Thursday, June 1, 2000

Q&A Malcolm Gladwell: : Astroturf


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review in 2000

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of "The Tipping Point." (2000)

These three characteristics -- one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment -- are the same three principles that define how measles moves through a grade-school classroom or the flu attacks every winter. Of the three, the third, epidemic, trait -- the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment -- is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point
   "The Tipping Point"

HB: What got you interested in the material that led to "The Tipping Point"?

MG: I covered the HIV epidemic for the Washington Post and got very interested in epidemiology. A lot what I learned about how epidemics work surprised me. Then, in 1996, I wrote "The Tipping Point" article for The New Yorker dealing with crime as an epidemic. That was inspired by the work of Jonathan Crane, who had written on the subject, and by George Kelling, who had put forward the broken windows idea. Once you have that paradigm, the fun thing to do is to see how many other places you can make it work.

HB: What is original in "The Tipping Point"? For example, you talk the role of Mavens, Salesmen and Connectors in spreading ideas. Is that your terminology?

MG: Mavens is a term I borrow from all the market maven research and expand to cover ideas as well as products. Connectors is my word but it's hardly a novel concept. All three capitalized terms are my words.

HB: Are you the only person bring the study of epidemiology to bear on marketing?

MG: I don't know whether anyone has so aggressively applied the idea as I have. But certainly viral marketing is a hot concept now.

HB: Viral marketing. As in the Blair Witch Project?

MG: Blair Witch Project was a classic kind of virally marketed movie. Viral marketing is an attempt to use organic ideas to promote products. I'm a translator and a packager of some of these ideas, not a huge innovator in the field.

HB: Looking at the book, and a number of your New Yorker articles, including the recent piece on John Rock and the birth control pill, there seems to be a common thread to your work, and that is an attempt to dispense with mythologies and expose us to realities as science presents them.

MG: That's an elegant way of putting it. I'm very interested in the difference between what is and what we think is.

HB: I sometimes feel a kind of glee in your work at tearing aside myth and convention.

MG: It's funny you should say that because there are times when I do something intellectually audacious and don't get credit for it. For example, in a story I wrote 2 1/2 years ago on whether science can make you live longer, there was a little argument pointing out why we might not want to cure cancer. It was a mortality versus morbidity argument, a purely statistical argument made by a number of epidemiologists that showed that the effect of curing cancer without curing anything else would essentially be to dramatically increase morbidity. On the face of it, this outrageous, but actually, if you run the numbers, cancer is so overwhelmingly a disease of old age that what you do if you cure it is convert people into dying of Alzheimer's.

It's about as counterintuitive an argument as can be made, and it's in the story because it's a great way to think about what our priorities should be when we attack the problems of old age. We should be far more concerned with diseases of morbidity than we are. But that argument is so, well, out there. But no one ever said anything about it. Either I'd made it seem reasonable or people didn't read the article or people just dismissed me out of hand.

But I do get a kind of glee out of these highly counter-intuitive cases.

HB: Do you have a science background?

MG: No. My dad is a mathematician but I have no formal science training.

HB: Why did you become a science writer?

MG: Actually, I don't think of myself as a science writer. I think of myself as someone who will write about science when it's interesting. Take the John Rock piece, on the birth control pill. That was really the first science piece I've been happy with since coming to The New Yorker. But the point of that piece is not really a science point. It's a point about the way that culture and belief connect.

HB: John Rock wanted to make the pill conform to what the Catholic Church thought of as natural, as in the rhythm method of birth control. You show tht in terms of human evolutionary history, the rhythm method is not natural at all.

MG: That's the value added. The science is there to illustrate a cultural or psychological point. That is the way I like to use science.

HB: You like to find situations where our views are out of step with science.

MG: Where there's a dissonance.

HB: You take on the likes of Hillary Clinton on childhood development, and describe her as believing that the decisive things happen to us early on and that nothing later can matter much. And then you ask, is that liberalism? Liberalism is about the belief that changes in the environment *can* matter. You argue that it's not only changes in the environment of childhood that matter but also changes in the contemporary environment.

