Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point

Do you ever wonder why trends occur or ideas spread like wildfire? From social behaviours to fashion, they all seem to reach a threshold where rapid change occurs in a relatively short period of time. Gladwell looks behind the surface of many familiar occurrences in our everyday lives to explain why epidemics arise, and how very small things work together to initiate change on a vast scale.

The Tipping Point is a fascinating exploration of social epidemics and the factors that contribute to their existence. Gladwell lays out a range of theories and insights to explain why certain information spreads the way it does. It’s packed full of examples and stories to illustrate his points which makes it an entertaining read with a good flow.

‘The best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or the transformation of unknown books into best sellers is to think of them as epidemics.’

He begins by arguing that contagiousness is an unexpected property of all kinds of things from ideas, products, messages and behaviours. They spread almost like viruses where they reach a ‘tipping point’, which is a sort of critical mass or threshold. He explains that there are similar factors which underlie all these occurrences and lays them out in the next few chapters.

There are three types of people who are critical to the spread of information. Gladwell calls them: Connectors, Mavens and Salesman. Connectors, as you can imagine, are people who have that special gift of bringing the world together. Our social circles are more like pyramids where those circles can usually be traced back to a few people in your life. It’s not too hard to see why these people are essential to information heading towards a tipping point.

Mavens however, are a little less obvious. They are the people who accumulate knowledge about things. They tend to be a source of information for those around them as they tend to accumulate knowledge about a variety of things that the normal person would not be attuned to or disinterested by. The main example given is that of a man who is obsessive about shopping information. This is a person who has information on a lot of different products or prices or places. They initiate discussions with consumers and respond to requests. They’re more than an expert and are socially motivated.

The last type of person, the Salesman, as you can probably guess is the person who has those skills to persuade us when we’re unconvinced of what we’re hearing. They tend to have an innate charm and likability. Gladwell emphasises that persuasion can be influenced by the smallest of things that may seem arbitrary or seemingly insignificant such as a smile or nod. It tends to be the subtle, hidden or unspoken things that influence us the most. Combined, this small set of people have vast powers to influence the manner in which information spreads.

Despite this, information must also have its own innate qualities in order to transition into an epidemic. It must stick with people otherwise it’s not going to go very far. This is illustrated in depth through the shows Sesame Street and Blue's Clues and Gladwell explains why they became so successful with children across America.

Another prominent factor in the spread of information is the power of context. This is split up into two chapters, opening up with the crime epidemic that was prevalent in New York in the late 20th century. He uses the broken window theory to explain why crime in various parts of the city ran so rampant and then over such a short period of time decreased significantly. Gladwell attributes the broken window theory to this change which states that if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that nobody cares and that no one is in charge.

He puts a lot of emphasis on how effective the environment is in shaping the behaviours of those who exist within it. The power of context is an environmental argument as behaviour is a social context and what really matters is the little things. For the most part our inner states are the results of outer circumstances. The Stanford prison experiment is a key example as it demonstrates that you can lose your identity or feel like you’re losing the identity you’ve built up as a result of significant environmental changes.

This leads into the idea of individuality as well and the fact that character is more like a bundle of habits, tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times on circumstance and context. The reason most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.

The second chapter relating the power of context describes the influence of small close-knit groups which have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea. Gladwell introduces the rule of 150 which sets a limit on how well a group can operate. Brains have evolved in order to handle the complexities of larger social groups, however 150 seems to be the limit for this in a variety of contexts.

This relates to the idea of having a transactive memory because when we talk about memory, we aren’t just talking about ideas, impressions and facts stored inside our heads, we store information with other people. Gladwell states that couples do this automatically. When people know each other well, they create an implicit joint memory system which is based on an understanding about who is best suited to remember certain kinds of things.

For instance, one of the reasons divorce is made painful is through the loss of this joint memory system between two people. Divorced people who suffer depression and complain of cognitive dysfunction may be expressing the loss of their external memory systems. They were once able to discuss their experiences to reach a shared understanding and they once could count access to a wide range of storage in their partner. The loss of transactive memory feels like losing a part of one’s own mind.

The final two chapters are focused on case studies with the first one focusing on the rise and fall of Airwalk sneakers and the second delving into suicide and smoking. Gladwell makes some interesting points about smoking. He explores misconceptions related to nicotine, for instance the fact that although highly addictive, it is only addictive in some people, some of the time.

He describes people known as chippers. These are people for which smoking is contagious but not sticky. The definition is someone who smokes no more than five cigarettes a day but who smokes at least four days a week. Another point related to this is that the children of smokers are two times more likely to smoke than non-smokers. However, this may be due to the fact that smokers’ children have inherited genes from their parents that predispose them towards nicotine addiction instead of their parents setting an example.

It’s difficult not to enjoy this book. There’s so many fascinating avenues and stories which make it flow really well. Gladwell goes into good detail with many of the examples and although there are points of contention, it’s a fascinating look into the hidden cogs of epidemics. It’s quite thought-provoking and opens up a different perspective to look out from. The case studies are well thought out and the way Gladwell writes could make you interested in anything.