The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

By now many people have heard about The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2002. Of course the idea of a tipping point is well known. According to it is “the critical point in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development. … A tipping point is often considered to be a turning point.” When the straw breaks the camel’s back a tipping point has been reached.

In The Tipping Point Gladwell explores turning points in social phenomena and attempts to explain what causes them to tip from barely noticed oddities to full blown trends or fads. What causes teens to smoke? How and why did Paul Revere’s midnight ride motivate colonists to arms? What made Sesame Street popular and how did Blue’s Clues further leverage its lessons of success? Why is teen suicide more prevalent in some cultures? Why do we pay close attention to the advice of some but not others?

Gladwell’s thesis is that social phenomena are driven past the tipping point by the subtle workings of a tiny subset of the population. Individuals with special social characteristics or employing certain seemingly unimportant techniques can make a huge difference. Much, though not all, of the book is devoted to describing these special types of individuals or techniques.

For example, there are

  • Connectors — people who know a lot of people,
  • Mavens — people who know a great deal about one area of general interest and can easily distill and communicate what is new,
  • Salesmen — people who can get others to “buy into” an idea.

These types of people help facilitate tipping because for an idea to tip it has to be widely disseminated, easily absorbed and retained (“sticky” in Gladwell’s lexicon), and operate in a supportive context.

Of course, being a talented story teller, Gladwell does not simply list these ideas in the dry fashion I just did. He weaves them into tales of interesting encounters and relates them to well known but perhaps not well explained social phenomena: the spread of disease, the popularity of certain clothing, the success of certain children’s TV shows, and so forth. I found it an enjoyable and easy read. The few parts that dragged I skimmed. One can follow the thread without actually reading every single detail of every story.

What I find fascinating about the book is also its weakness. It is fundamentally a plausible story about social fads. While the ideas relate metaphorically to scientifically studied phenomena (e.g., the spread of disease, drug addiction, and some areas of psychology) it is not itself entirely scientific. To be sure, some aspects are: Gladwell describes some research in psychology that is consistent with his notion of what makes things tip. Fine. Good. But he doesn’t point to studies that show that connectors, mavens, and salesmen are causes of social fads. It is plausible they are. But plausibility is not science. Anecdotes and descriptive statistics, as fun and rhetorically useful as they are, are not science either.

That’s a limitation, but I don’t take it too seriously. I’m not condemning the book for it. His insights are just too interesting, too compelling to be dismissed. And they are practical. The marketing industry is based on many of the ideas Gladwell explores. Social media technology leverage them. They go part way to explaining why some blogs are more popular than others, among other things. That’s interesting (to me).

Moreover, Gladwell’s ideas have practical implications. He suggests that a way to get teens to smoke less is not to brow beat them about the dangers of smoking but to simply reduce the level of nicotine in cigarettes. Teens will be teens. They will rebel. Smoking will seem cool to some of them. So let them smoke, he says. Just don’t let smoking be physically addictive. In time teens will grow up and many will drop the habit, because they can, because they will not be addicted.

He doesn’t go down a list of policy prescriptions but one can think of many areas in which to apply Gladwell’s ideas, like sex education or the war on drugs. Moreover, Gladwell’s ideas of what makes things tip can lead to lower cost interventions than the brute force ones we often implement. It would be nice to see some rigorous studies of The Tipping Point concepts. If you know of any, please share.

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