The Tipping Point | Notes & Review

Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Back Bay Books, 2002. (301 pages)


The Tipping Point is the “biography of an idea,” that a good way to think of “any number of [any] mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” (7) There are three basic characteristics of change — “one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment…” (9) “The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point.” (9)

CHAPTER ONE takes us through THE THREE RULES OF EPIDEMICS. Using the examples of syphilis in Baltimore, the craze of Hush Puppies shoes, the contagiousness of yawning, a few advertising slogans, and bystander experiments, Gladwell sums his course. “These three agents of change I call the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.” (19) “When it comes to epidemics, [the disproportionality of the 80/20 Principle] becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work.” (19) “The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes.” (25) “The key to getting people to change their behavior….sometimes lies with the smallest details of their immediate situation. The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem.” (29)

CHAPTER TWO, THE LAW OF THE FEW, introduces us to the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen of Gladwell’s first point. Here he tells the story of Paul Revere, and the lesser known William Dawes who set out on a similar mission but with little to no results like Revere’s ride. Why? “The answer is that the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” (33)

Using the famous “six-degrees of separation,” Gladwell suggests that “we don’t seek out friends…we  associate with the people who occupy the same small physical spaces that we do.” (35-6) So, the reason why the six-degrees works is because “not all degrees are equal.” (36) “Six degrees of separation doesn’t mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.” (36-7) “These people who link us up with the world…who introduce us to our social circles — these people on whom we rely more heavily than we realize — are Connectors, people with a special gift for bringing the world together.” (38) “Sprinkled among every walk of life…are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances.” (41) I took the “Manhattan phone book” test (in which you try to identify sur names of people you know) and scored 18 (not much of a “Connector,” am I!?) Those that do have this gift have mastered the “weak tie,” “a friendly yet casual social connection. (46) And their importance is not just for the number of people they know, but “the kinds of people they know.” (46) “They are people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches.” (48) “Their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.” (49) And, “the point about Connectors is that by having a foot in so many different worlds, they have the effect of bringing them all together.” (51) They “see possibility…while most of us are busily choosing whom we would like to know, and rejecting [others].” (53) One researcher “coined a marvelous phrase: the strength of the weak ties. Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have the more powerful you are.” (54) “It isn’t just the case that the closer someone is to a Connector, the more powerful or the wealthier or the more opportunities he or she gets. It’s also the case that the closer an idea or a product comes to a Connector, the more power and opportunity it has as well.” (55) “This is, in a nutshell, what word of mouth is. It’s not me telling you…and you telling a friend and that friend telling a friend. Word of mouth begins when somewhere along that chain, someone tells [a Connector].” (55-6)

But, “just as there are people we rely upon to connect us to other people, there are also people we rely upon to connect us with new information. There are people specialists, and there are information specialists.” (59) “The word Maven comes from the Yiddish, and it means one who accumulates knowledge.” (60) Using various consumer examples, Gladwell points out that Mavens not only “figure out how to get [a] deal, they want to tell you about it too.” (62) “They are more socially motivated,” (62) “almost pathologically helpful,” (66) and “know things that the rest of us don’t.” (67) “To be a Maven is to be a teacher. But it is also, even more emphatically, to be a student.” (69)

In a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. But there is also a select group of people — Salesmen — with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups. (70)

“What separates a great salesman from an average one is the number and quality of answers they have to the objections commonly raised by potential clients.” (72) Through this next section, using television news reporting, politics, and advertising, Gladwell writes on the “subtleties of persuasion.” (77) First, “little things can, apparently, make as much of a difference as big things.” (78) Second, “non-verbal cues are as or more important than verbal cues.” (79) Third, “persuasion often works in ways that we do not appreciate.” (79) This kind of “subtle, hidden, and unspoken” (80) persuasion is analyzed as “cultural microrhythms” (81) with “interactional synchrony.” (82) There exists a kind of “super-reflex” (83) in which the persuasive personality draws others into their own rhythms which in turn “dictates the terms of the interaction. (83) This is further substantiated by the Affective Communication Test, in which subjects’ moods, attitudes, and feelings are influenced by others around them.

CHAPTER THREE discusses THE STICKINESS FACTOR. Through the development and history of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, the addition of a map to a Tetanus Shot brochure, the addition of a “gold box” to a mail order music company, and a few other direct marketing examples, Gladwell illustrates that “the content of the message matters.” (92) But what is often needed is simply “a subtle but significant change in presentation;..a shift from an abstract lesson to a practical and personal piece of information [which makes it] memorable.” (98) Though “Sesame Street was built about a single, breakthrough insight: that if you can hold the attention of children you can educate them,” (100) additional studies showed that “kids don’t watch when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored. They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused.” (102) Through a lengthy and in-depth process of research, Blue’s Clues’ success emerges after making subtle changes in their content and presentation.

