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Posts Tagged ‘Malcom Gladwell

The Broken Windows Theory

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I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to write this post, and every time I come to a conclusion I rethink it and I come to discover I may be concluding more than I can. So anyway, here’s my best attempt to link some important theories together.

First off, let me explain what the Broken Windows theory even is. It was first introduced to me (and probably to most people) by Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, but in reality, the BW theory was first proposed by two sociologists in 1982 as a way to attempt to explain why crime is so bad in places and why it’s not so in other. The full article is here, and I encourage you to read at least the first two pages, because it’s extremely interesting, but if you don’t want to read it, I’ll just quote the most important part here:

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by “vandals” within ten minutes of its “abandonment.” The first to arrive were a family—father, mother, and young son—who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began—windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult “vandals” were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the “vandals” appeared to be primarily respectable whites.

Untended property becomes fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. Because of the nature of community life in the Bronx—its anonymity, the frequency with which cars are abandoned and things are stolen or broken, the past experience of “no one caring”—vandalism begins much more quickly than it does in staid Palo Alto, where people have come to believe that private possessions are cared for, and that mischievous behavior is costly. But vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that seem to signal that “no one cares.”

So basically, the name comes from the idea that when someone sees a broken window, they come to think that nobody cares, and thus believe it’s okay to behave badly. Some believe that the theory can be used to recursively explain the majority of crime, the idea being that someone who sees this broken window might think it’s okay to tag walls with graffiti, and someone will see that and think it’s okay to steal, and so on, until ultimately you have murder and rape and the worst of anarchy.

Now, I spent the last few hours considering how this might be applied to activism. In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky describes the what happened in the East German city of Leipzig during 1989. At the beginning of that year, people in the city began protesting. At first the protests were small- only 500 or so people and a small fraction of them might be arrested. In the government’s eye, the protests were inconsequential to use any real force against them without looking bad. Soon though, the protests began taking place weekly, and as the protests only grew a little bit each week, the government continued to do nothing, and people seeing the government do nothing, would join in small numbers. In September, the numbers swelled to a size where the government began to get worried, but by then it was too late- by October, the protests attracted tens of thousands of protesters, and at a  protest early in November, some 400,000 people showed up to protest in Leipzig. The entire East German government subsequently resigned. (The lesson for oppressive governments here is to quell protests before they get big.)

Okay, so we have two examples here, one for good and one for bad. So now we just need to find what it’s common here in order to leverage the theory.

First, you need something that is visible that transmits a message. In one case, a broken window showing nobody cares, in another, a protest showing people want freedom.

Second you need people to see your mark, and make more marks. Broken windows lead to looted cars, and each protest lead to a slightly bigger protest.

This last point is the most important. You need a population who wants to do whatever you want to do in the first place, but who are too afraid to do it on their own. In one case, we had people who want to do bad stuff, but just can’t bring themself to do for fear of punishment, or simply moral guilt. In another, we had people who genuinely wanted freedom, but were afraid to challenge an autocratic government. In neither case did the visible markers cause these sentiments- they only serve as permission to express them.

Thus, marketers and revolutionists take heed (although I would suppose most know this already)- no amount of demonstration, ads, or what have you will do anything for you unless people want to do something in the first place. So aim to change the sentiments of people first.

Written by Ceasar Bautista

2011/01/28 at 23:52

The Social Lattice

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If you are familiar with chemistry, then you probably already know that graphite and diamond are both made out of Carbon. In any case, you probably know that graphite is weak and brittle, and diamond is the strongest natural known substance on Earth. The reason for these differences it turns out, is simply the structure of the crystal. In graphite, individual carbons atoms form weak bonds with nearby carbon atoms and form hexagonal structures, while layering themselves in sheets, with one hexagon on top of the other. The weak bonds between the sheets give graphite its softness, making it perfect for writing and lubrication. In diamond, on the other hand, carbon atoms form strongly bonded tetrahedron structures (three-sided pyramids) throughout the crystal, such that a force on any of the carbon atoms would be distributed fairly evenly among each of the atoms in the structure. Diamond therefore is remarkably strong.

