The Tipping Point

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Tipping Points and the Importance of Small Changes Theme Analysis

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Tipping Points and the Importance of Small Changes Theme Icon

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell tries to explain why certain ideas, products, behaviors, and messages become popular while others do not. Although this is an extremely broad topic, the book argues that all successful trends must reach a “tipping point”: in other words, a point at which they move rapidly from being almost unheard of to being very popular. A successful trend reaches its tipping point; an unsuccessful trend does not. As the phrase “tipping point” would suggest, trends don’t necessarily become successful because of large, conspicuous changes. Instead, a trend will often catch on because of a very small change in the content of the trend, the people who spread the trend, or the environment in which the trend is being spread. On the simplest level, then, The Tipping Point is about how small changes have enormous effects.

The book proposes three main ways to analyze a trend (also known as a “social epidemic”), and shows how, in each of these three ways, small changes can help an idea or product “tip” into popularity. First, ideas and products become popular because specific people become aware of them and spread the news to other people. But not all people are equally adept at spreading news. Indeed, a small, disproportionately influential number of people are responsible for doing the bulk of the work necessary to make a trend tip successfully (or so Gladwell argues). Second, ideas and products may also become popular because the ideas or products themselves are particularly enjoyable, memorable, catchy, or otherwise desirable. And yet, people don’t always remember or enjoy all aspects of an idea or product equally. Often, a small, seemingly superficial portion of the thing being disseminated is what makes it so memorable or interesting, and therefore, what makes it so trendy. Finally, ideas and products become popular because the environment in which they’re disseminated is particularly conducive. Again, the book shows how surprisingly small, and sometimes almost imperceptible changes in an environment, such as group size or the amount of graffiti on the walls, can have major effects on a person’s behavior.

It’s important to bear in mind that, for the most part, the book doesn’t judge whether trends are good or bad (although toward the end of the book, Gladwell takes a morally unambiguous position against social epidemics such as smoking, shootings, and suicide). As a result, the book has come under some criticism for what has been viewed as its apolitical discussion of the AIDS crisis, policing techniques, and other events. Furthermore, some critics have argued that the book’s thesis about the importance of small changes in major trends is overstated and oversimplified, or that the book proposes “Band-Aid” solutions for problems that require major, in-depth solutions. In response, however, Gladwell argues that big, societal problems don’t always require sweeping political reforms—and indeed, his book aims to counter the belief that they do. The Tipping Point attempts to correct for people’s natural bias toward large, observable events by arguing for the importance of small, often imperceptible changes—changes that, for better or worse, allow social epidemics to tip into popularity.

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Tipping Points and the Importance of Small Changes Quotes in The Tipping Point

Below you will find the important quotes in The Tipping Point related to the theme of Tipping Points and the Importance of Small Changes.
Introduction Quotes

It might have been 34 degrees the previous evening, and now it was 31 degrees. Almost nothing had changed, in other words, yet—and this was the amazing thing—everything had changed. Rain had become something entirely different. Snow! We are all, at heart, gradualists, our expectations set by the steady passage of time. But the world of the Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is—contrary to all our expectations—a certainty.

Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In the introduction to his book, Gladwell offers an intuitive example of a highly unintuitive concept. The thesis of Gladwell’s book is that small stimuli can have far-reaching effects, and the point at which these small changes begin to cause conspicuous results is called the “Tipping Point.”

By default, Gladwell claims, most people would assume that large phenomena must have similarly vast causes. Such an assumption governs many facets of human life—for example, in public policy, it’s generally assumed that the only way to solve a major social problem is to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get to the “root cause.” Gladwell instead argues that it’s often better to focus one’s time and resources on making small changes that can “tip” the world in a new direction. Gladwell’s simple example of such an idea is the phenomenon of snow. As the temperature drops from 34 degrees to 33 degrees, there are no visible changes in the rain. But when the temperature drops from 33 to 30 degrees, the change is immediately apparent: rain has transformed into snow. In the same way, major trends seem to emerge from thin air, catalyzed by a small but significant change.


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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.

When Winston filter-tip cigarettes were introduced in the spring of 1954, for example, the company came up with the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." At the time, the ungrammatical and somehow provocative use of "like" instead of "as" created a minor sensation. It was the kind of phrase that people talked about, like the famous Wendy's tag line from 1984 "Where's the beef?"

Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell illustrates the concept of “stickiness” by discussing one of the most famous ad campaigns in history: “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” To use Gladwell’s terminology, Winston’s ad campaign was “sticky” in the sense that its tagline was simple, memorable, and easy to repeat. As a result of the catchy tagline, Winston was able to sell more cigarettes than ever before: people remembered the tagline, remembered the cigarettes themselves, and bought them in record numbers.

The Winston example illustrates an important point about stickiness, and about social epidemics in general—there’s no fundamental difference between the way a “good” and a “bad” epidemic unfold. Whatever one thinks about the morality of selling cigarettes, the Winston ad campaign unfolded according to the three laws of social epidemics—in a manner consistent with the sale of Hush Puppies, Paul Revere’s ride, or any of the other social epidemics Gladwell discusses. In short, Gladwell’s primary purpose in his book is to describe how social epidemics work, not to judge which ones are positive and which ones are negative.

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.

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

In 1978, with Gold Box television support, every magazine on the schedule made a profit, an unprecedented turnaround.
What's interesting about this story is that by every normal expectation McCann should have won the test. The gold box idea sounds like a really cheesy idea.

Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

In the late 70s, advertisers proposed an ad campaign for the Columbia Record Club: on TV, Columbia ads would advertise about a “gold box” hidden in various Columbia magazines. Anyone who found the hidden gold box would win a free Columbia record. Reluctantly, Columbia agreed to try the ad campaign, and it worked brilliantly: Columbia made a huge profit, and the magazines with a hidden gold box sold in record numbers.

As the passage notes, though, the idea was “really cheesy”—an incredibly obvious way to sell more magazines. In this way, Gladwell conveys some of the strengths and weaknesses of stickiness—his term for the catchiness and general memorability of an idea or product. Columbia’s ad campaign was incredibly sticky: almost everyone who saw the Columbia TV commercials wanted to find a gold box. And yet stickiness doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with creativity or inventiveness. The stickiest ideas aren’t necessarily the most brilliant; indeed, they’re often the most clichéd.

Chapter Four Quotes

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.

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.

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.