The transformative power of social epidemics

Social epidemics have become a decisive factor in the direction of the modern world, hence the importance of understanding them. It is a mechanism by which many phenomena are easily contagious and spread in communities, to the point of generating substantial changes. To better understand them, a great reference is the book “The Tipping Point”, by Malcom Gladwell, in Spanish it is also known as “The key to success” (How little things can make a big difference).

Tipping point or inflection point is a term we use in public health to describe the moment when a disease becomes an epidemic (or pandemic) and becomes uncontrollable. It is the moment in which the graph of the phenomenon is triggered without further explanation and it occurs not only in medicine but in many other social situations that inexplicably explode. The British sociologist (of Canadian origin) Malcolm Gladwell attributes these phenomena to three agents of change: the Law of the Few, the Hit Factor and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few: a small number of people can cause big changes. Economists talk about the 80/20 rule. Also known as ‘Pareto’s Law’ which explains that, for a large number of phenomena, approximately 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes. In a factory, 80% of its sales generally correspond to 20% of its products. In a city, 20% of the citizens have a car and occupy 80% of the public space. 20% of drivers cause 80% of car accidents, etc. It means that 20% of people are responsible for 80% of a phenomenon.

The Stick Factor: there are ideas that stick and others that don’t; there are varieties of bacteria that spread easily and others that die; some coronaviruses are more contagious than others; there are products that monopolize the markets, others disappear without remedy. Some phenomena enjoy the Pegue Factor, which favors their expansion, which depends on the empathy or hooking power of the product. Similar to the transmission power of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that thanks to the S protein (a hook) of its corona, has an enormous capacity to grip the lungs and multiply there.

A related book is “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” (Why some ideas survive and others die). The authors, brothers Chip and Dan Heath explain the six key characteristics that make ideas “stick.”

The Power of Context: Finally, the social context is important. Human beings are extremely sensitive to their environment and the behavior of their peers. Most people unconsciously “copy” or imitate the behaviors of the people around them, since they feel them as socially correct. The visible and expandable social context creates trend conditions to attract people. A classic example of this is the “Flash Mobs”, where for example a group of people go out dancing and they are joined by many spontaneous ones.

If we understand the processes of change as something slow, with a prolonged temporality, when we are faced with immediate social transformations it is difficult for us to understand and assimilate them. We are used to more routine social processes like a pendulum, which comes and goes, without sudden movements. And unprepared for something more disruptive, like when a social epidemic breaks out.

In his book, Gladwell documents his hypothesis with several studies of social processes that suddenly exploded: this is the case of the beginning of certain fashions such as that of Hush Puppies shoes, on the brink of extinction in the nineties and that suddenly rose to the fore in consumer preferences, without advertising resources involved. Some realized how anatomical and soft it was, since foot care required very high quality footwear. So people simply began to acquire them again and spread their qualities by voice to voice. Social epidemics are amazing.

Today the aforementioned shoes are so compatible with the human anatomy that they are recommended even for health reasons. Like that, there are hundreds of epidemic and well-positioned cases. The same ones that confirm how an isolated event, planted in the right social context, under the right conditions, becomes a global phenomenon, crossing borders and social classes.

In short, The Tipping Point talks about the “breaking point” of social epidemics, about irreversible trends and how to be part of them or detonate them, as long as they are related to a positive change. Undoubtedly, understanding our society and its transformations is a necessary condition for any initiative, undertaking or business to become an organic part of it and contribute to its evolution.

Apostille: Personally, Malcom Gladwell is one of my favorite authors. His publications have been a great reference in my social research. I also recommend other of his works such as: “Intuitive Intelligence” and “Outstanding People”.

The Tipping Point

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