Book Review: Made to Stick, Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Most planning information is dull and boring. This is related to the fact that most planners that disseminate the information are also dull and boring. An R-2 zoning classification with an impervious surface ratio of 0.3 and a length to width ratio of......okay, you get my point. Don't stop reading yet, because here is a book that can help planners, and their supporters, communicate more effectively.

Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, is one of the most extraordinary and influential books ever written on making systematic change. It is in our top ten of essential reads for planners. If you have not read it, you really need to.

Drawing inspiration from Tipping Point are the brothers Heath - Chip and Dan - with a great book called Made to Stick, Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. While Gladwell wrote about social epidemics and coined the term "stickiness" to describe an idea or concept that catches on and persists, the Heath's book focuses primarily on what makes an idea "sticky". They identify six principles, which are:

  1. Simplicity, the concept of stripping an idea down to its core.
  2. Unexpectedness, the notion that a sticky idea will violate people's expectations.
  3. Concreteness, to ensure that ideas are relayed in explicit, human terms.
  4. Credibility, which requires that an idea, although unexpected, can be believed once offered.
  5. Emotions, details how people connect to the information.
  6. Stories, to help people connect the idea to their life and experiences.

The book is a really quick read, packed full of examples and applications of these principles to learn from. Like The Big Sort, it also delves into human psychology with some revealing stories of social experiments that have been performed. One that was profound for me was the Tappers and Listeners experiment, which creates the Curse of Knowledge.  From the book:

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of the two roles: "tappers" or "listeners". Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as "Happy Birthday to You" and "The Star Spangled Banner." Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener's job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped.

The listener's job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton's experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed on 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

But here's what made the result worth of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent.

The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

when a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself - tap out "The Star Spangled Banner." It's impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can't hear that tune - all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.

In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn't the song obvious? The tappers' expressions, when a listener guesses "Happy Birthday to You" for "The Star Spangled Banner" are priceless: How could you be so stupid?

It's hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge. When they're tapping, they can't imagine what it's like for their listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listener's state of mind.

Imagine being a property owner or resident in a community appearing before a planning board. The board starts tapping.....R-2, coverage limits, floor/area ratio.... No wonder so many applicants and residents walk away angry while the board walks away indignant.

Put another way, how many times has a local official run a campaign to make changes in the zoning office, only to become a big supporter of zoning six months into office? We've seen it dozens of times. After six months in office that official is now hearing more than just tapping.....they are getting some of the music too.

Wouldn't it be great if we could communicate with everyone the same way we are able to communicate with that public official over their first six months in office?

Let me give an example of how Community Growth Institute has tried to do this. When we first started working in the City of Emily, they had standard Euclidean zoning. Their zoning classifications were the familiar R-1, R-2, R-3, C-1, C-2, B-1, B-2 and I. These designations, while common across the country, impart little information to members of a community. What would you expect to see in an R-1 District? How about a C-2 District? You may have a vague idea of what should be there, but nothing real concrete in your head.

Following a planning process, we created entirely new designations in Emily. In comparison, now ask yourself, what you would expect to see in in these districts:

  • Forest Preservation
  • Forest Residential
  • Rural Preservation
  • Neighborhood Residential
  • Downtown Mixed-Use
  • Commercial Transition

We have actually had people come into the office and ask if they needed to plant trees because they were in the Forest Residential area. Completely unprompted too. That is making an idea sticky!

Read this book. Highly recommended.

And for the television generation that can't focus long enough to read an entire book, here is a video interview with the authors that you can watch. 

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