately, when a trend spreads successfully by word-of-mouth, that means that the trend spreads thanks to a small but powerful number of Connectors.
One potential explanation for the Hush Puppy phenomenon—the phenomenon with which Gladwell began his book—is that a few disproportionately influential people caused Hush Puppies to become popular by spreading word of the product to their friends and their friends’ friends.
Gladwell returns to Paul Revere, whose midnight ride started what could be termed a “word-of-mouth” epidemic in 1775. Paul Revere was a natural Connector—he was extremely popular in his community, belonged to many elite societies, was an active member of his local government, belonged to many different areas of society, and had a huge number of acquaintances. So when the time came for Revere to spread an important message across Lexington, Revere knew which houses belonged to important people, and made sure to ride by all of them. He also knew when it was important to stop, get off his horse, and talk to people face-to-face. Thanks to his social skills and connections, Revere was extremely effective in spreading the message, “The British are coming!” across Massachusetts—he told all of his connections, and they passed on the message to their own connections. By contrast, William Dawes was a pretty ordinary man—he didn’t have lots of connections, and therefore didn’t spread the message very successfully.
The evidence (at least that which Gladwell presents here) seems to support Gladwell’s contention that Connectors play a vital role in social epidemics: Paul Revere was indeed a highly gregariousness, well-connected person, and therefore the ideal man for the famous midnight ride. Dawes, by contrast, didn’t have an enormous social circle, and therefore, he wasn’t able to transfer his message to a large number of people. The results of Gladwell’s “historical experiment” support the hypothesis that the personalities of individual people (i.e., Connectors like Revere) play a pivotal role in the success of social epidemics.
Connectors aren’t the only people who matter in a social epidemic; even Connectors need to get their information from somewhere. So social epidemics require some different kinds of people: people who specialize in obtaining information, and people who specialize in spreading information to other people. So far, Gladwell has been talking about the latter. He will now discuss “Mavens”—people who accumulate knowledge.
Connectors, one could say, are a necessary but insufficient part of a social epidemic. Social epidemics require Connectors to spread the word, but they also require Mavens, who know what the “word” is.
One important kind of maven is a “market maven.” Market mavens are the kinds of people who research prices in order to kind the best deal. Market mavens play a crucial role in the economy: they keep businesses honest. Every day, stores hang signs saying, “Everyday Low Price!” Signs of this kind increase sales, even though the price isn’t any different than it would otherwise be. The reason that stores don’t pull this trick more often is that market mavens keep them from doing so. If a store were to put deceptive signs on its products, market mavens would complain about the store and tell their friends not to shop there.
Gladwell argues that in an open, free market economy like that of the United States, businesses can’t always get away with lying about prices. If a business were to do so, then a market maven would find out about the trick and tell everyone not to patronize the business anymore (or, more likely, the maven would tell a Connector, and the Connector would tell all of her friends not to shop there).
Gladwell describes one market maven he knows, Mark Alpert. Alpert has an encyclopedic knowledge of prices—he can even remember prices he read about ten years ago. He knows how to use coupons to get the best deal and—crucially—he loves to share his knowledge with other people. Alpert’s friends have saved huge sums of money taking his advice. People like Mark Alpert are very important to epidemics because they share information openly and honestly. Perhaps someone like Alpert was instrumental in starting the Hush Puppy trend; he found a good deal in shoes that weren’t yet trendy, and told his friends where to buy these shoes.
When news of an exciting, relatively cheap product like the Hush Puppy becomes available to the public, people like Alpert pass news of the product to other people. Notice that, even in this chapter on individual people, Gladwell acknowledges that the actual quality of the infectious agent plays a role in the social epidemic: in other words, the Hush Puppies wouldn’t have become a social phenomenon if they weren’t reasonably priced.
The third kind of people who are important to a social epidemic are Salesmen: people who persuade others to adopt new points of view, or points of view that aren’t yet common knowledge. Gladwell brings up a man named Tom Gua, a financial planner. Tom is brilliant at selling his services to new clients. He can read people’s expressions and mannerisms and gauge their state of mind, adjusting his sales pitches accordingly. He’s also a genuinely enthusiastic, friendly person, who obviously gets great pleasure from talking to people. Tom is a natural Salesman.
It’s not enough for a person to hear about a social trend; for the trend to tip into success, people must also act on the information. People like Tom Gua are crucial to this final step in the social epidemic; they know how to get people to take action, both because they have lots of experience with persuasion and because they’re naturally charismatic.
