The Tipping Point

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Context versus Character Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Tipping Points and the Importance of Small Changes Theme Icon
Social Clout and “Word-of-Mouth” Theme Icon
Stickiness Theme Icon
Context versus Character Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Tipping Point, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Context versus Character Theme Icon

Another way to think about social epidemics is to analyze them in terms of the context in which the epidemic is taking place. The Tipping Point shows how context—in other words, the environment or social situation in which people live and interact—can be an important determinant of social epidemics, and of people’s behavior in general. In the process, the book introduces the idea that context actually plays a much larger role in determining people’s behavior than people’s innate character—their interests, emotions, ambitions, etc.

While the idea that people respond to their environments is neither original nor startling, Gladwell argues that small, almost imperceptible aspects of context often have more of an effect on people’s behavior than the large, obvious aspects of an environment do. A classic example of this idea was the Broken Window Hypothesis, a sociological idea that was tested in New York in the 1980s and 90s. The Broken Window Hypothesis proposes that governments can fight serious crimes like murder and rape by cracking down on seemingly trivial crimes like graffiti and public urination. The idea is that potential criminals—i.e., people who might have some psychological propensity to be violent or deceptive—will be less likely to act on their instincts when they’re in an environment where small crimes are always punished: almost subconsciously, they receive a message that crime will not be tolerated. When New York officials enacted the Broken Window Hypothesis, clamping down on graffiti and other minor crimes, the results were startling: the crime rate of New York “tipped,” falling precipitously. (However, Gladwell has been widely criticized for simplifying the history of New York Crime in the 1980s. Some critics claim that Gladwell gives too much credit to reductions in graffiti, and too little to the increases in incarceration rates and drug arrests—for more information, see Summary/Analysis section.) Large changes in environment don’t always cause large changes in human behavior, because they’re so obvious: humans consciously notice large changes and then choose to behave the same way. But small changes, like the ones seen in New York in the 1980s, influence behavior in a less conscious and therefore potentially more powerful way.

The book’s emphasis on context seems counterintuitive in some way because it doesn’t address the character of the people living in a certain environment; instead, it assumes that small changes in environment can influence people regardless of their character. Gladwell argues that a person’s character plays a surprisingly marginal role in their real-life behavior. Character controls what people think, feel, and imagine, but doesn’t play such a large role in how they behave in public. For example, in New York in the 1980s, removing graffiti from walls changed the way people behaved in public (i.e., whether or not they committed crimes), but it didn’t change people’s character. Furthermore, Gladwell suggests that his arguments only appear counterintuitive because people misunderstand what “character” really means. A person’s character changes as she learns new ideas and comes into contact with new people. Additionally, people sometimes have different characters around different people: they take on different personalities when they’re in public, when they’re in private, when they’re at parties, when they’re in school, etc. Character is such an unstable, multifaceted concept that it’s almost impossible to use it to predict how people will behave. And yet people continue to talk about character when analyzing trends and public policy—intuitively (but wrongly) assuming that character controls behavior.

The Tipping Point’s discussion of the difference between character and context is among its most radical arguments, with major implications for public policy. In many disciplines, especially public policy, Gladwell argues, there continues to be an irrational bias in favor of the idea of “character.” In the policy debate surrounding the teenage smoking epidemic, for example, many researchers suggest that the best way to solve the problem would be to educate children about the dangers of cigarettes and encourage them to avoid “peer pressure.” Such a solution, the book argues, wrongly assumes that teenagers have stable personalities, which can be changed and restructured systematically. By contrast, Gladwell proposes that the most effective way to change people’s behavior is to change their environments—i.e., the “context” in which they act. Overall, then, the importance of context over character is perhaps The Tipping Point’s most far-reaching argument for how small “tips” have more influence then big, fundamental changes.

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Context versus Character ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Context versus Character appears in each Chapter of The Tipping Point. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Context versus Character Quotes in The Tipping Point

Below you will find the important quotes in The Tipping Point related to the theme of Context versus Character.
Chapter One Quotes

There is more than one way to tip an epidemic, in other words. Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating.

Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell outlines three basic ways to understand a social epidemic: in terms of the people who start it; in terms of the environment in which it takes place; and in terms of the idea, behavior, product, or message being spread.

In a way, this short passage is an outline for the entire book. Each of the three ways of analyzing a social epidemic corresponds to a different section of the book, and in the final two chapters, Gladwell will apply his three methods of analysis to some real-life case studies.

It’s important to note that Gladwell does not favor any one of his three methods of analysis. It’s just as important to study a trend environmentally as it is to study it in terms of the people responsible for it. Indeed, Gladwell seems to argue that the only way to understand a trend completely is by analyzing it in all three of the ways he names. At times, one method of analyzing a trend seems to “push back” against another way—for example, the environmental method of analysis (which proposes that personality and character are relatively unreliable predictors of how people will behave) arguably clashes with the personal method of analysis (which argues that specific kinds of people, each with their own personality type, make social epidemics possible). In general, Gladwell is a moderate: instead of arguing for a strictly environmental or a strictly content-based approach, he posits that social epidemics are the products of personal, contextual, and substantive factors.


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In the case of Kitty Genovese, then … the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream. It's that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream. Ironically, had she been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived.

Related Characters: Kitty Genovese
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

To illustrate the third law of social epidemics—the importance of context—Gladwell discusses Kitty Genovese, whose name has become synonymous with urban decay and human beings’ indifference to suffering. Kitty Genovese was raped and killed in New York City in broad daylight—astonishingly, dozens of people watched the accident unfold in front of them, but didn’t call the police or try to save Genovese. Sociologists, philosophers, and psychologists have proposed many explanations for why nobody called the police—some have even argued that the incident suggests that humans are largely indifferent to the suffering of other people.

Gladwell refuses to buy into the “human nature” explanation for Kitty Genovese’s death—i.e., he refuses to believe that nobody called the police because humans are innately wicked or apathetic. Instead, he argues here that nobody called the police precisely because many other people were present—each person assumed that “somebody else” would call 911. In other words, context—that is to say, the physical, external environment in which a human being lives—played a crucial role in determining how the observers of Kitty Genovese’s murder behaved. In general, context is often a more important determinant of behavior than so-called human nature.

Chapter Two Quotes

The subtle pro-Reagan bias in Jennings's face seems to have influenced the voting behavior of ABC viewers. As you can imagine, ABC News disputes this study vigorously.

Related Characters: Ronald Reagan, Peter Jennings
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Gladwell discusses a famous study of newscasters’ facial expressions. The study concluded that the facial expressions of Peter Jennings, the anchorman for ABC News, may have influenced ABC viewers to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Despite the fact that Jennings reported for a somewhat anti-Reagan TV station, the subtle (but predominantly positive) facial expressions that Jennings used while reading news stories about Ronald Reagan could have subconsciously influenced thousands of ABC voters to gravitate toward Reagan and away from his opponent, Jimmy Carter.

The passage is important for a couple reasons. First, it suggests that subconscious stimuli—something as trivial as a smile—can have a major effect on people’s behavior, a perfect example of Gladwell’s thesis that small changes can “tip” large trends. But second, it’s worth keeping in mind that the study is still hotly disputed. ABC News disputes the results of the study (since the idea that one of its own newscasters influenced the results of an election, albeit accidentally, would discredit ABC’s journalistic impartiality), and in fact, there are many other researchers who disagree with the study’s results. Depending on your point of view, the controversial nature of the study could either demonstrate that 1) small changes aren’t actually as influential as The Tipping Point would suggest (which is what some critics of Gladwell have argued); or 2) that people are so used to thinking in terms of rational causes and persuasive arguments that they can’t stand to believe that Peter Jennings’s smile could have convinced thousands of people to vote for Reagan.

The ABC viewers who voted for Reagan would never, in a thousand years, tell you that they voted that way because Peter Jennings smiled every time he mentioned the President.

Related Characters: Ronald Reagan, Peter Jennings
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

This section reinforces one of the key themes of the book: many people’s persistent refusal to believe that small changes can have major effects. People are hard-wired to believe that major historical events (such as the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980) must have big, fundamental causes—not causes as superficial as Peter Jennings’s smile.