We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present. But in none of these cases did anyone substantially alter the content of what they were saying. Instead, they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas…The line between hostility and acceptance, in other words, between an epidemic that tips and one that does not, is sometimes a lot narrower than it seems…The Law of the Few says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. The lesson of stickiness is the same. There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it. (131-2)

CHAPTER FOUR is part one of THE POWER OF CONTEXT. Fundamentally, “epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” (139) The chilling story of Bernie Goetz shooting four young black men on a New York subway sets the stage for the theory of why New York’s crime reversed suddenly in the 1990s. Using the “Broken Windows theory…(the brainchild of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling)” (141), the argument is that “crime is the inevitable result of disorder.” (141) “This is an epidemic theory of crime. It says that crime is contagious — just as a fashion trend is contagious — that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community.” (141) “The impetus to engage in a certain kind of behavior is not coming from a certain kind of person but from a feature of the environment.” (142) “Broken Windows theory and the Power of Context are one and the same. They are both based on the premise that an epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment.” (146) The solution for New York city’s subways was simply removing graffiti, and arresting “fare-jumpers” (a very minor infraction). This works because “the criminal — far from being someone who acts for fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world — is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him….The Power of Context is an environmental argument. It says that behavior is a function of social context…what really matters is little things.” (150) Gladwell then cites the controversial Stanford Prison Project led by Philip Zimbardo in suggesting that “our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances.” (152) “Zimbardo’s conclusion was that there are specific situations so powerful that they can overwhelm our inherent predispositions.” (154) “When we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situations, we’re deceiving ourselves about the real causes of human behavior.” (158) “Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context.” (160)

Character, then, isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment. (163)

Gladwell then cites a fairly well-known experiment of seminary students who were to give a lecture on the Good Samaritan, and on their way to the lecture hall they were to encounter “a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning.” (164) Who would stop and help, and why? In the end, “the only thing that really mattered was whether the student was in a rush.” (165) “What this study is suggesting, in other words, is that the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior.” (165) “Once you understand that context matters, however, that specific and relatively small elements in the environment can serve as Tipping Points, that defeatism is turned upside down. Environmental Tipping Points are things that we can change…” (167)

CHAPTER FIVE is part two of THE POWER OF CONTEXT, this time discussing the magic number of one hundred and fifty. Discussing American evangelists, books that become best-sellers, and even factory workers, Gladwell illustrates “one specific aspect of context, which is the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” (171) “Small, close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea.” (174) The magic number of a group is “150.” (175) The cognitive psychology concept called “the channel capacity” (175) suggests that “there seems to be some limitation built into us either by learning or by the design of our nervous systems…in other words, we can only handle so much information at once.” (176) Therefore, there exists a “benefit of unity, of having everyone in a complex enterprise share a common relationship.” (187) “When people know each other well, they create an implicit joint memory system — a transactive memory system — which is based on an understanding about who is best suited to remember what kinds of things.” (188) [This is also fascinating as to why divorced people suffer depression and complain of cognitive dysfunction. “The loss of transactive memory feels like losing a part of one’s own mind.” (189)] Transactive memory is “knowing someone well enough to know what they know, and knowing them well enough so that you can trust them to know things in their specialty. It’s the re-creation, on an organization-wide level, of the kind of intimacy and trust that exists in a family.” (190) “That’s the advantage of adhering to the Rule of 150. You can exploit the bonds of memory and peer pressure.” (191) “That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.” (192)

CHAPTER SIX introduces a CASE STUDY on Airwalk shoes, and the power of rumors. For rumors, there is a “process of distortion” (202) that involves “leveling,” (201) “sharpening,” (201) and “assimilating,” (202) a story.

This is what is meant by translation. What Mavens and Connectors and Salesmen do to an idea in order to make it contagious is to alter it in such a way that extraneous details are dropped and others are exaggerated so that the message itself comes to acquire a deeper meaning. If anyone wants to start an epidemic, then — whether it is of shoes or behavior or a piece of software — he or she has to somehow employ Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen in this very way: he or she has to find some person or some means to translate the message of the Innovators into something the rest of us can understand. (203)

Gladwell tells the fascinating story of needle distribution in Baltimore in an effort to fight AIDS, illustrating further this idea of “translating.”

