The Tipping Point

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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.
Social Clout and “Word-of-Mouth” Theme Icon

One useful way to think about social epidemics is to analyze them in terms of the kinds of people who enable them. It’s commonly accepted that certain ideas and products become popular because information about them spreads by “word-of-mouth”; in other words, people tell other people about a trend. However, the process in which a trend spreads by word-of-mouth doesn’t depend equally on all people; instead, certain kinds of people with a disproportionately large amount of “social clout” are usually responsible for making an idea or product popular (or so Gladwell argues in the book, at least—this conclusion has subsequently been heavily disputed).

Gladwell describes three specific kinds of people who allow for word-of-mouth trends, each with a distinct social function. First, there are “Mavens”: people who spend a lot of time researching information, especially information about new kinds of products and ideas. Then, there are “Connectors”: people who know a large number of other people, and have a large number of casual acquaintances. Finally, there are “Salesmen”: people who naturally excel at persuading other people to follow a particular course of action. When new information arises, and a Maven is interested in the information, she is likely to spread the information to other people. If one of these people is a natural Connector, she is likely to pass on the information to a large number of other people. If many of these other people are Salesmen, they’ll be able to persuade people to act on the information: by buying a new product, converting to a new religion, wearing a new kind of shoe, etc. In this way, individual people play a vital role in helping a trend tip into success.

Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective ways to analyze social epidemics, particularly because it helps explain why social epidemics have become more common and pervasive in the last hundred years. The power of Connectors and Mavens has expanded considerably in recent history, due to the invention of new technologies. Communications technologies allow Connectors to reach out to unprecedented numbers of new people, and travel around the world to meet new friends. Similarly, newspapers, magazines, and computers give Mavens the tools they need to investigate prices, products, and new devices, allowing them to stay abreast of as much new information as possible. It’s commonly understood that technologies like the Internet allow for more trends, and that trends succeed because people tell other people about them (that is, in fact, the definition of a trend). Gladwell’s goal, then, is to emphasize the role that Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen play in a trend’s success. In the end, Gladwell recognizes the power of individual human beings to change the world, for better or worse. If ideas must “tip” into popularity, then it only takes a few special people to tip them.

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Social Clout and “Word-of-Mouth” ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Social Clout and “Word-of-Mouth” appears in each Chapter of The Tipping Point. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Social Clout and “Word-of-Mouth” Quotes in The Tipping Point

Below you will find the important quotes in The Tipping Point related to the theme of Social Clout and “Word-of-Mouth”.
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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Chapter Two Quotes

Six degrees of separation doesn't mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.

Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell analyzes a famous social experiment, the conclusion of which is that people can be connected with one another in only six “degrees of separation” at most. The experiment has often been interpreted to mean that news spreads quickly from person to person—indeed, it might suggest that any human being on earth can pass a message to any other human being in only six steps: by calling a friend, telling that friend to pass the message on to someone else, and so on.

The further implication of this particular study, however, is that not all humans are equally communicative and well-connected. On the contrary, Gladwell shows that there are certain human beings—Connectors—whose social circles are far larger than average. As a result, Connectors “link together” a disproportionately large number of people in the world.

The “six degrees of separation” experiment is relevant to Gladwell’s argument because it shows how important individual kinds of people are to starting a social trend. If a handful of Connectors learn about a new product, idea, or message, they could potentially pass the product, idea, or message on to thousands of friends, sometimes starting a full-scale social epidemic.

But William Dawes? Fischer finds it inconceivable that Dawes could have ridden all seventeen miles to Lexington and not spoken to anyone along the way. But he clearly had none of the social gifts of Revere, because there is almost no record of anyone who remembers him that night.

Related Characters: Paul Revere, William Dawes
Related Symbols: Paul Revere’s ride
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Gladwell turns his attention to Paul Revere’s famous “midnight ride” of 1775. On this night, Revere received word that the British were coming to invade Massachusetts; in response, he rode his horse across the state, warning hundreds of people about the impending danger. Revere, Gladwell argues, was a textbook Connector: he had a huge number of friends, and he was a naturally gregarious person who enjoyed meeting new people.

Paul Revere’s ride is a particularly clear example of the “Law of the Few” in social epidemics, because there were also other people, such as William Dawes, spreading the message that the British were coming. In this way, Paul Revere’s ride is a kind of historical “experiment,” in which Gladwell can test the relationship between an independent variable (personality type or gregariousness) and a dependent variable (the speed at which information spreads). The fact that history remembers Paul Revere, not William Dawes, suggests that a few disproportionately social and gregarious people like Revere, rather than many ordinary people, are responsible for starting social trends.

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 Six Quotes

At Lambesis, Gordon developed a network of young, savvy correspondents in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and Dallas and Seattle and around the world in places like Tokyo and London. These were the kind of people who would have been wearing Hush Puppies in the East Village in the early 1990s. They all fit a particular personality type: they were Innovators.

Related Symbols: Hush Puppies
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, we see how an advertising agency called Lambesis was able to boost sales for the shoe company Airwalk by using an elaborate network of “Innovators”—young, hip people who were paid to tell Lambesis about hot new trends. Lambesis used its young correspondents’ advice to make a series of commercials that repackaged various trends into an entertaining form. For example, when the music group The Beastie Boys brought their fans’ attention to the “Free Tibet” movement, Lambesis made a series of commercials featuring a monk who looked like the Dalai Lama. Hip, young people saw the commercial, and—since they were already aware of the “Free Tibet” movement—they were more likely to buy Airwalks because of the association.

In a way, this chapter is a straightforward example of how a company can take advantage of the three laws of social epidemics, increasing the stickiness of their commercials by incorporating new trends. But at the same time, the passage makes another important point: sometimes, trends can “piggyback” off of one another. By associating their product with existing trends, such as the “Free Tibet” movement, Airwalk was able attract many of the same people who’d already been mobilized by this movement. (Gladwell doesn’t address the ethical implications of using a serious political movement like “Free Tibet” to sell shoes—for the most part, his priority is describing how social epidemics work, not arguing whether they’re good or bad.)

Chapter Seven Quotes

Between 1955 and 1965, there wasn't a single case of suicide on the entire island. In May 1966, an eighteen-year-old boy hanged himself in his jail cell after being arrested for stealing a bicycle, but his case seemed to have little impact. Then, in November of 1966, came the death of R., the charismatic scion of one of the island's wealthiest families. R. had been seeing two women and had fathered a one-month-old child with each of them. Unable to make up his mind between them, he hanged himself in romantic despair.

Related Characters: R.
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage describes how the suicide epidemic in Micronesia began in the mid-1960s. After decades in which almost no suicides were reported, a few teenagers suddenly killed themselves. In Gladwell’s opinion, this small number of teen suicides in Micronesia then started a wave of suicides in the country. In Gladwell’s terms, people like R. (the teenager who hanged himself in 1966) acted as “Salesmen,” persuading other Micronesian teenagers to kill themselves, too. Like any social epidemic, suicide was contagious, and it spread across the country.

It seems particularly odd to represent suicide as a social phenomenon, subject to the same laws as Paul Revere’s ride or the sale of Hush Puppies. Suicide is a solitary act, and one of the most personal decisions a human being could possibly make. Yet Gladwell will also show how suicide is sometimes the product of a social epidemic: people choose to kill themselves not only because of depression or despair, but also because other teenagers have done the same thing—their environment makes them more likely to act.

The children of smokers are more than twice as likely to smoke as the children of nonsmokers. That's a well-known fact. But … that does not mean that parents who smoke around their children set an example that their kids follow. It simply means that smokers' children have inherited genes from their parents that predispose them toward nicotine addiction.

Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage suggests that the influence of nurture on behavior is greatly misunderstood. When analyzing the teenage smoking epidemic in the United States, many critics and researchers have proposed that parents need to do a better job of educating their children about the dangers of smoking, modeling good habits for their offspring. The problem with such a view, Gladwell finds, is that it presupposes that parents’ behavior has a major impact on their children’s behavior. In reality (Gladwell argues), it’s likely that teenagers are more profoundly influenced by the behavior of their peers—other teenagers, many of whom smoke—than by their parents. Parents’ primary contribution to their children’s likelihood of smoking, then, is genetic: if adults are genetically predisposed to become physically addicted to nicotine, their children are likely to as well.

The passage is a good example of how to apply the three laws of social epidemics to a real-world situation. While many government officials and opponents of teen smoking have argued that the “solution” to the epidemic involves parents modeling good behavior for their children—in other words, acting as Salesmen. Gladwell shows that parents aren’t always the most persuasive Salesmen—other teenagers tend to outweigh their influence.

It's not about mimicking adult behavior, which is why teenage smoking is rising at a time when adult smoking is falling. Teenage smoking is about being a teenager, about sharing in the emotional experience and expressive language and rituals of adolescence, which are as impenetrable and irrational to outsiders as the rituals of adolescent suicide in Micronesia.

Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

The most serious error of the anti-smoking movement, Gladwell argues, is that it drastically overestimates the influence that adult role models have on children and teenagers. Government officials have allocated tremendous sums of money to educate children about smoking, all based on the premise that teenagers will be receptive to strong adult role models. The sobering reality, however, is that teenagers are likely to imitate other teenagers—entering into a “ritual of adolescence,” as the passage phrases it. In Gladwell’s terminology, attempts to interfere with the contagiousness of teen smoking (i.e., to change the “few” who inspire teenagers to try smoking) will probably be less successful than attempts to change the stickiness of smoking itself (i.e., to make cigarettes less chemically addictive).

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.