There are many reasons for the bias against the “tipping point” way of thinking. One of the most important is that people don’t want to believe that they’re irrational creatures. As the passage suggests, voters would never “in a thousand years” admit that they voted for Reagan because of a smile. People want to believe that they’re intelligent and logical; if pressed for a reason why they voted for Reagan, most people might mention his policies, his vision for the future, etc. But in fact, Gladwell argues, people are far less rational than they’d like to believe. Small, seemingly minor changes in environment, small mannerisms, and small changes in the presentation of an idea or product often lead to the beginning of a large social epidemic.

Chapter Three Quotes

We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present. But in none of these cases did anyone substantially alter the content of what they were saying. Instead, they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas, by putting the Muppet behind the H-U-G, by mixing Big Bird with the adult.

Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell reaches the conclusion that, surprisingly often, the presentation of an argument or idea is more persuasive than the argument or idea itself. Furthermore, a small, gimmicky aspect of the presentation is often the most persuasive part. For example, the “gold box” gimmick was the most persuasive part of Columbia’s advertising campaign in the late 1970s. (See quotes above.) Humans want to think that they’re swayed by logic and rationality alone, but in fact, they’re more often swayed by irrational gimmicks—in short, by stickiness.

The passage reinforces one of Gladwell’s key points: man is a largely irrational animal. Perhaps by understanding the degree to which stickiness influences their decisions, humans can be more honest with themselves, and even begin to develop defenses against stickiness at its most manipulative.

Chapter Four Quotes

This is an epidemic theory of crime. It says that crime is contagious - just as a fashion trend is contagious - that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community.

Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

The Broken Window Hypothesis is a theory of criminology that posits that people commit serious crimes, like murder and robbery, because they live in a physical environment where such crimes are subtly encouraged. Societies can thus reduce serious crimes by cracking down on seemingly minor crimes like graffiti and public urination. In doing so, they send a subtle, almost subconscious message that crime of any kind will not be tolerated—thereby creating an environment in which people are rarely “triggered” to break the law.

As Gladwell argues here, the Broken Window Hypothesis is an application of social epidemic theory: small crimes like a broken window can inspire a “wave” of other more dangerous forms of crime. Furthermore, the Broken Window Hypothesis illustrates the third of Gladwell’s three laws of social epidemics: the importance of context. Broken Window theory doesn’t necessarily assume the existence of innately violent, criminally minded people; rather, it assumes that small environmental cues, such as the presence of graffiti, can sometimes influence people to commit crimes. In this chapter, Gladwell will “test” the Broken Window Hypothesis—in the process, testing his own third law of social epidemics.

Giuliani and Bratton—far from being conservatives, as they are commonly identified—actually represent on the question of crime the most extreme liberal position imaginable, a position so extreme that it is almost impossible to accept. How can it be that what was going on in Bernie Goetz's head doesn't matter? And if it is really true that it doesn't matter, why is that fact so hard to believe?

Related Characters: Bernhard Goetz, Rudolph Giuliani, William Bratton
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell has been discussing the history of the Broken Window Hypothesis in New York City. In the 1990s, when Rudolph Giuliani was the mayor of New York and William Bratton was the head of the NYPD, police officers began prosecuting minor crimes much more seriously. Largely as a result of these measures, Gladwell argues, New York City crimes rates fell precipitously in just a few years. Gladwell acknowledges that Giuliani and Bratton’s policies have come under a lot of criticism. For example, some critics of Giuliani have argued that the “minor crimes” that Giuliani prosecuted so harshly were crimes that poor people and minorities were particularly likely to be caught for, such as loitering, public urination, and consumption of cocaine and marijuana. Supposedly, the law applied to everyone equally, but in fact, certain demographics were targeted unfairly.

