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Breakfast With

Malcolm Gladwell

Monday, February 05, 2001

By Marylynn Uricchio, Post-Gazette SEEN Editor

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the former New York bureau chief for the Washington Post. He has written about the inventor of the birth control pill, the power of personal connectors, the science of coolhunting, retail anthropology, race and sports and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Gladwell is the author of "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," an examination of social epidemics and the ways human behavior can be influenced. He will speak tomorrow as part of the Town Hall South subscription lecture series. Call 724-941-6439 or 412-854-4393.

Q. Why does change happen?
I'm interested in a certain kind of change, sudden and dramatic change. And I think that a lot of time really sudden change happens the same way disease epidemics happen. We can take the principles from the study of disease epidemics and apply them to things like why movies become blockbusters or why everybody is pushing around a Razor scooter. People are in search of novelty. We have restless imaginations that need to be satisfied, and we're always looking for the next thing.

Q. Is there always a cause and an effect?
No. I think that an awful lot of change is relatively random, and I think that it's fruitless to try and figure out why something happens. Sometimes we just need to identify changes and jump onboard. People spend too much energy trying to get to the root, the origin of trends or ideas, when these things arise serendipitously.

Q. What is a social epidemic?
When ideas or behaviors or trends move through a population just as a virus moves through a population. It's when everyday life begins to resemble disease epidemics. Every flu epidemic and every measles epidemic and every HIV epidemic on some level look the same. They follow the same principles. They rise very, very dramatically after they hit a certain critical point, the tipping point. They're dependent on the actions of a very small number of people. There are a number of rules that describe the way viruses act, and I think those rules are just as relevant in describing why ideas or behaviors take off.

Q. How do trends ignite?
One part of the story, probably the most important part, is that there are a very small number of people who have these innate and powerful social gifts that allow them almost single-handedly to create social trends. I think sometimes we spend too much time in a trend focusing on the object that becomes popular and not enough time focusing on the circumstances under which it became popular, in particular, the people who were promoting it.

Q. If there are people who are that powerful and influential, why are they wasting their efforts on a Razor scooter?
It isn't that they're rich and powerful and have the means to accomplish extraordinary things in those dimensions. It's that in their particular social network, they have a certain status, the respect of their peers, the ability to communicate with others well. You can find those gifts anywhere. If we went into a fifth-grade classroom, we could identify the people who had these special social powers, or in a group of guys who have been addicted to heroin for 30 years in Baltimore.

Q. What factors can affect social epidemics -- for example, does the idea have to be a good one?
Usually, yes. I talk about the quality of stickiness, which is memorability. In addition to being infectious, being able to grab someone's attention, the idea has to be able to hold someone's attention. That's something that's incredibly important now, when were bombarded with information. The thing that sets apart really successful epidemics is that somehow they find a way to be remembered.

Q. Why aren't we more selective? Take teen smoking. Not a good idea ...
It's not a healthy thing, but it's a pleasurable thing. It's also something that's deeply appealing to many people. It's addictive, it makes them feel very good, and it's cool. Stacked against the health risks, those are powerful advantages. It would not have spread unless it had something going for it. It just doesn't have what we want it to have going for it.

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