The Tipping Point

by Malcolm Gladwell

Cover image

Publisher: Little, Brown
Copyright: March 2000
Printing: January 2002
ISBN: 0-316-34662-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 294

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The Tipping Point is an exploration of a question: how and why do people's behavior change? Why do fads and styles catch on, or not catch on? How do new ideas spread? And if we can analyze how ideas travel through a population, can we use those mechanisms to spread good ideas, such as literacy and childhood education?

This is not a scientific study, but it's better-defended with studies and supporting references to papers than I expected. I'm not sure how well Gladwell's references would hold up to scrutiny, but I was favorably impressed with the amount of science in the book. It is, however, a popularization and most of the weight of the book rests on memorable anecdotes. I therefore take Gladwell's conclusions with a grain of salt, and I'm not certain of his model of social epidemics. But it's fascinating to read and think about, particularly the anecdotes and specific studies that he discusses after his general model.

The thesis of The Tipping Point is that ideas spread like epidemics. This isn't particularly new philosophical ground; it's at least as old as Dawkins's The Selfish Gene and its introduction of memes. Gladwell spends some time explaining the implications, particularly the idea of a criticality point before which an idea may die quietly and beyond which it spreads astonishingly, and then dives into a proposed model of social epidemics built around three key roles: the connector, the maven, and the salesman.

The connector is someone who knows people. Lots of people. He or she therefore serves as a powerful information conduit, and Gladwell's theory is that many ideas live or die based on whether they successfully spread to a connector. If a new idea gets a connector on-board, suddenly many more people know about it. And not only more people, but the right type of people to most effectively spread the idea, since connectors are the ones who have a natural talent for bringing the right people together.

Mavens don't have the same social connections; their role is earlier in the process. Mavens are subject matter experts, often in rather obscure ways. Gladwell offers an excellent example of people who carefully analyze supermarket prices and stock, not professionally but just as comparison shoppers. If you ever wondered why supermarkets can't get away with setting their own prices on food since most people have neither the time nor the interest to check prices in that sort of detail (I certainly don't), the answer according to Gladwell is that while the number of people who notice is small, they're mavens and known for their expertise. They notice, they write letters, and they tell others, and other people listen to them. In the spread of an idea, a maven is the one who recognizes the idea and its significance, and may be the person to spread the idea to a connector. The phone number on the packaging of a bar of soap allowing a customer to call with complaints is there for the maven.

Finally, salesman are what you would expect from the name. Just having an idea recognized and spread may not be enough; most of us immediately forget nearly all the potential ideas we hear. The idea somehow has to become "sticky," to be something that people remember and act on. People not only have to hear about the idea; they also have to be convinced. And that's what a salesman does.

This is the basic framework that Gladwell uses, but that's only the first 88 pages. From there, Gladwell moves on to what I thought was the strength of the book: fascinating discussion of anecdotes and examples of how ideas spread. He starts with a detailed discussion of Seasame Street and its attempt to make educational ideas sufficiently sticky to stay with children, and then compares it to a newer program, Blue's Clues, which moves even farther from an adult aesthetic in the pursuit of maximum stickiness for its target audience. I thought this section made the whole book worth reading. Then there are more case studies: apparently very effective crime prevention in New York City by changing the context rather than going after the significant crime, the role of book clubs in the spread of books and the rough 150 person limit on our interpersonal connections, the story of a shoe company on the cutting edge of coolness, and more. The framework is good introductory material and a framework to start analyzing these situations, but the analysis is the true joy of the book for me.

Again, the book is sufficiently anecdotal that one has to be cautious about generalizing, but even there I liked Gladwell's conclusion. He focuses on trying simpler methods in the right context rather than complex, expensive solutions, and on extensive testing the way that the children's TV writers did for Seasame Street and Blue's Clues. Both are scientific, practical approaches rather than grandiose world-changing plans, which is, for me, one of the best sniff tests for books like this.

If you're like me, you may have been shying away from this book a little because of how popular it was. I recommend giving it a try. It's not as fluffy as I feared for popular non-fiction, Gladwell makes extensive use of real studies (and provides references), and he keeps his claims mostly to demonstrable and testable ideas. I was pleasantly impressed and am still thinking about this book weeks later.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-06-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21