It’s almost impossible to judge what factors make certain people, like Tom Gua, so persuasive. But in the 1980s, a study was conducted about the role of newscasting in presidential elections. A randomly chosen group of TV viewers were asked to rate the facial expressions of the three most famous newscasters of the era, broadcasting in ABC, NBC, and CBS, according to perceived “positivity” or “negativity” of their expressions while discussing the two presidential candidates in 1980, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. The study found that Peter Jennings from ABC news had a “facial bias” when discussing Ronald Reagan—he seemed slightly happier when discussing Reagan than he did when discussing Carter on the news. The study further argues that Jennings’s facial bias subtly influenced ABC viewers to vote for Reagan. Many statisticians dispute this conclusion, arguing that ABC viewers who already supported Reagan watched ABC in part because of Jennings’s bias. But in fact, ABC was probably the TV network most hostile to Reagan in 1980—if anything, ABC viewers should have been less likely to vote for Reagan.
In this section, Gladwell argues that newscasters’ expressions potentially play a major role in convincing people how to vote. Supposedly, Peter Jennings’ facial expressions swayed ABC viewers into thinking about Ronald Reagan more positively, and, eventually, voting for Reagan in the general election. In Gladwell’s terminology, Jennings qualifies as a Salesman (even if he wasn’t deliberately trying to “sell” Reagan to his viewers). The Jennings study is the first of many examples of how people aren’t as rational and logical as they’d like to think—while ABC viewers would surely claim that they voted for Reagan because of his policies, it’s likely that many thousands of them voted for Reagan because of subconscious persuasion.
Another example of the subtleties of persuasion came with an experiment about the relationship between physical movement and agreement. A group of students was told to wear headphones while listening to an editorial about raising college tuitions. The students were directed to move their heads in different directions—up and down, side to side, or not at all. Then, the students were asked to take a short poll about the editorial they’d listened to: they were asked what an appropriate level of tuition for college would be. The students didn’t realize that the focus of the study was the relationship between head movement and psychology. The students who moved their heads up and down were most likely to agree with an increase in tuition, while the students who shook their heads were most likely to disagree.
The college tuition study is another example of how smart, rational people can be swayed using subconscious persuasion techniques. This example is potentially disturbing, because it suggests that people can be “swindled” into believing things, just as the college students in the study may have been swindled into supporting increases in college tuition. Advertising agencies spend millions of dollars to study these techniques of subconscious persuasion so that they can convince consumers to buy their products.
These two studies—the 1980 election study and the study about college tuition—suggest that persuasion is often most effective when it consists of “little things” such as nonverbal facial movements. A person who voted for Reagan would never admit that she did so because Peter Jennings smiled, but it’s possible that her decision was partly influenced by her exposure to tiny visual cues in Peter Jennings’s face.
When Gladwell met with Tom Gua, he felt that they were both engaging in a kind of “dance.” When two people talk, their body language often plays a major role in the direction of the conversation. In the 60s, scientists conducted a study of families’ mannerisms while eating dinner. The study found that people synchronize their physical movements with their words in small, almost imperceptible ways. Much the same is true of Gladwell’s interactions with Tom Gua. Like many good salesmen, Tom knows how to synchronize his motions with those of his customers and clients. Similarly, he’s adept at mirroring the facial expressions of people with whom he’s talking.
While journalists like Peter Jennings may not have been aware that they were persuading ABC viewers to vote for Ronald Reagan, a successful businessman like Tom Gua is highly aware of his own powers of persuasion; he’s had decades to perfect his technique. His mannerisms, expressions, and gestures are designed to both empathize and persuade.
There are certain kinds of people, whom Gladwell describes as “senders,” who are highly adept at communicating their emotions nonverbally. Senders have a measurable impact on the moods of other people, because they’re so preternaturally talented at transmitting emotions. Tom Gua is probably one of these people.
The passage suggests that being a “Sender” is probably an important aspect of being a Salesman, since charisma and persuasion often entail conveying one’s emotions nonverbally.
To return to 1775 one more time: we can now see that Paul Revere’s ride was a success for three different reasons. First, Paul Revere was a talented Maven, who gathered important information about the British coming to Massachusetts. Second, Paul Revere was also a great Connector—just as many of the best Connectors are also the best mavens. Finally, Revere’s ride would not have succeeded without the help of many Salesmen—people who decided to get up in the middle of the night and defend themselves from the British, and who were naturally able to persuade their peers to join them in doing so.
Like many of the chapters in The Tipping Point, this one ends by coming full circle. Gladwell began by discussing the midnight ride of Paul Revere, and, now that we’ve studied the role of Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, we can better understand why Revere was so successful in getting the message out. While individual people aren’t always enough to make a social epidemic successful, they often play a key role in doing so.