The Tipping Point | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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The Tipping Point | Chapter 1 : The Three Rules of Epidemics | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • The chapter begins with a straightforward medical epidemic: Baltimore's rise in syphilis cases in the mid-1990s.
  • Gladwell analyzes three different explanations for the syphilis epidemic.
  • These three explanations point to three "agents of change" that may "tip" an epidemic: the infectious agent itself, the people who spread it, or the environment it is in.
  • Gladwell expresses these agents of change as three "rules" or principles. He calls the rules the Stickiness Factor (infectious agents), the Law of the Few (people), and the Power of Context (environment). He organizes the rest of the book based on these three principles.
    • The Stickiness Factor (infectious agents): The Stickiness Factor borrows from the study of viruses. The 1980s HIV epidemic, for instance, emerged from a new strain of HIV more deadly than previous strains.
    • The Law of the Few (people): The Law of the Few means certain people are more likely to cause widespread change. The 80/20 Principle, widely used in economics, agrees. According to the 80/20 Principle, 20 percent of the participants in any system will do 80 percent of the work. With regard to the syphilis epidemic, epidemiologist John Potterat believes the people most likely to carry the disease were concentrated in a few housing developments but moved throughout the city and spread syphilis with them when their former housing was destroyed.
    • The Power of Context (environment): The Power of Context shows how epidemics are influenced by even the seemingly smallest environmental conditions. Baltimore scientist John Zenilman (whose full name is Dr. Jonathan Zenilman, though it appears as John Zenilman in the book) identifies how syphilis became chronic after health services decreased. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) points to a change in environmental context with the increase of crack use.
  • Advertisers benefit from the Stickiness Factor. When a message—say, an iconic ad jingle—sticks in people's memories, a social epidemic begins.
  • Gladwell identifies people with "social connections and energy and enthusiasm and personality" as the few people who start social epidemics.
  • When Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964, 38 witnesses heard her cry for help but none called the police. Gladwell believes the witnesses were influenced by being in a large group where "responsibility for acting is diffused." Each witness may have thought another observer would help. Context dictated their behavior.
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