The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

The Tipping Point

Summary of Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point: Malcolm Gladwell takes us through a myriad of stories and case studies to explain that sometimes we can look upon something as a complete success story if it becomes widely accepted, but that sometimes it is the smallest changes that can turn the tide.

By Malcolm Gladwell, 2016, 270 pages

Chronicle and summary of “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell:

Introduction – What is the tipping point?

In “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell traces and analyzes the origins of various spectacular success stories. Through these stories, he tells us what he believes creates, without a doubt, real “snowball” effects.

The Tipping Point is the story of an idea, a very simple idea: the best way to understand the emergence of fashions, the ebb and flow of crime waves, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, the increase in teenage smoking, the phenomenon of word of mouth, or any other mysterious change in everyday life – the best way to understand all these processes, therefore, is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas, products, messages and behaviors spread exactly like viruses.”

Therefore, in the opinion of Malcolm Gladwell, in order to create a tipping point, the processes must be viewed as an epidemic. This involves three main principles which the author proposes to develop over the course of the book:

  1. Contagion,
  2. The magnitude of the impact from relatively minor causes,
  3. The suddenness of the changes.

“The notion of the tipping point is based on this possible suddenness of change(…). The tipping point is a threshold, a boiling point, the point at which a critical mass is reached.”

Chapter 1- The three rules of the epidemic, in “The Tipping Point“.

“The tipping point is that dramatic moment when, in an epidemic, everything can turn upside down.”

In this chapter, Malcolm Gladwell takes us to Baltimore to tell us about the horrendous syphilis epidemic that took place there in the 1990s. Several theories have tried to explain this epidemic. Three main causes have emerged:

  • Crack,
  • The collapse of medical services in poor neighborhoods,
  • The urban planning changes in these neighborhoods.

But instead, Gladwell draws our attention to the fact that it was modest changes that turned the situation around, which changed the disease into an epidemic. On the strength of this observation he offers a different explanation for why this epidemic, and any epidemic in general, broke out.

First, he tells us that an epidemic is an example of geometric progression:

“To fully understand the power of the epidemic, we must abandon our idea of proportionality.”

At this point, in Gladwell’s opinion, the disease ceases to be contained and the epidemic breaks out when there is a change in one of the three elements that make it up:

  1. People who transmit infectious agents,
  2. Infectious agents per se,
  3. The environment in which they operate.

Malcolm Gladwell applied these three vectors of change to the case of social epidemics and named them:

  1. rare birds,
  2. adhesion,
  3. the context.

1.1 – Rare birds = triggers

The 80/20 principle means that, in any given situation, about 80% of the “work” is done by 20% of the protagonists. In the case of epidemics, this disproportion is even greater. Indeed, a very small percentage of actors (whichever ones) actually do most of the work:

“Social epidemics work exactly like disease epidemics. They are triggered by the actions of a handful of people who are clearly distinguished from the masses by their sociability, energy, knowledge or influence.”

Thus, for the author, these exceptional beings are the triggers. They are what the author calls “rare birds”. The process is as follows: one of these rare birds discovers the trend and, thanks to their social network, their energy, their enthusiasm and their personality, they spread the news.

1.2 – The principle of adhesion

This notion of adherence is very important trigger in relation to social epidemics.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about ways to make our messages more contagious, strategies to reach as many people as possible. In the communication process, retention of the message is as important, if not more so, than dissemination. A message that sticks in the memory, that doesn’t leave the mind, obviously has an impact.”

Through the concept of adhesion, it is possible to make a contagious message unforgettable. A simple change in the presentation and organization of the information conveyed can sometimes make a huge difference to the impact.

1.3 – The context of an epidemic

An epidemic is strongly influenced by its context, i.e. by:

  • Circumstances,
  • The conditions of the environment in which it evolves,
  • The peculiarities of its environment.

Chapter 2 – Rare Birds | Connectors, mavens and vendors

Word of mouth, an effective means of persuasion

Through Paul Revere’s fascinating story and how he managed to put an entire region at war one night in 1775, Malcolm Gladwell provides us with an incredible example of the power of word of mouth.

However, Gladwell believes that this means of communication does not always produce such a spectacular effect. Yet it remains our preferred means of communication, even in an era of mass communication and big-budget advertising campaigns.

Many advertising managers consider that, due to widespread marketing, word of mouth has become the only means of persuasion that is still effective. However, the phenomenon remains very mysterious. People constantly spread all kinds of information to each other without the constant creation of word-of-mouth epidemics.

