The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference Abacus 2001.


The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea: .. that the best way to understand …any number of mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics.

… The name given to one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change at once is the Tipping Point.

1. The three rules of epidemics

The three rules of the Tipping Point – the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, the Power of Context – offer a way of making sense of epidemics. They provide us with direction for how to go about reaching a Tipping Point.

2. The law of the few: connectors, mavens, salesmen

…the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on … Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.

… Connectors know lots of people. [They] collect people the way others collect stamps.

[Just] as there are people we rely upon to connect us to other people, there are also people we rely upon to connect us to new information: [Mavens].

For a social epidemic to start, though, some people are going to have to be persuaded to do something.

Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. But there are also … Salesmen with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing.

The Stickiness Factor

[The] elements that make [things] sticky [often] turn out to be small and … seemingly trivial … .

The Power of Context

Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and times and places in which they occur.

The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a blind spot in the way we process information. Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) … we are always seeking for “dispositional” explanation for events, as opposed to a contextual explanation.

Character [is not] a stable, easily identifiable set of closely relate traits … . Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context.

[A] number of relatively minor changes in our external environment can have a dramatic effect on how we behave and who we are.

7. Case Study: Smoking

[There] can be a safer from of smoking, and by paying attention to the Tipping points of the addiction process we can make that safer, less sticky form of smoking possible.

8. Conclusion: Focus, Test and Believe

The lessons of the Tipping Point:

  1. Your resources ought to be concentrated on [Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen].
  2. Those who are successful … deliberately test their intuitions.
  3. What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically change their behaviour or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.

In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action.

My Comments

The book is almost entirely about social tipping points, but the definition it gives is quite general, and people have since been using the term quite generally. Of course, not all tipping points are like epidemics. For example, if you keep loading up a bridge it will eventually fail, with nothing like the phenomena described here. But can the financial crash be thought of as an epidemic, and did it have a tipping point?

It seems to me that both booms and busts involve a certain amount of copying behaviour, and so have elements of epidemics. But was there “one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change at once”? It seemed to me that there was quite an extended period when the financial markets were vulnerable. Even if one focusses on periods when things did change, it seemed to me that – as in some biological epidemics – there were a number of actual changes that set up the conditions for further changes, before ‘the big one’ came. Thus there would seem to be no single moment to focus on: one should try to appreciate the whole chain of events.

One can draw an analogy with the UK’s BSE crisis:  before it hit the news there had been a spreading practice – under competitive pressure – of introducing cycles into the animal feed system. This created a vulnerability which persisted until an effect (BSE) was noticed. But more important than the outbreak of BSE was, arguably, the spread of risky animal husbandry practices, and its ‘tipping point’.

Despite the above reservations, the three rules still seem appropriate. For the financial crisis the boom seem mainly to have been fuelled by universities and the media, the bust mainly by the media. In both cases there was something of a social process as described by Gladwell. But it seems to me that  a key part of the boom was an forgetting of previous insights, so the role of the Maven was to legitimise disinformation, not to host good quality information, as for BSE. Perhaps this is not restricted to this example. What is curated is not so much ‘information’ as ideas – valid or not. In the bust phase the Maven role was rather trivial, just as for BSE.

In terms of Gladwell’s lessons, one should not only focus on Mavens, but be concerned for the quality of their ‘information’. It is not enough that they be successful in the short-run: the activity they foster needs to be sustainable.

Dave Marsay





%d bloggers like this: