Essays

Why Malcolm Gladwell Wants You To Be Poor: Blink, The Tipping Point, and Personal Finance

In the past two months, I’ve had the opportunity to read both of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent books, Blink and The Tipping Point. While both books discuss psychological phenomena that are genuinely interesting and useful, in both cases applying the message to your personal life is at best questionable, at least for the average consumer.

Take The Tipping Point. The titular tipping point refers to the moment when something unique bcomes common; in other words, those points when something in society begins to change from one state to another.

When these phenomenon occur (think of the impact of the iPod since 2000, for example), the power of the phenomenon can convince people to buy things simply because of the force of the cultural change. Most of The Tipping Point focuses on the general methodology for starting such phenomena, such as identifying connectors (people with wide social circles), mavens (influential people who are considered “smart”), and salesmen (people who can convince others easily). Identification of these people and convincing them to evangelize for your product can result in a tidal wave of buying, and this is happening all the time – it’s this reason why I’m starting to get offered a lot of “perks” for promoting certain things to you and why some bloggers were given laptops with Windows Vista on them on the mere hope that they would evangelize about Vista. (Note to my readers: I will never write about something just because it was given to me – that’s just not how I roll. However, if something is given to me and it is in fact actually useful and appropriate to personal finance, I won’t hesitate to write about it.)

Blink, on the other hand, focuses on the power of the mind to make near-instantaneous decisions – in other words, instinct. In the book, Gladwell refers to this phenomenon as “thin slicing” – in other words, a person’s ability to gauge what’s important and interesting with a very small set of experiences – and the fact that these decisions are often “better” than ones that are carefully thought out.

As with the first book, however, there are ways to corrupt this process. Information overload is one key method, and this is part of the reason that in an aisle full of toothpaste, the more expensive products are often brightly packaged and loaded with bits of information about how great the product is. If you are strolling through the store and think “Oh, I need toothpaste,” you have to make a quick decision about what toothpaste to get, so the advertisers are hoping to affect your ability to “thin slice” by literally inundating you with information. You don’t have time to evaluate 100 different types of toothpaste in the store, so you gather bits of information quickly and often end up grabbing the one that will ensure a large profit for the company.

What’s your problem with Gladwell? I don’t have a problem with Gladwell at all; in fact, it’s a statement to the high level of quality of his writing – and the cultural impact that it has had – that this piece even exists. Both books make some very dramatic and interesting points about wider cultural phenomena and about how people think.

However, both books describe sociological phenomena that are especially powerful in marketing and in convincing people to buy more by leveraging these phenomena. In a nation where people are more and more susceptible to marketing and have convenient credit available to them, they are buying more than ever – and acquiring significantly more debt than ever before.

What can I do? If you want to be able to resist the allure of effective marketing, it pays to know something about how marketing and advertising works. Thus, if you read either of these books from the perspective of a layperson or consumer, keep your eyes open for how these things actually work to affect your purchasing. For example, whenever a hot, new faddish item appears, recall from The Tipping Point that this is merely the amplification of the salesmanship of a small number of people. If you get home from a shopping trip and find that you’ve made a number of impulse buys, recall Blink and the fact that advertisers are intentionally inundating you with information so as to influence that split second when you make a decision to buy.

Although Gladwell’s books have been quite influential to marketers, don’t forget that they can be just as informative to you as a buyer.