Presidentís message

Tipping point?

This message is being written as election results are being reported. I am always intrigued by the proces and the media and political maneuverings. Looking at how and why individuals make their decisions, trying to understand human and group behavior, would be great entertainment if the results were not so impacting. While it is interesting to hear the variation in experts’ analysis of the reasons behind the results, of even more insight are the responses I receive listening to regular Joes such as cab drivers, gas-station attendants, shopping clerks, or business travelers, scattered in different locales with varied backgrounds.

On reviewing what I heard the last several months, I have become more convinced that the actual facts do not matter when looking at trends and social behavior. To repeat the often repeated quote, “Perception is reality.” Even deeper, looking at my recent data points, voting decisions are not made on data but feelings. People vote and take action with their hearts versus their heads. Behavior is more driven by emotion than by fact or science. This is not to say the decisions are wrong, or that because the recent election trend was counter to mine, all other voters must be stupid or did not think (I will let you and time determine the intelligence of the results). My point is, if we want to have influence, focusing on emotion will yield larger results if the world is casting a vote either in an election box or a grocery store cash register. These are the two arenas that can change the way we raise livestock.

This is really tough for me to admit, because as veterinarians, we are scientists and believe facts are king and will win eventually every time. Wrong. The most reinforcing example is the approval of Proposition 2 in California – an action that will eliminate egg production in the state, raise costs for consumers, and, it can be argued, lower food safety. Science was strongly on our side, but that argument did not gain any traction. While the science must always be right, it is foolish to debate the masses on anything but an emotional-component basis.

The recent happenings have reminded me of a book I read several years ago, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcom Gladwell.1 The idea behind the book is very simple. The best way to understand the changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses. Items that become trends have three characteristics: one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment. The “tipping point” is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. That is the dramatic moment when everything can change all at once. The examples and documentations in the book were paradigm-shifting for me. Post reading, I now evaluate happenings under a totally different light. To give the book true justice, one must read for more depth than this simple explanation and learn the three rules of the tipping point: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

Looking at the national presidential election, what was the tipping point? Was it the economic crash, with John McCain’s quote “The fundamentals of the economy are sound”? Was it having his VP’s credibility implode through Saturday Night Live parodies or from reports of her clothes-shopping spree? Or was it the emotion, trust, and hope generated by a man with humble beginnings on the verge of a new frontier when Barack Obama stated “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” defending Reverend Wright in his landmark speech on US race relations. They all match the criteria. The ideas created were contagious and “stuck” with many; the specific acts were narrow and minor compared to the broad magnitude of the future job; and the change occurred dramatically and quickly.

Is the passage of Proposition 2 the tipping point in animal welfare? Yes, but the direction is yet to be determined. It could and is highly likely to lead to a state-by-state referendum to eliminate one choice of humane options for livestock production. However, if we focus on the emotion of small businessmen going out of business, loss of jobs, young mothers and retirees unable to afford higher-priced eggs, lowered food safety, and more imports from outside the United States, Proposition 2 passage could be the tipping point for many to feel the unintended consequences of similar actions. Time will tell. I am just not sure if my emotions will be happy with either outcome.


1. Gladwell M. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown & Company; 2000.

-- Kerry Keffaber, DVM