The Tipping Point | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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The Tipping Point | Quotes


Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.

Narrator, Introduction

Gladwell touches on the main point he'll discuss throughout the book: How do ideas and behaviors spread, and how can we act on this information? He uses an example the reader already understands—a virus causing physical illness, transmitted from person to person—to illustrate a more abstract and unfamiliar concept.


The Tipping Point is a place where ... radical change is more than possibility.

Narrator, Introduction

Gladwell uses the word radical frequently. He wants readers to imagine events outside the normal paradigm of human thought, like a tiny cause growing in a "geometric progression" and becoming a gigantic effect. He's also laying out instructions. If the reader acts on the principles in the book, Gladwell thinks, they're likely to enact the changes they want to see.


It takes only the smallest of changes to shatter an epidemic's equilibrium.

Narrator, Chapter 1

A state of equilibrium, or balance, can "tip" in one direction or the other. Gladwell uses the verb shatter to imply striking and sensational change. An epidemic is unusual and noticeable in a world accustomed to balance.


A tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work.

Narrator, Chapter 1

As Gladwell explains the Law of the Few, he compares it to the more well-known 80/20 Principle, which says in any given situation about 80 percent of the work will be done by 20 percent of the people. According to the Law of the Few, a change in which many people participate can be credited to just a few influential people.


The smallest and subtlest and most unexpected of factors can affect the way we act.

Narrator, Chapter 1

The Tipping Point refutes the idea people can always explain or understand their own behavior. Gladwell's goal is to help readers understand the "unexpected" causes for their behavior. When they're aware of these causes in their daily lives, they can see the world in a new way.


Persuasion often works in ways that we do not appreciate.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Gladwell knows readers may underestimate how much other people affect their decisions. His in-depth analysis of conversational body language shows how persuasion can imperceptibly influence minor and major decisions.


Is [the message] so memorable, in fact, that it can create change?

Narrator, Chapter 3

Here Gladwell gets to the heart of The Tipping Point. People who try to start epidemics want to create a specific change. For example, they may want consumers to buy their products, patients to follow their health advice, or children to learn concepts from a television show. They know getting people to act on their message—by making purchases or doing well on literacy tests—is the hardest part. The message needs to lead naturally and clearly to the intended action.


Our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances.

Narrator, Chapter 4

Gladwell defends the controversial idea character is flexible rather than innate. The experiments he describes show how minor circumstantial changes—such as the environment in which a test is taken—and major ones—such as living under a lot of stress in a high-crime neighborhood—can shape "inner states." Students may cheat in one circumstance and not in another, for instance.


You can exploit the bonds of memory and peer pressure.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Members of a close and cohesive group can influence other group members to behave a certain way, says Gladwell. "Transactive memory," or joint memory, divides responsibilities in a group based on strengths, creating an atmosphere of trust. People submit to peer pressure when they respect others' opinions and advice enough to follow their recommendations.


To create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Behavior catches on when people listen to others in their social circles and respond to their immediate environment. Within these limited but powerful circles, "small movements" can begin. Gladwell calls this "the paradox of the epidemic" since an epidemic has a wide reach. He will later explain how idea "translation" can help a small movement ripple outward.


They took the cultural cues from the Innovators ... and leveled, sharpened, and assimilated them.

Narrator, Chapter 6

Gladwell describes how the branding agency Lambesis consistently picked up on trends and subcultures with the right timing—just before the trends became wildly popular—and then interpreted these details memorably for a young audience. This technique shows an ad can sell not just a product but also a lifestyle and an "indefinable quality known as cool."


Contagiousness is ... a function of the messenger. Stickiness is ... a property of the message.

Narrator, Chapter 7

Gladwell differentiates two similar-seeming factors of an epidemic. Both require a different strategy to spread, or contain, an idea or behavior. To fight teenage smoking, he explains, people can start with its source of contagion—rebellious and attractive fellow smokers—or they can start with its stickiness—the nicotine habit itself.


Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas.

Narrator, Chapter 8

The most successful social changes, Gladwell suggests, are spurred not by the hardest work but by the smartest work. Putting the right messages in the right messengers' hands, within the right context, is more effective than trying as many tactics as possible. Gladwell spends much of the book defining the "resources" people can manipulate, such as influential community members and small structural changes.


The world—much as we want it to—does not accord with our intuition.

Narrator, Chapter 8

Gladwell wants readers to see the world in a new way. He believes intuitions, or concepts people instinctively feel to be true, are inadequate reasons to act. Successful epidemic starters go beyond their intuitions and first impressions to take measures they aren't sure will work. Gladwell's message to readers is to look beyond intuition for the real cause of behavior.


Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action.

Narrator, Chapter 8

Ultimately Gladwell is hopeful about the world. His book is a rubric for action. In Chapter 8 he gives the example of nurse Georgia Sadler's success in getting crucial health information to people who needed it, showing how Tipping Points can promote positive social change. He's put his theories to practical use by determining the Tipping Points of the teen smoking epidemic and explaining how people can use them to end the epidemic. To Gladwell's mind, readers who use the right resources in the right way can be a force for positive change.

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