So how is it that only certain messages, only certain ideas and trends manage to turn a situation around?

One is tempted to answer that it is because these messages, ideas and trends involve sensational material. But Malcolm Gladwell realized that in reality, content is not the only factor involved.

In regard to the events in Paul Revere’s story in particular, the author finds that Revere turned the tide with exactly the same message that Dawes (the other protagonist in the story) broadcast, yet had almost no effect. Gladwell believes that this significant difference is due to their respective personalities. For Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Revere is a rare bird, Dawes is “just” an ordinary man!

Thus, the author finds that, in reality, the success of any social epidemic depends above all on the intervention of particularly sociable people. And we come into contact with these people every day and may well not appreciate the impact that these unique individuals, these rare birds, can have on our lives.

Malcolm Gladwell believes there are three types of rare birds who play a major role in trends, fashions and tastes:

  • The connector,
  • The maven,
  • The salesman.

2.1 – Connectors  

The six degrees of separation

In the late 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram undertook a study to understand why people say that “the world is small”: in other words, how does an idea, trend or information manage to spread throughout a population?

For example, Milgram created a chain of letters with the participation of 160 residents of Omaha, United States. He mentioned the name and address of a stockbroker in Sharon, another U.S. state. Then he asked each subject to put his own name on the letter and send it to a friend or acquaintance who lived closer to the broker. The first recipient would do the same, the second recipient would do the same, the third recipient would do the same, and so on and so forth until the letter finally reached the broker.

At the end of the experiment, the psychologist discovered that:

Most of the letters arrived at their destination in five or six stages. This is called the six degrees of separation concept.

In fact, most people do not have particularly large and diverse circles of friends. We don’t go far to find friends. Yet, contrary to popular belief, this experience, like others described by Malcolm Gladwell, showed that, on average, five intermediaries are sufficient to connect people with each other.

Of the 160 letters the broker received, roughly 80 were delivered to him via only 3 people.

So, not only did it reveal to us that we are connected to the rest of the world by a few degrees, but the six degrees of separation hypothesis demonstrates that it is through a few people, a few rare birds, that we are all interconnected:

“These people who connect us to the world, who bridge Omaha and Sharon, who bring us into their circle of friends, who we rely on much more than we think, are the connectors, the gatherers”

The three characteristics of connectors, defined in “The Tipping Point

A wealth of knowledge

Only a handful of people (from all walks of life) really have the gift of how to relate to others. The author portrays two connectors, Lois Wesberg and Roger Horchow, and is amazed at the wealth of knowledge they possessed:

“By some eccentricity of nature, the Lois Weisbergs and Roger Horchows of this world have the gift of how to relate to the people they meet. They don’t think about things the way most of us do. They see and appreciate possibilities, while we’re busy with the choice of who we want to know and who we prefer to reject because they don’t look right, don’t live in the right neighborhood or we haven’t seen them for a long time.”

The author emphasizes Roger Horshow’s mastery of relationship management. The secret is that relationships are not formed through close ties, but rather through superficial friendships:

“In general, […] we don’t have the time or energy to develop real friendships with everyone we meet. Horchow is very different. The people in his diary or computer are acquaintances, people he can see once a year, or even less often. He doesn’t shirk the obligations that this entails. He has mastered what sociologists call “weak bonds,” friendly but superficial social ties.”

A very high degree of connectivity

The strength of connectors lies not only in the number but also in the kind of people they know. Connectors are people that we can all reach in a few simple steps because, for one reason or another, they are connected to different universes and subcultures:

“A connector’s degree of connectedness is based on the intrinsic aspects of their personality, a combination of curiosity, confidence, sociability and energy.”

Connectors have, indeed, the gift to weave links between all the universes they have penetrated. In the profiles of Lois Weisberg and Roger Horchow, this undeniable ability to bring people together is evident.

The power of weak links

“Shallow relationships are a source of social power, and the more you have, the more powerful you are.”

In the 1970s, sociologist Mark Granovetter became interested in job search techniques. He found that 56% of the hundreds of workers (skilled and technical) interviewed actually found their jobs through their contacts. And when personal contact was used, it was often a weak link.

“People don’t get their jobs from their friends, they get their jobs from their acquaintances. Granovetter believes that weak links are always more important than strong links when people look for a job, information or ideas.”

