Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: The Tipping Point by Gladwell
Book Review: The Tipping Point by Gladwell

Malcom Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Back Bay Books, 2002), 301 pp. $14.99.

Have you ever wondered what contributes to or even causes a crime wave? What if someone told you that the reason could be something as simple as a broken window, graffiti on the wall or even trash on the street? What about motives for choosing a presidential candidate? Would you be surprised to find out that something as seemingly insignificant as the facial expressions on a T.V. news anchor’s face when speaking about that presidential candidate could subliminally sway how voters make decisions in the booth? Malcom Gladwell, staff writer for The New Yorker, presents creative and compelling analysis of examples such as these that help illustrate the phenomenon known as the Tipping Point. Gladwell defines the Tipping Point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire” (back cover), and his book The Tipping Point is devoted to exploring the different dimensions of this phenomenon through examples culled from Sesame Street, teenage smoking, fashion trends and other social phenomenon.

Gladwell claims that every Tipping Point involves a pattern with three basic features: contagious behavior, little changes that cause big effects and changes that take place rapidly (7-8). These three principles are the same three that define how measles moves through a grade-school classroom or the flu attacks every winter. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point (9).

Gladwell then further delineates how these three factors flesh themselves out by illustrating the “law of the few,” “stickiness,” and the “power of context.” The law of the few maintains that there are certain people that one might call the movers and the shakers, who significantly contribute to bringing a phenomenon to the Tipping Point. The first is a connector. Connectors, as the title insinuates, are those people who are unusually socially connected to not just a large group of people but to many different groups of people and who disseminate their likes/dislikes to all in those groups. Connectors are crucial for getting the message out. Secondly there are Mavens. Mavens are those people who accumulate knowledge and keep the market honest (60-61). Mavens are the kind of people who read Consumer Reports for fun, know the best place to get the best price on coffee and remember what gas prices were in 1996. But Mavens don’t investigate these things for show, rather they are genuinely concerned to tell people what they know in order to help them (62). Mavens are crucial in properly educating folk in order to reach a Tipping Point. Finally, Gladwell speaks of Salesmen and as the name implies, salesmen are folk who have an unusual knack for persuading folk to buy into an idea or purchase a product. All three of these kinds of people make up the law of the few who play a critical role in the word-of-mouth epidemics that dictate our tastes and trends and fashions (14).

But an idea, product, or movement must also have what Gladwell calls the “stickiness factor” which says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable. “There are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes” (25). Simple changes in T.V. shows like Sesame Street and Blues Clues were instrumental in bringing those shows to Tipping Points and making them huge hits.

In what was probably Gladwell’s most provocative claim, one is led to believe that, “Human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem” (29). Gladwell calls this the “power of context.” For example, he interprets various statistics in New York City in the early 1990’s to conclude that crime could, in large part, be due to what he calls the “broken window theory” which claims that when things look rundown, criminals feel more empowered to commit crime because they feel like nobody cares enough to step in and do something. Gladwell follows the steps taken by then New York Mayor Rudy Gulliani and the New York Police Department as they cleaned up graffiti, arrested subway fare-dodgers, and took similar actions.  He then claims that such actions brought about a decline in crime. In this discussion, Gladwell weighs in on the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture claiming that while neither should exclusively win the day, one’s environment has a heavier influence on people than one might initially think.

The Tipping Point is a fascinating and easy read. It will challenge some long held convictions about why we buy into certain ideas and movements and cause some to re-think how an idea ought to be pitched. Gladwell has a wonderful knack for weaving multiple stories around a common principle in such a three-dimensional manner that the reader can’t help but be convinced by the power of presentation alone.

But Gladwell’s observations will obviously have to be taken with a grain of salt. Some have made the mistake of reading the book as if it were an empirically sound scientific formula for advancing any social behavior, trend, company, etc. to the Tipping Point. It is not. Gladwell never sets out to lay down an airtight case that, if one follows, he/she is sure to have success. In fact, the sub-title of the book should be kept in mind throughout the duration of the read: How Little Things Can Make a Difference. If the reader keeps this in mind, he/she will feel less inclined to accuse Gladwell of some sort of “junk science.”

Joshua B. Henson
M.Div. candidate, 2012