Book Review: The Tipping Point

Did you ever wonder about how social epidemics – craze, fad, or word of mouth – get started? Why is that some ideas, behaviors, or produces burst out to epidemics while others don’t? And what can we do purposely to begin and incite positive epidemics of our own? These are the kinds of questions that Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker, tries to answer in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The tipping point is the name given by epidemiology for the dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can totally change at once. The SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome), for example, can have little or inconsiderable harm on human society for a long time without being an epidemic. But suddenly, once a threshold or a critical point is crossed in terms of the number of infected people, situation moves rapidly downward and gets much worse. Gladwell borrows the idea and maps it to similar patterns observed in numerous social and marketing phenomena. Moreover, he claims that the three rules of the essence – the Law of Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context – offer a way of making sense of epidemics and provide us the direction to reach the tipping point.

   The Law of Few is roughly comparable to the famous Pareto Principle, also called 80/20 rule, which means a few influential people can disproportionately incite social and behavioral epidemics. These key people usually have remarkable social skills and social contacts to effectively disseminate their information or ideas; Gladwell groups them into three types of personalities: Connector, Maven, and Salesman.

  Connectors are individuals who know and contact lots of various people, and establish large social networks. They collect people/acquaintances like other people collect stamps, and maintain the “weak ties” across different communities. Furthermore, their influential social capital bringing different people together make our world smaller, which is also why the impetus can be carried around every corner of the world.

  Another group of individuals are kind of professional shoppers; Maven is the name Gladwell makes for them. Mavens love to gather information no matter what market is – computers, electronics, clothes, desserts – that is why they can always find out where the cheapest or best bargain products exactly are. Indeed, they know well about all the state-of-the-art stuffs and have one first forever. In addition, they enjoy sharing what they have found with friends, and at most time people also are inclined to look for advice from them.

  While Connectors are social glue and Mavens are data banks, Salesmen are opinion makers who are charming, enthusiastic, and convincing. Although Salesmen may not have knowledge as much as Mavens, their innate charisma, verbal or non-verbal social skill can zap magically persuasive signals leading people to do what they do or agree with what they believe. Once in a while even neither Salesmen nor we are aware of this powerful influence, but we just unconsciously copy their style and want to be more like them.

  The epidemics of idea usually start with Maven, because they are faithful first adopters of the new stuffs. Next, Connectors get information from Mavens or the friends of Mavens occasionally, and distribute the idea over different communities or countries. Finally once the spread idea gains enough approval of Salesmen, the snowball starts rolling! Sometimes the epidemic process can be more complex, because a single person can serve multiple or all three roles. Although these three key personalities contribute much effort to idea contagion, it may not be able to reach the tipping point to incite a total change if the idea is not sticky enough to be retained by new recipients.

  Therefore, the second premise Gladwell made about tipping point is The Stickiness Factor which relates to the content of the message. It means that the message should grab the listener’s attention, get stuck in their mind and move them into action. He also illustrates that little changes in the presentation or package of idea can have large effect on stickiness by giving the example of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues.

  The last ingredient of the social epidemics is The Power of Context. Gladwell first takes the well-known psychological study Prison Experiment, made by Stanford University in 1971, as an example to show how environment turns a good-natured college student into a crucial perpetrator. Then he presents the eminent Broken Window theory: “If a building with a few broken windows which are left unrepaired, passersby may consider that nobody cares about it and no one is in charge. Soon, a few more windows were damaged and finally the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street in front of it.” Finally he describes how New York City government based on the theory improved the subway environment by the crackdown on graffiti and fare-beating. And afterward it is dramatically yielding a big drop in crime rates of the whole New York City. The main idea which Gladwell wants to emphasize here is that epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places where they occur. Furthermore, a seemingly small detail may clue people how to behave.

  The Tipping Point is a powerful and fascinating book that cuts across a variety of fields of interest ranging from marketing study cases to psychological and sociological experiments. Gladwell also provides far-reaching examples and compelling ideas within the book to support the three main principles he advocates: the Law of Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. Besides that, his excellent writing really makes it easier for readers to catch the points and be persuaded. A fly in the ointment I think of, however, is that the author cite a multitude of concepts and coalesce together to convince reader, but do not clarify rigorously the correlation between the three principles and the tipping point. Maybe the reason is that the social epidemics always start from a series of small events and influences, grow in an insensible way, and then lead to rapid change, but often stop quite sharply and frequently leaving no subsequent track of itself. For any sake, The Tipping Point undoubtedly gives a profound insight of the social epidemics and inspires me much. 

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