MG: One of the things I'm really proud of in the book is the argument you've just put your finger on. I think it's an interesting argument and would love to see more people engage it. Social psychology talks about the importance of context and challenges a lot of the founding mythology of both right and left. We so often think that character dictates our behavior. But there are many cases where our environment either improves on or thwarts our character. I give an example of seminarians hurrying past a person who needs help because they are late for their sermons. I have no doubt that those seminarians are profoundly caring and thoughtful people but they are in a rush. They are in a situation where their generosity and benevolence cannot be employed.

HB: So what you're throwing in the face of conservatives, I think, is that much as they like to think character determines behavior, in many cases it is context that is primary. And what you're saying to liberals is that the important context is the immediate context, not only the childhood context.

MG: Right. I remember years ago writing a piece on a 1960s debate, carried on in many magazines and journals, about how to build playgrounds. One party favored straight structures, the other curved structures. Both sides thought you could make a fundamental difference in the way poor children turned out by designing inner city playgrounds. That actually isn't true, we now know the playground isn't decisive. But I think it's wonderful to entertain the notion that it could be. Astroturf was invented by these same people, liberal reformers who thought that it was very important for inner city kids to play on grass. Astroturf was the attempt to give inner city kids the equivalent of a suburban environment. There again, Astroturf is not going to solve your problem. But I love the idea that someone would look at something like Astroturf and wonder whether it could solve the problem.

There's this wonderful experimental quality to '60s liberalism. It's that part of the liberal impulse that liberals have given up on. A lot of the things they worried about in the '60s turned out to be pipe dreams but that doesn't mean the impulse was wrong. The impulse is incredible important. I think of New York City subway director David Gunn's campaign to clean up the subway as reviving the liberal impulse of the '60s. Lots of subway advocates went after him saying, you're wasting your time, why spend all of this energy fixing the subway when we can name fifty other things that are more serious? He stuck to his guns, he wanted to experiment, he wanted to try something. The book, in one sense, is a call for experimentation.

HB: But you could say that what reduced up crime New York City was not so much cleaning up the subway or fixing broken windows. It was Guliani's police cracking down. And that, in turn, has led to a whole series of police killings.

MG: Other cities have brought down the crime rate without Guliani style confrontations. New York could have done it without confrontation. There are a number of ways to change context. In community policing, the cops establish a personal presence. Community policing is about using the police as the eyes of the street. New York City could have done that. There was no reason for antagonism.

The idea is to get below a certain threshold. Kids carry guns because they think that other kids are carrying guns. If you get below the threshold, kids no longer have to carry guns because no one else is carrying them and gun carrying on the street literally plunges. So in some neighborhoods, we got below the threshold, and the crime rate tipped down. The question is: how do you get below the threshold? The cops were doing lots of spot-checks -- shaking people down and arresting them for carrying guns. The question is, can you get below the gun-carrying threshold without having a confrontational attitude towards the population?

HB: One of the counter-intuitive things you do is defend band-aid solutions. You argue that the band-aid is very versatile, works in all sorts of contexts and is cheap. Why throw it out? But doesn't that view encourage us to think that we never have to get to the root of anything because band-aid solutions are sufficient?

MG: I was saying you can do small things that will make a huge difference in crime. That doesn't mean you can then walk away. I hope that is not the way it is taken.

Liberals have traditionally argued that our obligation to those less fortunate than we are has is that there are consequences if we don't come through.

HB: Social revolution being among them.

MG: Yes. The formative insight of the Newt Gingrich right-wing revolution of the 1990s was that this wasn't so. The disturbing but brilliant insight at the heart of the Republican view was, basically, that you can do anything you want to poor people. I once did an article for the Washington Post on Guliani when it was clear that he was trying to drive the poor out of New York. There was no other explanation for his policies, and he realized he could get away with it. I find that incredibly disturbing. And it has occurred to me that one way "The Tipping Point" could be read is that by cleaning up graffiti, by picking up litter, by shaking down people in the street, you are dealing with poverty.