Indeed, close friends share the same worlds. People who don’t know each other well occupy different territories and are therefore more likely to have mutually exclusive information. To describe this phenomenon, Granovetter uses what seems to be a paradoxical expression: “the strength of weak ties”.

“The closer a person gets to a connector, the more powerful, richer or luckier they become. The same principle applies to restaurants, movies, trends or any other information that circulates by word of mouth: if a concept or product is in the environment of a connector, it is more likely to be known and appreciated.”

Lois Weisberg and Roger Horchow, who are masters in the art of the weak link, are thus connectors who have enormous influence. If it is purely by word of mouth that someone trys to get a job, someone like them needs to step in.

2.2 – Mavens

The connector is not the only important protagonist in a social epidemic. Indeed, in any social epidemic, there are specialists in people – the connectors – and there are specialists in intelligence: the “mavens”. Sometimes the same person combines these two functions. Mavens are found in all sectors and all levels of society.

The word “maven” comes from Yiddish and means “he who gains knowledge”. And, indeed, the knowledge of mavens is crucial. In recent years, they have also aroused a great deal of interest among economists because, as custodians of information, they are, in the author’s words, “the most important players in the market economy”. Economists also call them “price vigilantes”.

Passionate about the market, these “market mavens” are, in fact, customers who watch prices, know the good deals, have a lot of information about different products, prices or places. Their motivations are social. The maven connects people to the market and wants to help them make the best decisions. The result of this is that it contributes to how the market functions, especially as it keeps the market honest.

For Malcolm Gladwell, because they know more than most people and are happy to share their knowledge, mavens have a critical role to play when social epidemics are triggered:

We always follow their advice. A connector may suggest a hotel to a dozen friends and only half of them will stay there. A maven will tell only five people about it, but with such conviction that all five will book a room there. They are two distinct personalities with different motives. But they both have the power to cause a word-of-mouth epidemic

2.3 – The seller

The maven does not seek to persuade at all costs; rather, they act as an “information broker” who shares and negotiates with their knowledge. Persuasion, which is necessary to turn a situation into an epidemic, is created through a third protagonist: the seller.

A good salesperson has special skills. First of all, they differ from an ordinary salesman in the number and quality of answers they can give to objections raised by any potential customers. Second, there are a number of very subtle persuasive factors at work.

The subtle art of persuasion, explained in “The Tipping Point“.

The author explains here that someone, or something, convinces people thanks to:

  • Elements that seem insignificant at first glance.
  • Non-verbal cues and circumstances linked to speech (sometimes even more than words).
  • The unsaid, the hidden meaning of things, details invisible to the eye that the seller themself is not aware of.

To help us understand this last point, Malcolm Gladwell uses a study carried out in the 1960s by William Condon on cultural microrythms in verbal exchanges. As he watched part of a video where three people chatted at a table hundreds of times, Condon found an “interactional synchrony” between the three protagonists. In other words, their conversation had a “physical rhythmic harmony”.

With this theory, Malcolm Gladwell was able to understand what happened in his meeting with Gau, a superb salesman (a meeting he told us about earlier in the book). Gladwell believes that the fact that the charm worked so easily is probably related to the seller’s mastery of these microrythms in their verbal exchange:

“Someone with a persuasive personality is therefore a person who imposes his or her own rhythm and physical conditions of interaction. It was Gau, not I, who led our conversation, and it was I who adjusted to him, not the other way around. He charmed me no more and no less. (…) Yet I did not want to be seduced by Gau. I was just on my guard. But that is the essence of a salesman: one can hardly resist him.”

Sellers are transmitters

In addition to this oral and physical harmony, human beings imitate the emotions of others to communicate. This is called motor mimicry. For example, if we hit ourselves with a hammer on the thumb, witnesses will wince: they will mimic our emotional state (this is also often called empathy).

In the opinion of Malcolm Gladwell, this emotional contagion follows the same mechanism as a contagious disease:

“There are porters, people who are particularly expressive, and there are people who are particularly receptive. People who are able to express their emotions and feelings well are what psychologists call transmitters.”

Gladwell believes that this transmitter has a particular personality but also a particular physiology. Only charismatic people can infect others with their emotions. Research shows that in a very short time, with no words exchanged, the mood of a transmitter can win over a non-transmitter, whereas the mood of non-transmitters has no effect on transmitters.

2.4 – Three sentences to summarize what connectors, mavens and vendors are in “The Tipping Point“.

To summarize this chapter, we can say that in a social epidemic:

  • The maven is the database: it composes the message.
  • The connector connects people: it transmits the message.
  • The seller persuades those who are still hesitant to believe the message.

Chapter 3 –The principle of adhesion, as defined by “The Tipping Point

3.1. – An adherent message

In addition to the messenger (the rare bird), it is essential, says Malcolm Gladwell, that the information conveyed be worthy of attention:

“The content of the message matters as much as the messenger. Specifically, the information must adhere to memory, be memorable enough to provoke change and motivate people to act.”

Marketers state that it’s a proven fact that people have to see an ad at least six times before they remember it. But to really get their message across, they need to explore other, more subtle ways.

To this end, Malcolm Gladwell tells us about the great success of the Columbia advertising campaign, created in the 1970s by Wunderman, a leading direct marketer.

The author explains that this campaign succeeded, in fact, thanks to a simple little change: a detail in its marketing strategy. Wunderman’s ad managed to become more successful when the viewer was invited to flip through a TV magazine in search of a golden box (which they then had to cut out and send in to win):

“With the golden box, viewers were now part of an interactive advertising system: they were no longer just an audience, but participants in a kind of game.”

What Malcolm Gladwell trys to tell us here is this:

“Often the elements that allow ideas or messages to trigger epidemics are seemingly as insignificant as Wunderman’s golden box.”

He tells us about other results of experiments that also show that a subtle but significant change in the presentation of information is enough to make it unforgettable.

3.2 – The importance of the format when you deliver the message

The examples of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues

In this chapter of The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes in great detail the learning epidemic that American television producer Joan Ganz Cooney successfully unleashed in the late 1960s with her children’s television show, Sesame Street. So, through the story of the creation and broadcast of Sesame Street, we learn that this program was a total success for one simple reason: its creators managed to make their message stick, even via television.

Despite the already incredible success of Sesame Street, the show’s creators still sought to improve the traction of their message. To achieve this, they:

  • Began with a major discovery made in the 1960s and 1970s by the pioneers of television research: when they watched television, children like to be intellectually and physically challenged; they watched television not because they were stimulated by images, sound, etc., but because they understood what they watched. And the more they understood, the more they remembered.
  • Exploited an essential point they learned from Sesame Street: for a preschooler, repetition is, unlike for adults, essential; it is an opportunity to take a completely new look at the same thing.

The creators of Sesame Street reviewed the structure and format of their message in relation to to this new data. This work led to the creation of a new children’s program in 1996, Blue’s Clues. This series then became even more popular!

Better traction through “good” small changes

In fact, what the author highlights when he tells the stories of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues is that with subtle, but crucial, change in the way ideas are presented to preschoolers, the creators of the programs managed to overcome the weaknesses of television as a tool to learn and make their messages memorable. And as a result, they have been able to dramatically improve how their message is delivered and taken in.

“We all want to believe that it is the content of our ideas that creates impact. But the above examples tend to show that we should focus on form instead. In each of these cases, the situation has changed because the presentation of ideas has been redesigned…. In other words, the line between approval and rejection, between the status quo and the start of an epidemic, is sometimes much narrower than one might think.”

By the principle of rare birds, it only takes a few exceptional people to trigger an epidemic. Well, the adherence principle works the same way:

“There is a simple way of formulating information to make it convincing in the right circumstances. You just have to find it.”

The Power of Context (I) in ” The Tipping Point”| The Rise and Fall of Crime in New York City

4.1 – The sudden and mysterious drop in crime in New York City

At the start of this chapter, Malcolm Gladwell tells us a 1984 news story: the story of a man, Goetz, who shot and injured his four assailants in the New York subway. In fact, the author recounts this event to plunge us into the climate of violence that prevailed in New York in the 1980s: a very high crime rate (more than 2,000 murders and 600,000 serious crimes a year) and the subway system was completely dilapidated.

After it had reached an all-time high in 1990, the crime rate dropped sharply (murders fell by two-thirds between 1992 and 1997), without warning and without any change in the New York population. The city’s atmosphere suddenly improved enormously. During this period, violence also declined in other cities, but nowhere else did it decline quite so dramatically.

The explanation for this phenomenon, in Gladwell’s opinion, lies in the third element of any social epidemic: context. Context refers to the conditions and circumstances of where and when an epidemic occurs. It is just as important as the other two elements.

