“In the words of that now-famous book that everybody is reading, it reaches a kind of tipping point and people kind of get it”
- Bill Clinton
In Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell posits a powerful case for thinking of certain social and commercial trends as epidemics. He argues that “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” His book is useful for anyone interested in influencing others, and understanding the mechanics of sudden, widespread change. Gladwell takes readers through a series of intriguing examples of such epidemics, old and new, and explains the often surprisingly small details which made them possible. These epidemics range from the sparking of the American Revolution, to crime waves, to the success of Hush Puppies and Sesame Street.
The book’s key points are as follows:
There are three key principles or laws which are critical factors in “tipping” a trend into a major epidemic: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
The Law of the Few: “says that one critical factor in epidemics is the nature of the messenger”. Certain key people have a much greater influence than others when it comes to spreading an epidemic. Gladwell classifies these people as:
Connectors the people who maintain a much wider network of acquaintances and contacts than average. They have their feet in many “worlds”, different professional, social and ethnic groups. As a result, they are able to share information much more effectively.
Mavens who are the people who understand new trends, they “closely scrutinize information, keep the market honest, enjoy telling others about it.” Crucially, Mavens help others because it brings them pleasure, not for material gain. This makes their advice very powerful, though they are not persuaders.
Salesmen those people who are able to persuade others effectively and consistently through charisma, skill and experience.
The Stickiness Factor: In our media-saturated world, creating messages which people remember is challenging. This is known as the “clutter-problem”. Crucially though, stickiness can usually be cultivated with surprisingly small adjustments. One key factor noted is the ability to demonstrate how an idea or concept fits into a person’s life: “once the advice became practical and personal, it became memorable”
- The Power of Context: States that the context in which messages are delivered or events unfold is critical to the spread of an epidemic. Gladwell sites numerous studies which have shown how people behave very differently depending on context, yet that, crucially, people tend to underestimate the importance of context. This is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error:
“when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior human beings make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context”
There are interesting evolutionary explanations for why this is, psychologist Walter Mischel posits a ‘reducing valve’ that “creates and maintains a perception of continuity even in the face of perpetual observed changes in actual behavior”.
The book is basically spent giving detailed examples of events where the above three laws or principles can be used to understand seemingly baffling epidemics. It is a highly entertaining read, with one or two genuinely profound nuggets. The section on the creation and adaptation of Sesame Street, which explores child psychology is a particular delight.
I have qualms – there are certain sections where I think much more complex socio-economic phenomena need to be considered. One obvious example is the chapter on crime in New York. Gladwell wholly subscribes to the notion that the “broken windows” policy of the Giuliani administration led to the massive reduction in crime in the early ‘90s. That is to say, that by creating certain types of “contexts” (e.g. a subway without graffiti), crime was reduced. Others, such as Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics, have posited different, more compelling (and controversial) arguments for the causes of this drop in crime, such as the legalization of abortion 20 years previously.
Tipping Point was always going to be biased, but that’s not to say that it isn’t well researched. When it’s good, it’s really good, and even the slower sections offer thought-provoking moments. You’ll breeze through it in an afternoon – highly recommended.
“Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.”