The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
by Malcolm Gladwell
288 pages, Abacus, New Edition 2001
The Tipping Point is an international bestseller by acclaimed journalist and social psychologist Malcolm Gladwell. It examines the triggers that bring about rapid social and behavioural change and proposes a convincing and well-evidenced theory for the factors contributing to often seemingly coincidental ‘social epidemics’ in which ‘ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do’.
The Tipping Point has enjoyed such widespread success because of its accessibility and broad appeal. As Time Magazine said in 2005, Gladwell “manages to make his work as relevant to CEOs as it is to soldiers”. However, his 21st Century slant on social psychology will be of particular interest to those studying or working in any communications or people-focused field.
The book examines in depth what works and, as importantly, doesn’t work to bring about social change, challenging many common assumptions about the way people think and are influenced. However, Gladwell concedes that there are some aspects of social epidemics that can’t be ‘deliberately’ influenced and are just a result of serendipity.
This is a theme running through Gladwell’s work in later books like ‘What the Dog Saw’ (2009), which will also be of interest to those studying or working in public relations and social marketing.
If you are tasked with devising a campaign to encourage people to stop smoking, for example, Gladwell might not have the magic ingredient for widespread change but he will help you to understand the sorts of things that need to be considered by fully exploring what motivates people to begin smoking, become regular smokers, and continue doing it despite the risks.
Malcolm Gladwell is an international best-selling author of four influential, thought-provoking books on social phenomena. As an award-winning journalist he covered business, science and medicine for the Washington Post before becoming a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine in 1996. In 2005, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people for his ability to demonstrate the “practical applications of cutting-edge academic scholarship”, making him “the US’ leading pop sociologist”.
The Tipping Point is about ‘social epidemics’ such as the sudden resurrection of the suede shoe brand Hush Puppies in the mid 1990s or influence of Paul Revere’s message that “The British are coming!” on the outcome of the American Revolution. It argues that only certain circumstances, involving certain people, messages and contexts bring about social change that has a real impact.
The three rules of epidemics, according to Gladwell are:
- The Law of the Few – there needs to be a certain mixture of a special type of person (Connectors – people who know and can influence a lot of different people from different social circles, Mavens – people who hold important information and intelligence on certain subjects and Salesmen – people who have a gift for telling stories and ‘selling’ messages) for a social epidemic to occur
- The Stickiness Factor – the type of message is also important. If it doesn’t ‘stick’ with the people it needs to influence, it won’t have any long term impact.
- The Power of Context – the first two factors alone can’t achieve a ‘social epidemic’ in the wrong environment. The context of the situation, such as whether a neighbourhood is run down and vandalised, is key. A major aspect of the sudden drop in crime rate in New York in the early 1990s was the efficient and extensive clean up of the run down transport system.
Gladwell’s anecdotal examples and questioning tone make for compelling reading, even for those with little interest in the academic understanding he is striving for. The book’s chapters each delve into an element of his ‘Tipping Point’ theory but are inter-connected with real life examples and stories that run throughout.
At the beginning and end of every section, the reader is reminded of what they have just read, what they are about to read and how it all fits together. For example, he says: “We’ve looked at the people who spread ideas and we’ve looked at the characteristics of successful ideas. But the subject of this chapter [the Power of Context] is no less important than the first two.”
There is no doubt that the ‘Tipping Point’ deserves the critical acclaim it has received. I was inspired by it both on a personal and professional level. It makes the reader think in a new way about how they and those around them are influenced to act in a certain way or buy a certain product or listen to a certain person’s warnings, demonstrating why sometimes the most obvious messages just don’t get through. He concludes on a positive note, reassuring the reader that: “If there is difficulty and volatility in the world of the Tipping Point, there is a large measure of hopefulness as well … Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.”