HB: The book could be read that way. This is not a time when the poor have a voice that matters.

MG: But we have to admit that the old liberal argument that there are dire consequences to cutting welfare and the like, is wrong. The consequences are moral, not social. It's isn't that there will be a social revolution and the poor are going to storm the suburbs. They're not going to storm the suburbs.

I think you should not justify obligation to the poor in non-moral terms. The attempt to make non-moral arguments is also what I object to in the debate about smoking in this country. The argument is always made that we have to go after tobacco companies because the health care costs associated with smoking represent an incredible economic burden on society. For one thing, that's not true; it's been proved false a million times.

HB: Because smokers die young?

MG: They die young, on an average of five or six years earlier than nonsmokers. The truth is that the savings from lower social security payments to lung cancer victims are greater than the expenses incurred by higher health care costs. And that's not even counting the amount that smokers pay in extra taxes.

HB: So why target smoking?

MG: Because it's bad, it's bad for society that people should die. Why do we need to make an economic argument? The economic argument is false and it obscures the real point, which is that people should not be addicted to things that make them die young -- regardless of the economic consequences. Why do we need, in this day and age, to put everything in dollars and cents? Why do we have to help the poor only because otherwise the poor might rise up and take over the suburbs? We don't need that argument.

HB: There is so much in your book that would seem to appeal to marketers. Are you now or have you ever been a high-priced marketing consultant?

MG: I do actually give talks to marketers. But part of my thinking in writing the book was to remystify the marketing process. The standard model is: I would like to sell a product so I set up focus groups. But what is actually important are much more subtle and organic forms of communication, such as word of mouth. And those are much harder to set up and manipulate. Mavens and connectors and salesmen -- I know who mine are but not how to identify them by and large. I was explicitly referring to categories of people who cannot be easily identified by age, income, gender, IQ -- whatever. They can only be identified by personality traits that are randomly distributed through the population. That's actually a hard model to use in a marketing context. If I was a marketer, I would read "The Tipping Point" and think, this is much harder than I thought.

I haven't written a blueprint for marketing campaigns -- on the contrary. Though it is true "The Tipping Point" is being sold in the business section of Barnes and Nobles.

HB: In what section should it be sold?

MG: I have no idea. I wrote it for my New Yorker audience, and my New Yorker audience is simply intelligent and curious people.

HB: You pay special tribute to Judith Rich Harris, writing that her book, "The Nurture Assumption" "changed the way I thought about the world." How so?

MG: Judy Harris reintroduced the idea of "culture" to our conception of behavior and personality development. I had been trapped in the static biology and family-based idea that maintained we are the permanent creations of heredity and home. Harris made me realize that in fact we are powerfully in the grip of the world around us.

To read "The Nurture Assumption" is to be struck by how subtle its arguments are. Harris spends a lot of time talking about the story of Cinderella. When Cinderella goes to the ball, the ugly stepsisters don't recognize her. Harris asks if that is plausible or not. This leads her into a brilliant discussion of how our family relationships matter -- for how we behave in our family. Outside the family, we adhere to a completely different of rules.

HB: But don't parents have a lot to do with shaping the environment for children outside the home by deciding where to live, where to send their kids to school, what kind of friendships to encourage? .

MG: Harris makes that point. At the end of the book there's a call for parents to worry even more about the environment in which their kids grow up -- the school their kids go to and so on. She completely dignifies all those traditional parental preoccupations.

HB: Doesn't the Harris view imply less guilt all around?

MG: Yes.

HB: Is it good to have less guilt?

MG: I think in many cases, yes. Remember, Harris is in her sixties. The height of parent torture was in the '50s and '60s when parents were held responsible for everything. What caused schizophrenia? The frigid -- the "schizogenic" -- mother. Think about the misery ideas like that created for parents. That's what she's reacting against. If she's putting a nail in that coffin, god bless her.

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