The recent article in Fast Company by Clive Thompson discussing …. or debunking …. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory went around the Internet last week with celebrity dirt-like speed. Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki and many others posted on the demise of the influencer. Having just spent a week in a room full of Phd’s discussing the social psychology of influence, it struck me that there were layers of meaning and misunderstanding here, one or two of which I could grapple to the ground with a degree of credibility.
Fast Company discusses Duncan Watts’ theory that peers and other non-experts influence us far more effectively than “experts,” supporting his point with several experiments showing the effect of social proof on how people judge music. Seth Godin agrees with Watts, saying that if you want to influence someone, you must win over their friends. Experts don’t matter, A-lister or not. Guy Kawasaki stresses in his blog post that the determinant of success is “societal acceptance” rather than a small sub-segment of technical illuminati. He points out that the success of the Mac was due to a mass of true believers in graphic arts, hobbyists and others who would have been impossible to find ahead of time.
Reflecting on the social psychology of influence and Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion, this comes down to the applications of “authority” and “consensus,” both of which come into play under conditions of uncertainty. When we don’t have personal experience to guide us in a complex decision, we look to a recognized “authority” when the decision is objective, or fact-based. Which medical procedure should I get? What are my options? Sure, talk to your neighbor, but your doctor is the one who will sway you more effectively. In matters of taste, we look to “consensus,” typically many, similar others who have demonstrated their preference for a particular choice. What music do my friends like?
There is little question that in the world of complex decisions, when we’re faced with a difficult question relating to objective fact, we turn to experts. The definition of “fact,” on the other hand, might be what’s changing. If we looked at the world of technology …. with rapid product obsolescence, a maturing industry with established brand preferences, and myriad choices, I’d suggest that we’re swimming in very subjective waters. And if you buy this argument, then I’d agree completely that “experts” carry little weight. Look at Hollywood: the approval of a movie critic has no bearing on box office results. Subjectivity and points of taste have no need of self-proclaimed “experts,” who become nothing but quasi-celebrity spokespeople.
Given the Watts discussion, above, let’s dive into consensus a bit deeper. The Gladwell Tipping Point theory states that there are connectors who act as socially amplifiers, propelling trends on their way past a Tipping Point into popular consciousness. The Watts counter-argument says that “these people” don’t matter …. that your peers do. The research shows that when faced with uncertainty in cases of subjectivity …. in matters of taste, for example …. we are influenced not by “experts” but by many, similar others to ourselves. And within this may be the whole point. I may not be influenced by you when it comes to music, but I’d definitely be swayed if you waxed poetic on food; not on fashion, yes on technology; not on diets, yes on politics. Well, probably not on politics. But you get my point.
Our changing definition of “we” …. which shifts depending on the social group and the context, as we’ve discussed before — may be the missing link between the two arguments.
If we assume that “experts” are a homogenous group of super-influencers that sway us in all matters, then we will likely be disappointed in the demise of the Tipping Point theory; but if we see the nuance between “objective” versus “subjective” cases of uncertainty, our information sources change, and with them change our definition of “influencer.”