The Tipping Point | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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The Tipping Point | Main Ideas



Why do people do what they do in a given situation? This broad question is at the heart of human psychology. Gladwell examines how behavior can be motivated by unpredictable factors and can express itself in unexpected ways. When he explores the Stickiness Factor in Chapter 3 and the Power of Context in Chapters 4 and 5, he traces surprising behaviors back to their source.

The television show creators described in Chapter 3 searched for what motivates young children to pay attention, understand, and learn. Blue's Clues researchers discovered their target audience responded to repetition and familiarity. Direct marketer Lester Wunderman and psychologist Howard Levanthal (whose last name is correctly spelled Leventhal, though it appears as Levanthal in the book) learned their target audiences responded to behavioral suggestions made relevant to their lives—through the enjoyment of a treasure hunt or the convenience of a campus map.

Humans can find motivation in the positive or negative pressures of their surroundings too. The Princeton University experiment in Chapter 4 shows how the pressure of being late can overpower a desire to help someone in need. A criminal act may be motivated by an atmosphere lacking signs of law enforcement, not by an innate urge to commit crime. In Chapter 5 Gore employees discuss how their coworkers are motivated to perform well by knowing and caring about the opinions of everyone else in the company.

Group Psychology

It takes a group to "tip" an epidemic. Through the Law of the Few and the Power of Context, Gladwell examines aspects of social psychology. Which group members have authority? How does an individual's behavior change when he or she is part of a group?

Social circles can communicate in private codes, similar to spoken languages. In Chapter 6 Gladwell illustrates how socially gifted people "translate" emerging niche trends to a specific group. Gladwell connects his analysis of rumors to the imagery Airwalk used in its ad campaign, showing how group communication can transform a story. Airwalk took exciting but relatively unknown trends and changed the story around them so a wider, broader group would take interest. Similarly the details of a spoken rumor will change based on the rumor monger's audience. Through the process of assimilation, a rumor becomes a story more interesting and relevant to the group.

Certain groups have more power and influence over their members. Specifically, Gladwell argues, a group smaller than 150 people will have a clear "community ethos" whereby they "agree and act with one voice." Members will feel they genuinely know everyone in the group, and they'll feel accountable to the others. By examining how religious communities, corporate institutions, and military organizations have arrived at this number independently, and how families act out a smaller version of group psychology, Gladwell demonstrates how humans find their places in group hierarchies and cement group loyalties.

Group membership can dramatically change individual actions. Participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment and witnesses to the Kitty Genovese murder acted the way they did—possibly abandoning deeply held individual principles—because of the actions of those around them. When people act as a group their actions have a greater impact. Some changes aren't so dramatic on an individual level, like women sharing a book with fellow book club members. But these minor actions added up to a major change in the book's sales.

Making Information Memorable

"We can only handle so much information at once," Gladwell says in Chapter 5, describing the "channel capacity" of the human brain. In Chapter 3 he discusses "the 'clutter' problem" of increased media presence in daily life. When people are bombarded with advertisements and recommendations, how do they decide what's important? The Tipping Point analyzes how the brain sorts through a constant flow of new knowledge and picks what matters.

To "stick," information needs to be directly relevant and uniquely engaging to its audience. Sesame Street discovered preschoolers could be engaged by an entertaining puppet, but they might not remember the educational concepts in the puppet's segment. Blue's Clues simplified the message to make the educational aspect "stick." By tweaking "structure and format," both shows improved reading skills in their audience—but Gladwell emphasizes they didn't change the message itself. They changed the order based on children's thought processes or the physical presentation based on children's eye movements.

Information also needs the right messenger. People will listen more closely to someone whose judgment they trust in a certain area, like an expert or Maven. The charismatic personalities Gladwell describes in Chapter 2 all have peers who look to them, consciously or subconsciously, for cues about what to remember and how to act. And the right messenger needs, even more than expertise, the listeners' credibility and respect. In Chapter 6 Gladwell notes Baltimore's drug users participated in needle-exchange programs if they got the information from a Connector in their community; they didn't participate if the information came from a professional they didn't know.

The Strength of the Subconscious

Subconscious behavior relates to thoughts and feelings in the mind that individuals aren't aware of but that influence their behavior nonetheless. This hidden part of the brain is called the "subconscious." In several of his works, such as The Tipping Point and Blink, Gladwell observes how subconscious feelings dictate conscious decisions.

Body language, for instance, can overpower conscious communication. Gladwell examines this phenomenon in Chapter 2. A newscaster's "bias in facial expression" influenced voters more than the words the newscaster spoke. Students who made a gesture signifying agreement—nodding their heads—found themselves more inclined to agree with an idea, whether the idea was in their best interests or not. Through the example of his conversation with California businessperson Tom Gau, Gladwell shows the true power of salesmen isn't in what they say but in how they say it.

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