The author believes:

“On the one hand, you’re not sensitive to context, you’re extremely sensitive to it. On the other hand, the contextual changes that can trigger an epidemic are unsuspected.”

4.2 – The broken tile theory

A broken window or graffiti as a tipping point

The author believes that the most plausible explanation for the sudden drop in crime in New York City was provided by the broken-tile theory developed by criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson:

“According to them, crime is the inevitable consequence of disorder. People who pass a house with a broken but never repaired window will eventually conclude that no one cares or is responsible for it. Soon more windows will be smashed, and the feeling of anarchy will spread throughout the neighbourhood, indicating that nothing is right anymore. In an urban context, relatively minor problems such as graffiti, public unrest and harassment of beggars encourage more serious crime, as do broken windows.”

So this theory states that crime, as contagious as fashion trends, can start with a broken window and spread to an entire neighborhood. In this case, the tipping point is not a particular type of person (connector or maven), but rather something in the context, such as graffiti:

“It is not a person, but the characteristic of a given environment that prompts a certain behavior.”

Fighting crime by modifying minute contextual elements

In support of his idea, Malcolm Gladwell tells us how two “simple” measures taken by the New York Transport Commission brought the city’s subway system back to life, both of which significantly helped to improve safety and the city’s atmosphere. The two measures were:

  1. Prioritize graffiti removal;
  2. Fine all users who do not pay their transport ticket.

“For Bratton and Giuliani [the then New York transport commissioners], one thing is certain: if the rate of urban and underground crime has fallen so rapidly and dramatically, it is because they have fought against petty crime, which may seem insignificant, but which are in fact tipping points towards violent crime. The theory of the broken tile is based on the premise that a situation can tip over if you change minute elements of the environment.”

So, while many theories maintain that crime is a matter of personality – the criminal is a person who ignores social norms – the theory of the broken tile explains crime by context. Malcolm Gladwell states, in effect, that:

“The criminal is not an isolated individual who acts as he does for personal, fundamental and intrinsic reasons. On the contrary, he is extremely sensitive to his environment, highly receptive to all kinds of signals and prone to commit wrongdoing based on his perception of the world around him.”

The author differentiates this environmentalist argument from that put forward by progressives in the 1960s, who saw the environment as a number of fundamental social factors and therefore considered crime to be the consequence of social injustice, economic inequality, unemployment, racism or institutional and social neglect.

4.3-The subtle role of context

In this section, the author tells us about various psychological experiences that give rise to two main ideas:

  • Just as the state of mind can be heavily influenced imperceptibly and without apparent reason by certain people (rare birds), the context also plays a subtle role.
  • In some situations, a person’s predispositions can be annihilated: we know that socio-educational (parents, school, attendance, neighborhood) and hereditary (genetics would dictate half of our behavior) factors impact our actions; however, research maintains that in certain places, circumstances and conditions, all these predispositions can be negated.

Honesty, for example, is not a fundamental character trait. It is, in fact, considerably influenced by the situation: results from studies carried out on children show that, in a given situation, whether they cheat depends, on the one hand, on the child’s intelligence, age and family background and, on the other hand, on the exact nature of the situation and how the child perceives it.

By means of various examples, the author shows that we tend to underestimate the effects of a situation on our behavior, and that, conversely, we often overestimate the importance of personal attitudes. Psychologists call this behavior the “fundamental attribution error”.

4.4-The fundamental attribution error

To study the principle of fundamental error of attribution, two American psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, conducted a test with a group of seminarians, inspired by the story of the Good Samaritan.

What Malcolm Gladwell tells us about their results vividly portrays the power of context. This test reveals that behavior is determined not so much by beliefs and thoughts but rather by the immediate context. If you tell people “Oh, you’re late” all you have achieved is to make people who are usually compassionate insensitive to how others suffer. In other words, simple words have transformed them.

“This is the essence of the epidemic process. When you want to turn a situation around with a product, an idea or an attitude, you want to transform the recipients no more and no less: you try to infect them, to get them on board, to move them from hostility to acceptance. This can be done through the influence of a certain type of extraordinarily sociable people: rare birds. It can be done by increasing the level of adherence of a message, by making its content so memorable that it adheres to the spirit and incites action. But it can also be done by changing the context slightly, although this conception of influence runs counter to the most deeply rooted assumptions of human nature.”

