The Tipping Point
How Little Things Make a Big Difference
Gladwell contends that “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” He compares characteristics of a flu epidemic with some powerful transformations. In each case, (1) the changing behavior was highly contagious, (2) it was little causes that had big effects, and (3) the change was not gradual, but happened at one dramatic moment. He believes the third characteristic is the most important because it “makes sense of the first two.” He calls this dramatic moment the Tipping Point.
The first example Gladwell gives is the remarkable comeback of the classic shoe made by Hush Puppies. Sales jumped from 30,000 in 1994 to 430,000 in 1995 and to over 1,700,000 in 1996, and in that year they were voted Best Accessory at the Council of Fashion Designers. The phenomenon came as a total surprise to Hush Puppy executives, who were considering discontinuing the line. A hair stylist told two executives visiting New York that the shoes were “hip” in clubs and bars in Manhattan. The kids who began wearing them were probably wearing them because they were not fashionable, but the fad spread quickly. The tipping point was when two designers featured the shoes in their fashion shows.
The second example is the amazing drop in the crime rate in New York City. From 1965 to the mid-70's, the number of crimes rose from 200,000 to 650,000 and held steady for two decades, then plunged downward in 1992. Cleaning up the city and discouraging panhandlers began an “epidemic” of lower crime. The rationale is the Broken Windows theory. Two criminologists argue that disorder accentuates crime e.g., broken windows, graffiti, or even aggressive panhandling.
Two questions are posed in the introduction: “Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don't? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?”
The book is organized around three agents of change: The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
The Law of the Few
It is not surprising that a small number of people can start an epidemic. The 80/20 principle is cited by economists to explain why 80% of work is done by 20% of the people, 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of criminals, and 80% of car accidents are caused by 20% of motorists. These important “few” are categorized as mavens, connectors, and salesmen. Mavens are the people with knowledge. “They provide the message.” Connectors are the “social glue.” “They spread the message.” And the salesmen persuade us.
The Stickiness Factor
The Stickiness Factor means that the “message sticks in your memory.” An analysis of Sesame Street and a later show, Blues Clues, demonstrates the importance of repetition, relevance, and fine-tuning a message.
The Power of Context
Conditions and circumstances are critical to the spread of epidemics. With respect to the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies, the kids who began wearing the shoes were from the East Village in New York —a place where fashion designers live or visit.
Paul Revere is cited earlier as a “connector,” but context is also important. The night-time ride helped strengthen the urgency of the message, and of course, most people were at home and therefore available to hear the message.
This chapter elaborates on the Broken Windows theory, explaining how disorder invites serious crime. It also explains how cracking down on misdemeanors leads to control of more serious crimes.
Interesting experiments have been done to show how small situation changes can make a big difference. For example, normally honest students were given an easy opportunity to cheat and many did so. They were given a test that was too difficult to finish in the time allotted. The papers were handed to the teacher. The next day, a test of similar difficulty was given, but this time, the students were asked to grade their own work. With the opportunity to add answers they had left blank, scores improved dramatically the second day.
One “rule,” of which I was unaware is the “rule of 150.” It says that 150 is the maximum number of people who can work together in a relatively flat organization without a hierarchy. It is an example of how a small addition of people can “tip” the balance.
The book was interesting, but not as instructive as I had hoped. Knowing the rules about epidemics may give you a slight edge in planning a transformation, but replications of the examples given would be difficult.
Getting rid of graffiti or repairing broken windows is perhaps the most concrete advice, but a fair and efficient judiciary, good training of police officers, teamwork, strong leadership, etc. are also essential for reducing crime.
Advice to keep “tinkering” to achieve stickiness doesn't seem particularly helpful. And the comeback of Hush Puppies seems to be entirely a fluke. Similarly, I cannot glean too much useful information from Paul Revere's ride. Of course, understanding human behavior in general is always useful.
Last Reviewed: October 20, 2011