Likewise, in social networks, it very frankly is unimportant how many connections people have between each other. What matters most is the structure. Consider for example, a weak social “crystal”. In a weak social crystal, the connections are few and far apart. A friend of Person A knows very few if any of Person A’s other friends, and likewise for every person in the network. Interaction in such a structure is very limited, with very reason little to party or gather (since none of a person’s friends know each other) and generally, I would presume that people are somewhat unhappy. Conversely, in a strong social “crystal” almost all the friends of Person A know the other friends of Person A. In such a structure, everybody pretty much knows everybody. Gathering would be frequent, and parties filled with friends. This kind of structure I would imagine is very happy, and very involved in social events.

In reality, what we typically find is a structure inbetween the two. People tend to make friends in clusters, for example, everyone on the soccer team probably knows everybody else on the team (proximity is a huge factor as well). Beyond that though, research has shown it comes down to genetics- some people like to introduce their friends to each other, and stitch together a close personal circle of which the leader can be comfortably embedded, while other people are content to leave their friends disconnected.

I consider this important for a few reasons. Firstly, if Gladwell has any reason in his words, then epidemics are impossible in weak social networks, and in clustered networks, they are only possible with Connectors. This implies that if our goal is to start epidemics, (say if standard mass marketing is too expensive for our budgets) then we either want to find strongly connected networks, or we can try to stitch one together ourselves. Furthermore, this implies that no radical social change can come about in weak networks (since radical change really requires an epidemic).

Therefore, as an (armchair unfortunately) activist myself, I would suppose it may be more important for protests to connect people than to demonstrate outrage or express ideas. In particular, special efforts should be made to strengthen the bonds of the people who are sort of on the fringe- the people who don’t know anybody already basically- but all in a very personal way, understanding the motivations of the fringe participants (preferably by connecting them to someone who can connect them to one of Gladwell’s Persuaders).

What we need also is a way to make our ideas Sticky. These social structures, I have neglected to mention, are very much unlike their Carbon counterparts, in that they are organic. New people, friends, and groups emerge, just as easily as they die. It then, is of utmost importance that our group doesn’t disintegrate as soon as it is formed. I am frankly unsure about how to do this though. I would presuppose that people who are concerned enough to come out to one of these meetings would be willing to increase their participation level to something more interesting (with emphasis on interesting, and perhaps I should add meaningful). Therefore, I would say that it is of utmost importance that these kind of meaningful activities exist, and furthermore, that the veterans of the group take the initiative and ensure that recruits are being connecting to these activities.

I think, should the effort be made to “collect people like stamps” a grassroots movement could be made effective.

Written by Ceasar Bautista

2010/12/27 at 03:09

The Law of the Few

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Gladwell goes over the story of several people in this chapter, and explains the three types of people that are most crucial to satisfy the Law of the Few.

Firstly, there are the Connectors. Connectors are basically people who know everybody. These people have a genuine and extraordinary interest in other people and relationships. Gladwell makes the point of explaining that many of his friends are friends of a particular friend of his, and so in a way, his social circle isn’t really his social circle- it’s really his friend’s social circle, and Gladwell is just allowed in the club. Gladwell emphasizes that these people are the type who live extremely interesting lives in all walks of life- these people will go through multiple unrelated jobs and meet all sorts of people along the way. But that is their source of power, because they can link people from different worlds together.

Gladwell goes over the psychologist Stanley Milgram’s Six Degrees of Seperation experiment. Basically, what Milgram did was send a packet to 160 random people who lived in Omaha, Nebraska and instructed them to write their name on the packet and mail it to the person who they thought would get it one step closer to a particular Stockbroker who worked in Boston and lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. On average, Milgram found that it took five to six steps to reach the Bostonian.

Gladwell mentions a study where a group of psychologists survey a bunch of people living in the Dyckman public housing project in northern Manhattan to name their closest friend in the project. They found that 88% of the friends lived in the same building and half lived on the same floor. The point being that while people will tell you that their friends generally share their interests, in reality, the most important factor is proximity, even moreso than age or race.