4.5 – Act on the contextual tipping point

The traditional theory states, personal predispositions are at the origin of violence: personality disorders, deficiencies of an oversized ego, genetic malformations or the inability to cope with frustrations.

However, Malcolm Gladwell cites several studies that have shown that these influences are not as decisive as those in the immediate social and physical world of individuals (neighborhood, entourage). In fact, in order for a disturbed person to become a criminal, they need a trigger, and studies indicate that this trigger, this tipping point, may be found in the current situation, sometimes in a very mundane form.

Malcolm Gladwell also states that, from the traditional viewpoint, even if you can help a criminal improve, it is almost impossible to prevent crime (you can only put defensive measures in place). On the other hand, when the importance of context is taken into account and the fact that specific and minor elements can greatly reduce violence, crime can not only be understood but also prevented. This can be achieved if you act upon contextual tipping points: repair broken tiles, clean up graffiti and thus change the signals that incite crime.

Chapter 5 – The Power of Context (II) in “The Tipping Point” | The 150 Mark

In this chapter, Malcolm Gladwell describes the epidemic unleashed by Rebecca Wells’ novel The Divine Secrets of Little Ya-Ya”. It tells a story about friendship that captivates the reader and deals with the relationship between mother and daughter. It’s a tale that warms the heart and moves people. It is adherent.

What the author emphasizes most in this example is the power of context in the success of this novel, and particularly the crucial role of the group, as an aspect of context, in the outbreak of an epidemic.

5.1 – The effectiveness of the group

For Malcolm Gladwell, the transmission of a new belief system is essentially the work of a charismatic preacher. However, it also depends on how the preacher is able to use the power of the group.

To illustrate this idea, Malcolm Gladwell refers to the epidemic of Methodist religion that spread through England and North America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The founder of this religion, John Wesley, was a connector who connected not only with individuals but also with groups. The nuance is subtle but essential:

“Wesley knew that to bring about lasting and exemplary change in people’s beliefs and behaviors, they needed to be surrounded by a community where their new beliefs would be practiced, expressed and encouraged.”

And in the same way, why the book “The Divine Secrets of Little Ya-Ya”  became so popular, was because it was talked about, as the author tells us, and passed from one reading group to another. The readers then began to form their own Ya-Ya community, that was very close-knit, like the one in the novel, which increased its epidemic potential.

Yes, but how can we distinguish a group with real social influence from one that is completely devoid of it? To achieve this, the author suggests that we should learn about the concept of the “150 mark”.

5.2 – The numbers 7 and 150

Several scientific studies, developed in this section by Malcolm Gladwell, show that human beings are limited:

In terms of cognitive ability (Rule of 7):

Cognitive ability refers to “the space in the brain needed to process certain types of information”. Experiments show that this capacity (innate or acquired) is limited to the number seven (for example, we note that, apart from great piano players, most people start to make mistakes after the sixth tone).

In terms of social capacity (rule of 150):

Studies show that in primates, the size of the neocortex – the region of the brain involved in complex thoughts and reasoning – is proportional to the size of their social group. As a result of this discovery, anthropologists have been able to develop an equation that provides the maximum social group size for most primates. And based on this formula, the human being (Homo sapiens), obtains 147.8, or about 150. This number is therefore the maximum number of people with whom the human being can have a genuine social relationship.

What is quite surprising is that, in relation to various anthropological and historical data, the number 150 comes up again and again to count the members of all kinds of organizations or communities: military units, self-sufficient Hutterite colonies or villages of hunter-gatherer societies.

For the author, it would therefore seem that:

“For a group to incubate a contagious message… …its size must be kept below 150. Otherwise, structural barriers are created which threaten its harmony and cohesion.”

5.3 – Examples of the Rule of 150

Malcolm Gladwell gives us several examples to illustrate that the 150 rule plays a key role in the group and thus in its ability to incubate a contagious message.

The example of the Hutterites

The author points out that, although their aim is to live in colony and harmony, the Hutterites will nevertheless systematically behave very differently and divide into several groups that are alien to each other as soon as their community exceeds 150 members.

The Gore & Associates example

A privately held U.S. company and manufacturer of waterproof textiles and insulated cables, Gore & Associates is a company without a title, position, boss, organizational chart, budget, or complex strategic plan. Malcolm Gladwell tells us how, beyond its extraordinarily contagious and adherent small business culture, the 150 Rule has enabled this company to become a billionaire corporation with thousands of employees. Basically, to ensure cohesion and to spread the same corporate ideology to all its employees, Gore & Associates split into several small, semi-autonomous units.

