Books: As if a switch were flipped - Old attitudes and fixed behaviours can shift suddenly and unexpectedly. Robert Worcester enjoys this account of society's metamorphosing codes

Books: As if a switch were flipped - Old attitudes and fixed behaviours can shift suddenly and unexpectedly. Robert Worcester enjoys this account of society's metamorphosing codes - THE TIPPING POINT: HOW LITTLE THINGS CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE by Malcolm

by ROBERT WORCESTER
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

THE TIPPING POINT: HOW LITTLE THINGS CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE by Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown & Company pounds 14.99

Have you ever wondered what tipped Britain from being a smoking to a non-smoking society? Most businesses today are non-smoking; yet just 25 years ago MORI and Cambridge University Press became the first non-smoking companies in the country, or so we were told by our friends at ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

In those days, most people would light up at a dinner party without so much as a glance at their neighbour. Now, at many dinner parties no-one even considers smoking; those smokers who crave their nicotine will first ask sheepishly: 'Mind if I smoke?' And, likely as not, they will be told that people do mind.

The shift in public opinion over smoking is mirrored in hundreds of ways, from the rise of one fashion icon and the fall of another to the dramatic decrease in street crime in New York during the '90s. There is something called the tipping point, when public opinion shifts from one thing or idea to another, as if someone flipped the switch.

Although a little repetitive and prone to cliche, this is nonetheless as informative and thought-provoking a book as I have read in some time. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, a New York magazine contributor, has identified three 'tipping' characteristics: one, contagiousness; two, that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment.

His arguments and examples are persuasive. The chapter on children's TV programmes is riveting. From the testing that perfected Sesame Street in the '60s to Blue's Clues in the '90s - all had the three things that made for compulsive viewing. He calls them the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few posits that there are a few hypersocial people who, through their social connections, energy, enthusiasm and personality, move the agenda. When they get the message and start to spread it, it's like the midnight ride of Paul Revere shouting: 'The Redcoats are coming!' to the people of Massachusetts that called the patriots to arms. Word-of-mouth was important then, as now.

The Stickiness Factor says there are ways of making a message memorable and that presentation of information makes a big difference. Remember 'Labour isn't working'? That was in 1979, yet it still has resonance more than two decades later.

The Power of Context states that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem. In New York's subway system, for instance, it was taking a tough line on the graffiti and fare-dodging that turned the tide.

One turning point I witnessed was the takeover of the watch industry by electronic watches. I was hired by SSIH, the Swiss company making Omega watches, to see if they presented a threat. I went to America in 1975 to run focus groups among early adopters, then tested the hypotheses these groups threw up on a national sample of Americans. I returned to Switzerland to report that 250,000 units at dollars 425 had been sold that year.

Next year, the price would fall to dollars 100 and a million would be sold. The year after that, the price would fall to dollars 20, selling five million. (I was wrong - the price fell to dollars 10 and 10 million were sold). The president of SSIH listened carefully. 'Nothing,' he finally said, 'will ever replace Swiss craftsmanship'. Two years later they were out of business.

We've been looking at the diffusion of ideas and the role of SPAs (sociopolitical activists) in the UK for more than 20 years. SPAs are more likely than their peers to stand for public office, make speeches and generally take the lead. This work follows a tradition, begun in the US in the '30s, that identified Innovators, Early Majority, Late Majority and, finally, Laggards. According to The Tipping Point, the adoption of watches or cutting crime follows a 'perfect epidemic curve'. Read it! Once you've absorbed its lessons, you'll apply them every day.

Robert Worcester is chairman of MORI. His latest book (with Roger Mortimer), 'Explaining Labour's Landslide', was published last July.

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