Another way to think about social epidemics is to analyze them in terms of the context in which the epidemic is taking place. The Tipping Point shows how context—in other words, the environment or social situation in which people live and interact—can be an important determinant of social epidemics, and of people’s behavior in general. In the process, the book introduces the idea that context actually plays a much larger role in determining people’s behavior than people’s innate character—their interests, emotions, ambitions, etc.
While the idea that people respond to their environments is neither original nor startling, Gladwell argues that small, almost imperceptible aspects of context often have more of an effect on people’s behavior than the large, obvious aspects of an environment do. A classic example of this idea was the Broken Window Hypothesis, a sociological idea that was tested in New York in the 1980s and 90s. The Broken Window Hypothesis proposes that governments can fight serious crimes like murder and rape by cracking down on seemingly trivial crimes like graffiti and public urination. The idea is that potential criminals—i.e., people who might have some psychological propensity to be violent or deceptive—will be less likely to act on their instincts when they’re in an environment where small crimes are always punished: almost subconsciously, they receive a message that crime will not be tolerated. When New York officials enacted the Broken Window Hypothesis, clamping down on graffiti and other minor crimes, the results were startling: the crime rate of New York “tipped,” falling precipitously. (However, Gladwell has been widely criticized for simplifying the history of New York Crime in the 1980s. Some critics claim that Gladwell gives too much credit to reductions in graffiti, and too little to the increases in incarceration rates and drug arrests—for more information, see Summary/Analysis section.) Large changes in environment don’t always cause large changes in human behavior, because they’re so obvious: humans consciously notice large changes and then choose to behave the same way. But small changes, like the ones seen in New York in the 1980s, influence behavior in a less conscious and therefore potentially more powerful way.
The book’s emphasis on context seems counterintuitive in some way because it doesn’t address the character of the people living in a certain environment; instead, it assumes that small changes in environment can influence people regardless of their character. Gladwell argues that a person’s character plays a surprisingly marginal role in their real-life behavior. Character controls what people think, feel, and imagine, but doesn’t play such a large role in how they behave in public. For example, in New York in the 1980s, removing graffiti from walls changed the way people behaved in public (i.e., whether or not they committed crimes), but it didn’t change people’s character. Furthermore, Gladwell suggests that his arguments only appear counterintuitive because people misunderstand what “character” really means. A person’s character changes as she learns new ideas and comes into contact with new people. Additionally, people sometimes have different characters around different people: they take on different personalities when they’re in public, when they’re in private, when they’re at parties, when they’re in school, etc. Character is such an unstable, multifaceted concept that it’s almost impossible to use it to predict how people will behave. And yet people continue to talk about character when analyzing trends and public policy—intuitively (but wrongly) assuming that character controls behavior.
The Tipping Point’s discussion of the difference between character and context is among its most radical arguments, with major implications for public policy. In many disciplines, especially public policy, Gladwell argues, there continues to be an irrational bias in favor of the idea of “character.” In the policy debate surrounding the teenage smoking epidemic, for example, many researchers suggest that the best way to solve the problem would be to educate children about the dangers of cigarettes and encourage them to avoid “peer pressure.” Such a solution, the book argues, wrongly assumes that teenagers have stable personalities, which can be changed and restructured systematically. By contrast, Gladwell proposes that the most effective way to change people’s behavior is to change their environments—i.e., the “context” in which they act. Overall, then, the importance of context over character is perhaps The Tipping Point’s most far-reaching argument for how small “tips” have more influence then big, fundamental changes.
Context versus Character ThemeTracker
Context versus Character Quotes in The Tipping Point
There is more than one way to tip an epidemic, in other words. Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating.
In the case of Kitty Genovese, then … the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream. It's that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream. Ironically, had she been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived.
The subtle pro-Reagan bias in Jennings's face seems to have influenced the voting behavior of ABC viewers. As you can imagine, ABC News disputes this study vigorously.
The ABC viewers who voted for Reagan would never, in a thousand years, tell you that they voted that way because Peter Jennings smiled every time he mentioned the President.
We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present. But in none of these cases did anyone substantially alter the content of what they were saying. Instead, they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas, by putting the Muppet behind the H-U-G, by mixing Big Bird with the adult.
This is an epidemic theory of crime. It says that crime is contagious - just as a fashion trend is contagious - that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community.
Giuliani and Bratton—far from being conservatives, as they are commonly identified—actually represent on the question of crime the most extreme liberal position imaginable, a position so extreme that it is almost impossible to accept. How can it be that what was going on in Bernie Goetz's head doesn't matter? And if it is really true that it doesn't matter, why is that fact so hard to believe?
If I asked you to describe the personality of your best friends, you could do so easily, and you wouldn't say things like "My friend Howard is incredibly generous, but only when I ask him for things, not when his family asks him for things," or "My friend Alice is wonderfully honest when it comes to her personal life, but at work she can be very slippery." You would say, instead, that your friend Howard is generous and your friend Alice is honest.
This does not mean that our inner psychological states and personal histories are not important in explaining our behavior. An enormous percentage of those who engage in violent acts, for example, have some kind of psychiatric disorder or come from deeply disturbed backgrounds. But there is a world of difference between being inclined toward violence and actually committing a violent act. A crime is a relatively rare and aberrant event. For a crime to be committed, something extra, something additional, has to happen to tip a troubled person toward violence.
The Rule of 150 says that congregants of a rapidly expanding church, or the members of a social club, or anyone in a group activity banking on the epidemic spread of shared ideals needs to be particularly cognizant of the perils of bigness. Crossing the 150 line is a small change that can make a big difference.
What Gore has created, in short, is an organized mechanism that makes it far easier for new ideas and information moving around the organization to tip - to go from one person or one part of the group to the entire group all at once. That's the advantage of adhering to the Rule of 150. You can exploit the bonds of memory and peer pressure.
What these figures tell us is that experimentation and actual hard-core use are two entirely separate things—that for a drug to be contagious does not automatically mean that it is also sticky. In fact, the sheer number of people who appear to have tried cocaine at least once should tell us that the urge among teens to try something dangerous is pretty nearly universal. This is what teens do. This is how they learn about the world, and most of the time—in 99.1 percent of the cases with cocaine—that experimentation doesn't result in anything bad happening. We have to stop fighting this kind of experimentation.
A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost.
Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.