5.4 – The power of small groups

Whether set up by Gore & Associates, the military organization or the Hutterite community, small divisions have two advantages:

  • Peer pressure

The bonds that hold small groups together are nothing more or less than a form of peer pressure: each member knows the others well enough to care what they think of him or her.

  • Transactional memory

The concept of transactional memory is based on humans’ distribution of information storage capabilities. It is something that couples do automatically: when two people know each other well, they automatically establish a common memory system – transactional memory – based on the fact that each knows which of them is more likely to remember certain things. Transactional memory therefore relates to intimacy.

“When each person in a group deals with specific tasks and facts that are recognized by all, greater overall efficiency is achieved…. Each inevitably becomes a specialist in his or her field.”

Working conditions at Gore & Associates, for example, are exactly those of transactional memory. It is the company-wide rebuilding of family intimacy and trust:

“Knowing someone at Gore goes beyond being able to tell if they’re nice or not. It means knowing their aptitudes, specialties, skills, areas of knowledge, preferences, and passions. It means knowing what they do, what they want to do, what they do best.”

This is how transactional memory, which gets us to focus on what we do best, creates expertise!

Chapter 6 – First Case Study in “The Tipping Point” | Rumours, Sneakers and the Power of Translation

In this chapter, the author examines the concepts of connector, maven, adhesion and context in the context of more complex cases such as Airwalk.

When it was founded in the mid-1980s, Airwalk sold shoes in the “beach and board” culture of Southern California. But in the 1990s, within a couple of years, Airwalk was propelled far beyond its local market and into the global market.

6.1 – Diffusion: a movement by strata

To understand how the Airwalk epidemic was triggered, the author refers to the diffusion model: a sociological theory that allows us to interpret how an idea, innovation or product moves within a population.

This diffusion model transcribes all the tiers of adopters of a given product, i.e. the five different customer groups, graded as follows:

  1. Innovators: who can be described as “adventurous consumers”.
  2. Early adopters: they calmly analyze what these “crazy innovators” do before they follow along.

Innovators and early adopters are visionaries who:

    • Search for revolutionary change, something that will give them an edge over their competitors.
    • Buy technological innovations before they are developed or proven, or before their price has dropped.
  1. The early majority: made up of those who were convinced first, second only to the early adopters.
  2. The late majority: the mass of skeptics, who would never try an innovation without the approval of the most influential members of their community.
  3. The latecomers: these are the most traditional of all consumers, those who see no reason to change.

Malcolm Gladwell points out that this progression is exactly like the curve of an epidemic: “It rises slowly, hooks up when early adopters come on the scene, rises sharply when the majority come on, then falls off when the latecomers gradually arrive.”

6.2-The translation process

Rare birds: these “super-exchanger” connectors…

With the aid of several examples (one of which is the Airwalk advertising campaign), Malcolm Gladwell explains the concept of translation in marketing: translation is the ability to translate the ideas of young innovators in a way that makes them understandable to the majority. Much of it is carried out by rare birds:

“Rare birds allow innovations to cross the chasm between different groups of adopters. They are translators. They take ideas and data from a highly specialized universe and reformulate them into a language accessible to all.”

The study of rumor to understand translation

The study of rumors, the most contagious messages of all, enables us to unravel this translation process. In effect, in a rumor:

“The memory of the image or story revolves strongly around what is familiar to the subject, culturally appropriate and, above all, emotionally significant…. In his search for meaning, he [the rumor bearer] tends to condense or add elements in order to achieve a better Gestalt, a better conclusion, a simpler, more meaningful configuration.”

Malcolm Gladwell concluded that the translation has the same characteristics as the rumor:

“To make an idea contagious, mavens, connectors and vendors modify it to make it more meaningful, omitting irrelevant details and exaggerating others. Anyone who wants to start an epidemic, whether it’s an epidemic of product, idea or behavior, must therefore exploit the ability of rare birds to translate an innovator’s message into a language the rest of the population will understand.”