Gladwell’s response to this criticism is that the Broken Window Hypothesis, as enacted under Giuliani and Bratton, is actually an extremely “liberal” (in the sense that it involves looking at larger social context rather than individual choice) way of looking at crime—“the most extreme liberal position imaginable.” In theory, the Broken Window Hypothesis assumes that there are no innately criminal people; instead, it assumes that society can influence people to obey the law by controlling seemingly minor environmental details (such as graffiti). While many criminologists have argued that there are innately “bad” people—people who will commit crimes under any circumstances—the Broken Window Hypothesis offers up an arguably more tolerant view: people will commit far fewer crimes as long as their streets are graffiti-free.

If I asked you to describe the personality of your best friends, you could do so easily, and you wouldn't say things like "My friend Howard is incredibly generous, but only when I ask him for things, not when his family asks him for things," or "My friend Alice is wonderfully honest when it comes to her personal life, but at work she can be very slippery." You would say, instead, that your friend Howard is generous and your friend Alice is honest.

Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell argues that environment and context play a decisive role in people’s behavior. Intuitively, one might assume that the most important determinant of behavior is personality. Following such a line of thinking, one would assume that an innately honest person will always behave honestly; an innately kind person will always behave kindly, etc. But in fact, Gladwell argues, personality is rarely as stable as intuition would suggest. People behave differently depending on their environments, and depending on the kinds of people with which they’re interacting. Thus, someone might be honest around certain people and dishonest around other people.

In effect, Gladwell is arguing that people’s personalities are rarely as straightforward and monolithic as they appear. Instead, people might assume subtly (or even overtly) different personalities around different people—an important illustration of the power of context.

This does not mean that our inner psychological states and personal histories are not important in explaining our behavior. An enormous percentage of those who engage in violent acts, for example, have some kind of psychiatric disorder or come from deeply disturbed backgrounds. But there is a world of difference between being inclined toward violence and actually committing a violent act. A crime is a relatively rare and aberrant event. For a crime to be committed, something extra, something additional, has to happen to tip a troubled person toward violence.

Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Gladwell clarifies the distinction he’s drawn between context and character. Too often, Gladwell argues in this chapter, people assume that people behave a certain way because of their innate, unchanging character. In reality, he says, people behave in certain ways because of environmental stimuli. For example, students at a theological seminary behave kindly or callously, depending on a seemingly minor stimulus (the words, “Oh, you’re late”).

It’s important to recognize that Gladwell isn’t denying the importance of character and psychology in behavior (although he does question the existence of a single, unchanging character—see the quote above). Character plays a major role in what people think and feel, and how they’re predisposed to behave. But in the real world, context and environmental clues often play a more decisive role in how people really do behave. For example, a sociopath might have brutal, violent thoughts (in other words, he might have a violent character), but he wouldn’t necessarily act on those thoughts unless specific environmental clues inspired him to do so.

Chapter Five Quotes

The Rule of 150 says that congregants of a rapidly expanding church, or the members of a social club, or anyone in a group activity banking on the epidemic spread of shared ideals needs to be particularly cognizant of the perils of bigness. Crossing the 150 line is a small change that can make a big difference.

Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell proposes that 150 people is the largest group size in which members of the group can communicate with one another easily, know everyone’s face and name, and feel a strong sense of community. As a result, the number 150 shows up in various surprising ways in history, sociology, and anthropology: it’s the upper size limit for successful, close-knit groups of all kinds.

The “Rule of 150” that Gladwell proposes is a particularly lucid example of how small changes can have major results. A seemingly minor change in the size of a group—be it a church congregation, a village, or a branch of a business—can have major ramifications for how the members of that group interact: the group may “tip” into disorganization or conflict.

What Gore has created, in short, is an organized mechanism that makes it far easier for new ideas and information moving around the organization to tip - to go from one person or one part of the group to the entire group all at once. That's the advantage of adhering to the Rule of 150. You can exploit the bonds of memory and peer pressure.

Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell shows that businesses have benefited from his “Rule of 150”—for example, Gore Associates uses the rule of 150 to determine the size of its multiple company branches. The 150 people who work at any branch of Gore, Gladwell finds, work together very closely, like and trust one another, and efficiently specialize in different aspects of their company’s affairs.

