Channel Capacity

In ‘The Tipping Point’, author Malcolm Gladwell introduces the concept of Channel Capacity.

“There is a concept in cognitive psychology called the channel capacity, which refers to the amount of space in our brain for certain kinds of information.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that “the amount of space in our brain for certain kinds of information” is a vague and noncommittal definition. In typical Gladwell style, he uses simple language to introduce an idea before employing more engaging storytelling techniques to expand upon it.

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The psychology of rumour

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell introduces ‘The Psychology of Rumour’ by the sociologist Gordon Allport (illustrated above).

Allport tells the story of a rumour involving a Chinese teacher who was traveling through Maine on vacation in the summer of 1945, shortly before Japan’s surrender to the Allies at the end of World War II.

The passage demonstrates the three ways in which people adapt stories and pass them on: levelling, sharpening and assimilation. This process forms the basis of how rumours spread.

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Bystander effect

The Bystander Effect describes how, as the amount of people who witness an event increases, the probability that each of them will act in response decreases.

Wikipedia provides this definition:

“The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present.”

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates the Bystander Effect by describing the the now infamous 1964 stabbing of a young New Yorker by the name of Kitty Genovese (pictured).

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Critical mass and The Tipping Point

Critical mass describes the point at which the spread-rate of an innovation or idea “tips” from being in a state of equilibrium to a state of rapid, exponential growth.

In this definition there are three independent stages:

  1. Equilibrium
  2. Critical mass
  3. Exponential growth

In his eponymous book, Malcolm Gladwell refers to the moment of critical mass as the tipping point. He provides a passage which illustrates these three stages beautifully.

“The best way to understand the Tipping Point is to imagine a hypothetical outbreak of the flu. Suppose, for example, that one summer 1,000 tourists come to Manhattan from Canada carrying an untreatable strain of twenty-four-hour virus.”

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