Monday, June 14, 2010


No, I'm not reading Jane Austen...again. I’m currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. It basically discusses the phenomenon of social epidemics – ideas that “take off” and “infect” large numbers of people - and the elements necessary for a social epidemic to occur. In the chapter entitled “The Law of The Few” Gladwell states that one of the primary elements of a social epidemic is people, and specifically, a combination of three particular types of people; Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

The Connector is someone who has a very large number of “weak ties” or acquaintances; they seem to know everyone. The Maven is an obsessive collector of information who enjoys helping others by passing along that information. The Salesman is the person who can sell ice cubes to Eskimo, not because he’s pushy or high-pressure, but because he’s so charming and enthusiastic.
Gladwell uses as an example the infamous ride of Paul Revere, compared to the ride of William Dawes. Who was William Dawes, you may ask? That’s exactly the point. Because Revere and Dawes set out at the same time, on the same day, with the same mission to warn the people surrounding Boston of the impending assault of the British army. Revere succeeded in raising up the entire militia in the surrounding areas in a matter of hours, while Dawes was able to pull together virtually no militia. Why?

The answer, of course, is that Revere was able to pull together the three personality types necessary to create a “Tipping Point” social epidemic, whereas Dawes was not. Revere himself, it turns out, was the ultimate combination of Connector and Maven, and only needed a few Salesmen to push the colonies into the beginnings of the Revolution…Salesmen he just happened to know personally, because he was such an exceptional Connector. Dawes…not so much. Which is why very few Americans know his name today. And why, if Revere had been a Dawes, we probably would not have had the Revolution that we did.

So, this idea of social epidemics got me thinking about the current trend of loud “personalities” who go on the radio or television and tell everyone everything that they should be angry and afraid about, and the bewildering number of people who listen to them and repeat whatever the personality says. Epidemic, I think, is a perfect term for this spread of anger and fear. But, how do they manage to get otherwise thoughtful people to listen to them and spread their particular brand of virus?

In Gladwell’s book Blink, he talks about the phenomenon of our minds making a subconscious snap judgment about something within the first few second of seeing or being exposed to it. It appears these snap judgments, under proper circumstances, can be very effective and accurate. They can, however, also be easily manipulated or programmed, in some cases contrary to our own stated principles or values. The key to not allowing a contrary snap judgment to taint your decision making process is to slow things down. Law enforcement officers are far more likely to misjudge the intentions of a suspect immediately following a high-speed chase because they have gone into a state of stress that shuts down their ability to process subtle cues accurately. So, a snap judgment about a suspect, preprogrammed by culture, entertainment, news, etc. to say certain people are a threat, will frequently overwhelm the decision making process and lead to bad choices.

And, how does this process apply to the loud talkers on TV who seem intent on spreading anger and fear? When you turn on one of these shows, what images are you being exposed to in the first few seconds of the program? What “blink” impressions are you being programmed with before the show even begins? An American flag on fire? Arabs brandishing machine guns? Angry Hispanics demonstrating? The word “crisis” in red? A map of the U.S. torn in half?

In the opening moments of each segment of the program, what images are being used to program your “blink”? A political enemy with a look of anger or harshness on their face (as opposed to a neutral or positive look on their face)? The leader of a foreign “enemy” nation with his arm raised at a Nazi-esque angle (even if he’s just pointing at something), and a swastika placed on a separate board but within view? Are the video clips used five or ten seconds long and out of context (as opposed to a minute long, or two minutes long so you can understand the context)? Is the conversation or discussion short and choppy and frequently interrupted (as opposed to allowing the full presentation of a complete thought)? Is the speaker using hand and head gestures that encourage a subconscious mimicking in viewers, like a yawn that spreads through a room?

All of these elements are brought together in a very purposeful way to 1) program your “blink” impression or judgment and 2) prevent you from taking the time to examine thoughtfully and rationally what is being said. Even though the host is telling you that you need to think about whatever the subject is, the entire presentation has been orchestrated to ensure that the majority of viewers will NOT think about it and come to their own conclusions; they will simply accept what they are being fed.

Contrast this presentation to a typical informational program on PBS. A neutrally designed set, few background visuals, all participants sitting in a relaxed posture, everyone given time to speak and present their view without frequent interruption, no wild gesticulations or raised voices. Every part of this presentation is designed to slow everything down and give viewers time to really think about whatever is being discussed.

Lest you think the importance of presentation is an exaggeration, Gladwell cites two studies that seem to show that this type of subtle programming of response is eerily easy and effective. In the first, a connection was found between the facial expression of a news anchor while reporting on a political candidate, and the voting habits of the viewers. The second found that the simple act of nodding ones head inclines you toward agreeing with whatever is being said while you are nodding, even if agreement is not in your best interest or you would otherwise disagree (doesn't that make you pause and think about "head banger" music?). But, aside from anything any study can tell us about the impact of others on our internal world, when was the last time you didn’t cry during a sad scene in a movie, or laugh at a funny scene?

There’s a lot to think about. What you choose to surround yourself with and expose yourself to deeply impacts your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and actions. It is critical that we give ourselves time and space to contemplate what we are being told and shown. I’ll stop talking now so you can get to it.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post, so well written! Gladwell's books are great food for thought. I have enjoyed all of them and have spent time pondering. It is a shame the media uses these tricks to manipulate the people. It really does not empower but weaken us and demands reaction instead of response. Time for a re-read.