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

by Malcolm Gladwell

Published by Little Brown and Company

279 pages, 2000

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Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman


Paul Revere didn't wear Hush Puppies but Malcolm Gladwell puts these two -- historical icon and comfortable shoe -- together. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is about connecting. How ideas, information and trends are communicated. Gladwell uses a medical model. The Tipping Point is "the name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once." He breaks the process down into smaller bits, describing the hosts (Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen), the qualities of the germ (The Stickiness Factor) and the environment (The Power of Context). In a reader-friendly style, he surprises us with incongruous examples and amusing anecdotes. He suggests applications of his model to a variety of cultural issues. He whets the reader's appetite and makes us want to take his ideas even further.

For example, Gladwell describes the "tipping point" in the development of the television program Sesame Street, when research suggested, against all advice from child psychologists, that in order to retain the child viewer's attention, the show would have to combine fantasy (puppets) and reality (human characters) within each scene. Might there be a connection between this crucial decision and the children who now carry weapons to school and act out revenge fantasies? Gladwell doesn't take it that far, but he puts his finger on the specific decision that ensured the success of the educational program and forever changed the way children in technological societies receive information about the world in which they live.

Gladwell is exploring ideas, opinions more than facts, offering interpretations that invite the reader to respond, to argue back. His thesis seems weakest when he relies on traditional evidence, old pseudoscientific studies such as the 1970s Stanford University experiment that demonstrated that "our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances." The experiment -- designed to explain the unchallenged assumption that "prisons are nasty places," or "how much influence does immediate environment have on the way people behave?" -- was terminated ahead of schedule because "the guards got systematically crueler and more sadistic." Conclusion: that there are certain times and place and conditions when all that we have learned at home, in school and in our community can be swept away by changing the details of the situation. OK. Could it not also be said that testosterone-types, without training or supervision, asked to role-play prisoners and guards, revert to stereotypical behavior modeled in the media to abuse of authority and brutality portrayed in old prison movies?

It is not the details that are important here. Gladwell is giving us a big picture and asking us to look at it in different ways, to tilt our heads, change our perspective and reframe. Take or leave the example, but it does give the reader a pattern to apply to other situations. What if, instead of prison cultures, you used the Tipping Point thesis to help understand how the Nazis sold the idea of "the Final Solution?" Connectors, mavens, salesmen, stickiness and context: it certainly makes sense. The holocaust wouldn't have happened without Hitler and his minions. Nor without the existing prejudices and jealousies of the previous two millennia in Europe. Nor without the total humiliation of the nation after World War I.

While Gladwell never really explains how Hush Puppies took New York, or why Micronesian teen boys commit suicide, he does give us much to think about. His ideas seem most engaging when he applies them to specific examples. Why do teenagers smoke and how can this health risk be reduced? He gives us some interesting facts: that some individuals are more susceptible to addiction than others; that teens tend to emulate people they think are cool; that there is a surprising correlation between smoking and depression. He explains why straight facts or scare tactics or prohibition do not work. Then he suggests, using his Tipping Point thesis, a variety of strategies that may work for different target groups. Perhaps this health issue can be tackled successfully the same way New York cleaned up its subways and reduced crime in the city, he suggests.

If there is one flaw in this book, it is the absence of the Internet as part of the context. But Gladwell starts with Paul Revere's ride from Boston; he takes us to New York, the AIDs epidemic, on book signing tours; he traces fashion trends and tackles health issues. His applications will interest parents, educators, and marketers, to name only a few. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is both interesting and engaging. It is a medicine chest of a book, full of seemingly unrelated concoctions, each available for strategic application to manipulate the equilibrium. Little things which can or may tip the balance. | May 2000


J. M. Bridgeman is a contributing editor at Suite 101 as well as January Magazine.