In another study, students at the University of Utah were asked why they were friendly with certain other people. They found that while people said it’s because they share similar attitudes, they actually just share similar activities. The point being that we’re friends with the people we do stuff as much as the people that share our attitudes.

The importance of Milgram’s findings were really that not all degrees were equal. Twenty four letters reached the stockbroker at his home in Sharon, and sixteen of those were given to him by the same clothing merchant. The other letters reached the stockbroker at his office, and of those the majority came through two other particular men. So clearly, these last links were a little stronger than others.

Gladwell find in his own personal studies, that if you survey a big enough group of people and ask them to take a test that measures approximately how many people they know, you will find that the average various according to age, and status and profession all as one might intuitively expect. What one might not intuitively expect though are the outliers- Gladwell routinely found people who scored way above average. Those people are the Connectors that Gladwell is really talking about. As Gladwell puts it, these people “make friends like others collect stamps”.

Gladwell mentions the Strength of Weak ties, whose strength was discovered by the sociologist Mark Granovetter. He conducted a “classic” study in 1974 called Getting a Job. Granovetter found that 56% of people found their job through a personal connection, 18.8% through formal means like ads, and 20% applied directly. Interestingly though, of those personal connections, the majority were weak ties- only 16.6% saw the contact often, 55.6 saw the contact occasionally, and 28% saw the contact rarely.


While Connectors are the people specialists of epidemics, Mavens are the information specialists. These people are frequently studied in economics on the basis that if marketplaces depend on information, then the people with the most information must be the most important.

Gladwell goes over the fact that stores will often try to pull on a trick on consumers and advertise than an object is on sale when in fact the price is the same. Predictably, sales goes through the roof as most people don’t know the difference. But he points out that the stores have to be careful- if stores pull this trick too often, Mavens will do something about it. The Mavens will write complaints and tell their friends to avoid the store. Mavens keep the marketplace in check.

Linda Price, a marketing professor at the University of Nebraska, studies Mavens closely. Gladwell uses part of her research to demonstrate that like Connectors, Mavens are not your average person. These people are obsessed with the marketplace.

But these people, Glawell explains, are not just experts. They want to help others. And more importantly people listen- how can they not? While a Connector might tell a bunch of people about a new restaurant they found and these people might take the advice, a Maven might only tell a few friends something new and but all of his friends will listen.


While Connectors are good at spreading information and Mavens good at gathering it, there are always a few people who will never believe what they are hearing. In order to convince them,  an epidemic needs Persuaders.

Gladwell goes over the personality of Tom Gau, a finanical planner in Torrance, California. Gladwell describes Gau as a master of persuasion. But what Gladwell finds is that Gau isn’t really persuasive because of the content of words- instead it’s something else, something intangible.

Gladwell then describes an experiment that took place during the 1984 election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. A group of psychologists led by Brian Mullen of Syracuse University recorded the nightly new for eight straight days before the day of the election. Mullen then went through the tapes and eliminated all of the references to the candidates until he had 37 separate segments, each roughly two and half seconds long. The researchers than showed the clips with the sound off to randomly chosen people, who were asked to rate the facial expressions of each newscaster from 1 to 21 in each segment. Dan Rather at CBS scored 10.46- almost perfectly neutral- when he talked about Mondale and 10.37 when he talked Reagan. Likewise, Tom Brokaw a5 NBC scored an 11.21 for Mondale and 11.50 for Reagan. Finally, when Peter Jennings at ABC talked about Mondale he scored 13.38. But when talking about Reagan, Jennings face lit up, and he scored 17.44.

The researchers  wondered if Jennings was simply more expressive than his colleagues. To test this, they reran the experiment except with recording of the three men covering “happy” and “sad” stories. In this round, Jennings actually scored lower than Rather and Brokaw. The researchers concluded that Jennings must have been biased toward Reagan.

Written by Ceasar Bautista

2010/12/26 at 04:44