The Tipping Point | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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The Tipping Point | Context


"Tipping Points" in Multiple Fields

Gladwell's book made the phrase tipping point a popular way to describe the moment when an idea, product, concept, or behavior takes off or "tips" in one direction or another. But Gladwell didn't coin the phrase. The term has a history in the social sciences, denoting "a phenomenon or rare event that becomes more common"―specifically the "dramatic moment" when a rare event becomes frequent.

Morton Grodzins, a political science professor at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, introduced the concept of tipping points back in 1957. When Grodzins analyzed demographic shifts in American suburban neighborhoods, he noticed a pattern: when a certain percentage of residents of color moved into a previously all-white neighborhood—as soon as a "threshold" was reached—the remaining white residents would leave. He called this a tip point.

Sociologist Eleanor Wolf and economist Thomas Schelling studied this trend further in the 1960s and 1970s, and Wolf adapted Grodzins's phrase, calling it the tipping point. Schelling, examining "white flight" and racial segregation, referred to tipping as a small process that starts a chain reaction and disturbs a system's equilibrium or balance. Gladwell cites Schelling's book Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978) in his introductory discussion of his own Tipping Point concept.

Many other fields, such as physics and biology, apply the term to sudden, dramatic changes and thresholds. Gladwell himself became interested in the concept of tipping points while covering the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) epidemic for the Washington Post. As he learned more about the work of epidemiologists or medical professionals who study disease control, he saw their model for change included "that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass." Climate scientists have also begun to use the term tipping point to express the sudden instability of ecosystems when certain external factors change.

The Gladwell Era: Psychology Made Popular

When asked about The Tipping Point's genre—psychology text, sociological analysis, business manual—Gladwell describes the book as "an intellectual adventure story." He's credited with beginning the hybrid genre of nonfiction books that take a narrative approach to social sciences like economics and psychology, using examples from popular culture and adopting a conversational tone.

Books with approaches similar to Gladwell's have sold well. American economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner's best-selling Freakonomics, a book of economic case studies with unusual conclusions, was published in 2005, five years after The Tipping Point. Freakonomics discusses the sudden drop in New York City's crime rate in the 1990s, an event Gladwell tackles in The Tipping Point. But Levitt and Dubner draw a different conclusion about the cause. They believe the crime rate dropped because abortion was legalized in the 1970s—a controversial theory Gladwell has disputed. Ian Leslie, a British author and advertising strategist who specializes in "ideas-based nonfiction," believes Gladwell singlehandedly created a cultural genre of ideas-based science. Leslie credits Gladwell with inspiring other popular science writers, such as Daniel Pink and Steven Johnson, as well as the influential video series TED Talks.

Gladwell has been called an "intellectual provocateur" who revels in surprising readers. Psychologist and writer Adam Grant connects Gladwell's approach to 1971 sociologist Murray Davis's famous "Index of the Interesting." Davis argues theorists are remembered for interesting or widely circulated ideas—ideas that contain the element of surprise. "When an idea is counterintuitive, we're intrigued," Grant writes. "We're motivated to ask questions: How could this be? Is it really true? What else might this explain?" The Tipping Point, he says, demonstrates social scientists' "ability to find structure in chaos" by explaining how systematic forces drive seemingly random events.

The Tipping Point's theories of social epidemics have caught on in corporate culture and marketing. In 2004 Gladwell helped Simmons Market Research write consumer surveys using his book's ideas about how to reach customers. Marketing campaigns adapted Gladwell's analysis of the few well-connected people who spread epidemics and enhanced the influential theory of marketing by focusing on word-of-mouth campaigns. One online marketing news journal estimated companies spend over $1 billion a year to reach influentials or well-connected consumers.

Gladwell himself champions the potential of ideas to create lasting change, saying, "To be someone who does not believe in the power of the situation is to be a defeatist about the world."

Criticism of The Tipping Point

Scientists, journalists, and scholars have often critiqued Gladwell for oversimplifying complex ideas by distilling them to anecdotes and overstating his cases without adequate factual support. Economist Thomas Schelling, who researched "tipping points" in social science before Gladwell did, said The Tipping Point proved "Malcolm Gladwell has a couple of good ideas," but the book does not demonstrate scientific principles. In 2008 the editor of the New Republic, said Gladwell "is marketing nothing but marketing—the marketer's view of the world." A New York Times review of The Tipping Point called Gladwell's rules of epidemics "common sense dressed up as science" and criticized his analysis of the Micronesian suicide epidemic as a "private language," saying the theory of contagion might prevent suicidal people from getting the help they need.

Two thinkers in particular have rejected the ideas in The Tipping Point. Network theory scientist Duncan Watts believes the influential personality types Gladwell describes in his book—Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen—have no effect on the success of a trend. Watts performed a series of experiments that included analyzing email patterns and observing the spread of rumors, a pattern Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point, through computer models. "A rare bunch of cool people just don't have that power," Watts concluded. Scholar Jonah Berger, in his popular Wharton Business School course Contagious, claimed to disprove "fifty percent" of The Tipping Point by emphasizing data over storytelling. Berger also disputes Gladwell's "Law of the Few," the rule Gladwell uses to describe certain influential personalities.

Gladwell has defended his narrative approach, saying, "Stories are the way of making sense of things where we don't have facts." As time has passed, however, Gladwell has seen The Tipping Point in a new light. The book was really geared toward "complex, relatively new, and sophisticated ideas" rather than all ideas, he's said. He admitted, "[The book] does seem more like a product of a lighter time."

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