One of the major advantages of a group of 150 is that people feel a stronger sense of pressure to work hard. In a group of more than 150 people, it would be easier for individual members to “slack off” and do no work—in a smaller group, however, everyone knows and interacts with everyone else, and it’s difficult to remain anonymous. Furthermore, in a group of 150 each person remembers a different part of Gore’s business, exemplifying a phenomenon that scientists have termed “transactive memory.” At a larger company where people don’t know one another as well, multiple people would inefficiently remember the same information.

In all, Gore is an excellent example of how knowledge of Gladwell’s three laws of social epidemics can maximize efficiency and success—as a result, it’s a good way to transition from the first five chapters of the book, in which Gladwell outlines the three laws of social epidemics, to the final three chapters, in which Gladwell goes over some case studies of epidemics.

Chapter Seven Quotes

What these figures tell us is that experimentation and actual hard-core use are two entirely separate things—that for a drug to be contagious does not automatically mean that it is also sticky. In fact, the sheer number of people who appear to have tried cocaine at least once should tell us that the urge among teens to try something dangerous is pretty nearly universal. This is what teens do. This is how they learn about the world, and most of the time—in 99.1 percent of the cases with cocaine—that experimentation doesn't result in anything bad happening. We have to stop fighting this kind of experimentation.

Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell criticizes the anti-smoking movement in America for several reasons. This movement has wasted huge resources trying to convince teenagers to pay attention to adult role models—an endeavor that, according to The Tipping Point, is doomed to fail. Moreover, the anti-smoking movement has taken a hysterical approach to the very idea of trying cigarettes. Teenagers have been told that they’re not allowed to experiment with smoking in any way whatsoever—to try even one cigarette is to “go down the road” toward addiction.

The problem with such a strategy is that it punishes teenagers for, in a word, being teenagers. Teenagers are always experimenting with new ideas, new products, and new “looks.” Being a teenager, one could argue, is all about experimentation, with cigarettes and in general. Therefore, an anti-smoking campaign that orders teenagers not to try cigarettes even once is probably going to fail. Instead of targeting experimentation, Gladwell proposes government measures that would decrease the chemical addictiveness of cigarettes themselves.

Conclusion Quotes

A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost.

Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell takes a moment to respond to a major criticism of his book: namely, that he’s advocating small-scale simplistic solutions to deep, fundamental problems with society. Solutions of this kind are sometimes termed “Band-Aid” solutions—the implication being that, in lieu of getting to the root of the problem, the solution is too superficial to do any lasting good.

In response to this potential criticism, Gladwell turns the criticism on its head, arguing—half-seriously, half-flippantly—that Band-Aids are extremely effective tools for improving people’s health. More seriously, though, Gladwell proposes that so-called Band-Aid solutions are sometimes the best kinds of solutions: the best solution is one that gets the largest results with the minimum of time, money, and effort.

In short, Gladwell proposes that people are irrationally biased toward “fundamental,” “comprehensive” solutions to problems. It’s wrongly (Gladwell argues) assumed that the most effective solutions to problems cost the most money and address the root cause of the problem head-on. Sometime, however, the most successful policy measures and business reforms succeed because they ignore the “root cause” of the problem, identify the precise point at which the problem “tips” into a trend, and stop it there.

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.

Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

In the end, Gladwell offers a message that’s both inspirational and cautionary. Throughout his book, he’s described how it’s possible to change the world profoundly by making small, almost imperceptible changes. For the most part, Gladwell doesn’t say that these changes are either good or bad: his role as the author of the book is to describe how trends work and leave his readers to decide how virtuous these trends are.

At times, Gladwell’s findings could be interpreted negatively; for example, his analysis of TV advertisements and voting habits suggest that humans are gullible creatures who make major decisions for the most arbitrary reasons—reasons which advertising agencies and presidential candidates alike try to exploit. But at other points, Gladwell’s findings are profoundly optimistic: they suggest that the world’s most serious-seeming problems can be fixed by “tipping” these problems into success. Ultimately, Gladwell leaves it up to us to decide how to use the knowledge he’s given us: we could “tip” the world in any direction, and it’s up to us to decide what direction that will be.