CHAPTER SEVEN is our second CASE STUDY of suicide in the South Pacific island of Micronesia, and teenage smoking in America. In both, there is “a kind of imitation…getting permission to act from someone else who is engaging in a deviant act.” (223) In both, “a very small group — a select few — are responsible for driving the epidemic forward.” (233) Taking the principles a step further, “all of the results strongly suggest that our environment plays as big — if not bigger — a role as heredity in shaping personality and intelligence. What it is saying is that whatever that environmental influence is, it doesn’t have a lot to do with parents. It’s something else, and…that something else is the influence of peers.” (241) “Teenage smoking is about being a teenager, about sharing in the emotional experience and expressive language and rituals of adolescence, which are as impenetrable and irrational to outsiders as the rituals of adolescent suicide in Micronesia.” (242) This ought to lead us to “a more reasonable approach to teenage experimentation. The absolutist approach to fighting drugs proceeds on the premise that experimentation equals addiction.” (250) However, “experimentation and actual hard-core us are two entirely separate things.” (251) “We only need to find the stickiness Tipping Points.” (250)

CHAPTER EIGHT concludes with FOCUS, TEST, AND BELIEVE. “The theory of Tipping Points requires that we reframe the way we think about the world…All of these things are expressions of the peculiarities of the human mind and heart, a refutation of the notion that the way we function and communicate and process information is straightforward and transparent. It is not. It is messy and opaque.” (257) “To make sense of social epidemics, we must first understand that human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.” (258) In the end, “Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action.” (259)

In the AFTERWORD, Gladwell explains a bit further the application points for Tipping Point in the example of AIDS (if we had fought the social behaviors more than the disease itself), and in schools (recruiting teams instead of individuals — changing the context). He then suggests that we’re entering into an,

age of word of mouth, and that, paradoxically, all of the sophistication and wizardry and limitless access to information of the New Economy is going to lead us to rely more and more on very primitive kinds of social contacts. Relying on the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen in our life is the way we deal with the complexity of the modern world. This is a function of many different factors and changes in our society, of which I’d like to talk about three: the rise of isolation, particularly among adolescents; the rise of immunity in communication; and the particularly critical role of the Maven in the modern economy. (264-5)


Following the trend of school shootings in 2000, beginning with Columbine, Gladwell suggests that “these are epidemics in isolation: they follow a mysterious, internal script that makes sense only in the closed world that teenagers inhabit.” (268) (Cf. Hurt) There is, in this example, a fairly typical “standard form of contagious anxiety.” (270) This is similar to kids getting sick in school. “It’s important to realize that sometimes epidemic behavior among children does not have an identifiable and rational cause: the kids get sick because other kids got sick. The post-Coloumbine outbreak of school shootings is, in this sense, no different.” (270)

My sense is that the way adolescent society has evolved in recent years has increased the potential for this kind of isolation. We have given teens more money, so they can construct their own social and material worlds more easily. We have given them more time to spend among themselves — and less time in the company of adults. We have given them e-mail and beepers and, most of all, cellular phones, so that they can fill in all the dead spots in their day — dead spots that might once have been filled with the voices of adults — with the voices of their peers. That is a world ruled by the logic of word of mouth by the contagious messages that teens pass among themselves. Columbine is now the most prominent epidemic of isolation among teenagers. It will not be the last. (271)


The “fax effect” (or the “law of plentitude”) describes the value of one fax machine growing as more fax machines are shipped. “When you buy a fax machine, what you are really buying is access to the entire fax network.” (272) Unlike a traditional economy where “value comes from scarcity,…power and value now come from abundance.” (272) However, as these new network technologies (e-mail, phone) become more ubiquitous, “the time and nuisance costs borne by each member of the network grow as well…The phone network is so large and unwieldly that we are increasingly only interested in using it selectively. We are getting immune to the telephone.” (273) “The more e-mail we get, the shorter and more selective and more delayed our responses become. These are symptoms of immunity.” (274) This kind of immunity “simply makes us value face-to-face communications — and the communications of those we already know and trust — all the more.” (275)


When people are overwhelmed with information and develop immunity to traditional forms of communication, they turn instead for advice and information to the people in their lives whom they respect, admire, and trust. The cure for immunity is finding Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen. (275)

Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen are a little different. They are distinguished not by worldly status and achievement, but by the particular standing they have among their friends. People look up to them not out of envy, but out of love, which is why these kinds of personalities have the power to break through the rising tide of isolation and immunity. (277)


Having read Gladwell out of order (Blink first, and Tipping Point second) there were times when I felt the examples got lengthy (e.g. Sesame Street). However, the illumination that Gladwell brings, and the apt reporting on social behavior and interactions are extremely valuable. This is one of those must reads. I hope that more would begin to see things past their immediate apparent appearances. There are things happening beneath the surface that we ought to engage with more.

The words that come to mind are simply who and environments. These elements are more important than we know and realize, and leveraging these for our efforts are critical in their success. And once again, as with much that I read, there is a dumbfounding simplicity coupled with the challenging realities of its difficulty. Ultimately, though, I’m hopeful that the clarion call that Gladwell makes, that we can actually change both the who and the environments we’re engaged with, will inspire more to shed their passivity and take up the joy of the work of transformation.

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  4. The Tipping Point is an interesting book about how fads, social movements, and learning occur. Lots of simple social theory combined with very concrete, specific examples from our current world.


      Hello, can you thin of any educational challenge that has been/could be solved by ”The tipping point”?
      Thank you

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