Anant Jain

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Book Review

Up next on this blog, I’ll review three of Malcolm Gladwell’s five books I’ve read so far — The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers. Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for more than two decades. In addition to being an excellent journalist, he’s an amazing thinker, speaker and writer. All his books have been smash hits — for very good reasons — and are a ripe resource for acquiring a number of useful mental models in sociology and psychology.

First up, let’s review The Tipping Point this week.

The Tipping Point deconstructs the science of social epidemics — how ideas break out and spread like wild fire. It’s the second book I’ve read on the topic, the first one being Jonah Berger’s Contagious that I reviewed earlier this year. With examples spanning from the sudden spike in popularity of Hush Puppies to the rapid decline in crime rate in New York City in 1990s, Gladwell deconstructs what goes into that single moment of crystallization when seemingly isolated events “tip” into an influential trend. According to Gladwell, it boils down to just three factors: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few

Before an idea gets mass adoption, it needs to be championed by a few influential people. This small group of “super-infectors” are usually comprised of three types of people: the Connectors, the Mavens and the Salesmen:

  • Connectors have ties in many different groups and social circles, and serve as a bridge between them. They “engender connections, relationships, and cross-fertilization that otherwise may not have occured.”
  • Mavens are connoisseurs who have a very strong compulsion to express their opinion and help others make informed decisions.
  • Salesmen are extremely persuasive and use their unusual charisma to play a huge role in influencing other people’s choices and behaviors.

The presence of all three types greatly helps an idea reach the tipping point. In startup parlance, this is the essence of Influencer Marketing.

The Stickiness Factor

After an idea gets spread by connectors, mavens and salesmen, it has to have the stickiness factor so it can get retained long enough to actually influence people’s thoughts and behaviors. Gladwell argues that counter-intuitivess is the most interesting component of stickiness.

He uses the example of how the PBS show Sesame Street challenged the conventional wisdom of the era. The originally planned format was supposed to have puppet scenes separate from human scenes. When the show creators tested out the format, they found that it failed to grab children’s attention. But when they modified it to the more counter-intuitive format the show is still produced in today — humans interacting with fantasy creatures — they were finally able to make the show sticky so that it could actually help toddlers and preschoolers learn better.

For a deeper dive into what makes an idea stick, I recommend referring back to Heath brothers’ Made to Stick book review that I wrote earlier.

The Power of Context

The last factor for an idea to spread is the context that surrounds it — the environment or the historical moment in which the trend is introduced has to be right. In this section, Gladwell discusses the rapid decline in violent crime rates in the 1990s in the New York City. He attributes it in large part to how a number of city agencies started making decisions based on the Broken Windows theory. James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling first introduced the broken windows theory:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

The theory suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes.

Gladwell also discusses the power of context in small groups of 150 or less, 150 being the Dunbar number. “Groups of less than 150 members usually display a level of intimacy, interdependency, and efficiency that begins to dissipate markedly as soon as the group’s size increases over 150.”

Other case studies

In addition to the ones mentioned above, Gladwell spends the last 3 chapters discussing a few more stories:

  • Airwalk shoes, originally geared towards the skateboarding culture, found mainstream success after the brand successfully associated itself with multiple symbols of “coolness” such as Tibetan Buddhism or pachuco gang culture. It also offered unique products to boutique stores and a more mainstream shoe selection to department stores. Later, to cut costs, when they eventually began providing all distributors with a single line of shoes, the coolness factor disappeared, and the sales declined.
  • Teenage smoking is predicated upon two main factors: teenagers are predisposed to imitate others, and second, “the types of people who are more likely to engage in dramatic, easily romanticized behavior such as early cigarette smoking are also more likely to be those that others tend to gravitate toward and seek to emulate.” There’s also a large middle ground between people who abstain altogether from any potential dangerous activity, and those that engage them in a consistently low-level manner (the “chippers”). In terms of cigarette use, most chippers never tip to a full-blown addiction, hinting that we should “regard infrequent teenage experimentation with drugs or smoking not with with hysteria, but rather, accept it as inevitable and is, in all likelihood, benign.”

Although the ideas in this book might not be that unique, I’d say it’s still an interesting read for the multiple case studies. Up next, I’ll review Gladwell’s second book, Blink.

This is #21 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site. You can read rest of them here.

The initial inspiration for the book came from came from the sudden drop of crime rate in New York City. Photo by Zach Miles.