The Tipping Point | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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The Tipping Point | Motifs



In the book's first two chapters Gladwell frequently uses medical examples to illustrate how social trends can move from person to person. He borrows from virology or the medical study of viruses. The word viral connects the concepts of disease and information transfer. Something "viral" can be caused by a physical virus or simply spread rapidly from person to person. Gladwell demonstrates how our "specific, biological notion of what contagiousness means" can apply to the contagiousness of thoughts and behaviors.

Disease is powerful in its own right. Viral illnesses take on a life of their own and thwart medical attempts to stop them. Social epidemics have similar independent lives, becoming larger than the individuals who created them. As Gladwell says, epidemic effects seem "far out of proportion to the cause."

Television and Advertising

Television and advertising represent the challenge of delivering a persuasive, memorable message to an audience and doing it right. Gladwell studies television in Chapter 3 to grasp the "stickiness factor." Could a passive visual medium teach literacy concepts to young children? The children's shows Gladwell describes changed the relationship between messenger and audience, making television more interactive than it had ever been. In Chapter 2 he reveals a television nightly news program delivered a subtle and effective message to voters, though not the message the program intended.

Commercials and other forms of advertising were designed to spread social epidemics. The goal is clear and the effects clearly measurable. In Chapter 1 Gladwell gives an example of a rhyming Winston cigarette slogan and how it stuck in audience memory, resulting in skyrocketing sales. The Chapter 6 case study focuses on Airwalk's use of "the principles of epidemic transmission" in its ad campaign. The Chapter 7 case study discusses the limitations of advertising and examines why antismoking ads have failed to achieve the intended effect.


Gladwell's interest in the irrationality and mystery of human behavior leads him to investigate criminals more deeply, defining crime as a "varied and complicated set of behaviors" heavily influenced by environmental factors. As he shows how human behavior can defy intuition, he investigates what leads to crime. A criminal like Bernie Goetz, he believes, is affected by being in an environment that encourages criminal behavior. In different surroundings he might have picked up different cues and not committed the crime. Gladwell describes this theory as "radical" since humans often believe criminals ignore the rules of the world around them. Instead, he argues, they pay attention constantly.

Though teen smoking isn't a crime, it's a risky behavior many people would like to limit or eliminate. Gladwell uses teen smoking as an example of an unsolved epidemic because he knows the reader will be invested. Why do teens continue to smoke when the danger is clear? Why do some teens pick up the habit when others don't? Gladwell shows how the act of teen smoking can be irrational and mysterious, but like crime it is influenced by context and ultimately changeable.

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