Making a Big Difference


Gladwell, M. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. 2000 . Little, Brown and Company , Boston, MA . 279 pp. $24.95. ISBN 0-316-31696-2 .

Conservation Biology frequently publishes essays and letters that admonish academic training in conservation for failing to teach us what we really need to know to make conservation work. Recommendations are commonly voiced for improved interdisciplinary education and for more on-the-ground involvement in management and policy making. This is all well and good, but it still smacks of a sterile academic approach—a matter of curriculum reform. An equally valuable solution to the irrelevance of so much academic conservation might be to encourage a wide reading of books that discuss effective, management strategies and team building. Such topics might seem far removed from metapopulation models and population viability analysis, but successful conservation depends on much more than science alone. A remarkable new book of this ilk is “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, who was formerly a business and science writer for the Washington Post, is now a staff writer at The New Yorker. His thesis is that individuals can make a huge difference, but that it requires a special concordance of several circumstances. Because so many readers of this journal want to make a difference, they would benefit greatly by reading Gladwell's book. I found that it helped me to understand why some conservation initiatives I have been involved with succeed whereas others fail.

Gladwell uses the spread of an epidemic as a metaphor for how changing attitudes and ideas move through a population. To launch an “epidemic of change,” three types of people are needed: those who know a lot (“mavens”), those who are extremely well connected (“connectors”), and those who are persuasive (“salespersons”). But even having the right combination of people does not guarantee that change will happen. Obviously, the idea itself has to have merit—what Gladwell calls the “stickiness” of an idea. Lastly, the context in which the change or new idea is presented must be right. This fun-to-read book is filled with examples that turn this message into a compelling way of looking at the world. For instance, we learn how, by using beauticians as “connectors,” a community of African-American women in San Diego was catalyzed to pay more attention to the risk of breast cancer and seek mammograms. We are told about the “magic number of 150” as a limit to the size of groups that allows sharing of information and clear division of responsibilities without the burden of oppressive hierarchies. Anecdotes describing connectors, mavens, and salespeople will prompt any reader of this book to start thinking of their professional colleagues in a new light.

Gladwell's numerous tales about the importance of context are particularly compelling (and disturbing). In an experiment involving seminarians and two treatments—having an appointment for which the subjects were late versus having just discussed the parable of the good Samaritan—we learn how crucial context was to whether or not an individual in need got assistance from the seminarians. Of course, we learn a great deal about the infamous “sham prison” in the basement of Stanford University's psychology department and how context altered human behavior. A remarkable experiment examining the context dependence of cheating among thousands of schoolchildren is also summarized. Such studies might seem remote from conservation, but their message is indispensable. Conservation requires changing the behavior of individuals, societies, and governments. One will never succeed in promoting change without a sense of the message's context.

We so often think of conservation as a scientific discipline, and certainly science should play a major role in conservation practice. But to implement conservation, we build teams of people—ideally of connectors, mavens, and salespeople—and we instigate change by delivering compelling (“sticky”) messages in a fruitful context. The platitudes put forth by Gladwell are, in hindsight, a bit obvious, but the details of the examples are eloquent and insightful. Many of the stories told by Gladwell will make you revisit your own world in a new way. Gladwell has written a wonderfully optimistic book that I recommend to all conservation biologists. Modest attention to the message of this book will help us accomplish conservation in a way no amount of curriculum reform could ever achieve.