Chapter 7 – Second Case Study in “The Tipping Point” | Suicide, Smoking and the Adherent Cigarette

In this chapter, Malcolm Gladwell discusses two phenomena that he describes as epidemics among adolescents:

  • Suicide: Malcolm Gladwell looks back at the case of the Micronesian islands, which, for no apparent reason, saw its suicide rate, which was virtually zero in the 1960s, leap to the highest in the world in the 1980s. Considered rare and pathological in the West, suicide is now rooted in the local culture of Micronesia as an adolescent ritual, with its own ritual symbols and its own set of rules. In fact, in these communities, as suicides have increased, the idea of suicide has become more and more common and even a point of fascination for young men. Its danger is now completely trivialized.
  • Smoking: No one really knows how to fight teenage smoking. Several methods have been tried (such as a restriction on advertising or an increase in the price of cigarettes), but they have never been really effective. Worse: While the anti-smoking movement has been at its strongest in the last ten years, the amount that young people smoke has, in the view of the author, never been so high.

Malcolm Gladwell dissects these two phenomena in terms of four common characteristics. Among young people, both suicide and smoking are:

  • The fruit of experimentation, mimicry and rebellion;
  • Misunderstood;
  • Dictated not by rational market principles, but by the rules of the social epidemic;
  • A different way to fight a battle than we have fought so far.

7.1 – Suicide epidemics

“A suicide story in the media is the equivalent of an advertisement for a way to end one’s problems.”

David Phillips, a sociologist and researcher who specializes in suicide, has conducted numerous studies in this field. He states:

“When I’m standing on a street corner waiting for the light to turn green, I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t cross the street anyway…. Then someone else does it, and I imitate them. It’s like getting their permission to act delinquent. I can’t tell whether or not it’s a conscious decision.

Phillips relates this anecdote to help us understand the effect that the media coverage of a suicide can have: just as the person who crosses the road regardless of the lights, this suicide will have a ripple effect: it will give, in a way, permission to others to act in a delinquent manner. And finally, these permission givers play the same role as the vendors mentioned by the author in Chapter 2:

“People whose suicides are highly publicized give others permission to die and act as tipping points in suicide epidemics.”

7.2-Tobacco use by adolescents

Smoking Initiators: Rare Birds

In the opinion of Malcolm Gladwell:

  • Most people, when they recount their very first experience with cigarettes, remember – in addition to a vivid, accurate and emotional childhood memory – the person who introduced them to smoking.
  • Hardcore smokers have a special personality. To sum up, the “heavy smoker” often combines these character traits: extroversion, bravado, sexual precocity, honesty, impulsiveness, indifference to other people’s opinions, sensation-seeking. In other words, the almost perfect definition:
    • The kind of person that fascinates teenagers;
    • A very influential rare bird personality.

So, when we correlate these two findings, we understand that it is inevitable that young people will be attracted to smoking. Because, in reality, “smoking was never cool, it’s the smokers who are cool.”

Adherent habit that shifts from occasional to habitual smoker

“Whether a teenager ever decides to smoke depends on his or her contact with someone who has allowed him or her to engage in deviant behaviour. But the fact that he or she starts smoking again and makes it a habit is the result of a completely different set of factors.”

Malcolm Gladwell reminds us here that contagion and adherence are two different processes that involve different strategies. Indeed:

  • Contagion is the messenger’s responsibility,
  • Adherence is a result of the message. And it’s this adherence that will create the habit, the addiction:

“As an epidemic, adolescent smoking illustrates not only the rare bird principle, but also the adherence principle. … The experience is so powerful and unforgettable that they can’t give it up. It is an adherent habit.”

Malcolm Gladwell believes, of course, that nicotine can be addictive. However, it does so only in certain people and at certain times. Occasional smokers, for example, master their habits and don’t become addicted: for these people, smoking is contagious but not addictive.

Strategies to stop the spread of tobacco use, as described in “The Tipping Point”.

What makes a cigarette addictive is completely different from what makes it contagious. So, to beat smoking, we need to decide which of these two components to tackle.

Strategy One: Make smoking less contagious and prohibit those who offer their donations permission to spread the disease.

 Two strategies could stop the spread of smoking. The first would be:

  • Persuade permission givers not to smoke, which generally, in the author’s opinion; seems doomed to failure given their personalities, independent, precocious and rebellious.
  • Convince all those who are inspired by these rare birds to look at adults to find out what’s cool; this is hardly any more realistic. In fact, the author explains with numerous examples and studies that parents do not have this kind of influence on their children.

Strategy Two: Make smoking less addictive, which turns all smokers into occasional smokers

Since the policy to diminish the power of the licensor does not seem to hold any promise; Malcolm Gladwell proposes to act on adherence. With this in mind, he suggests that we should reflect on:

  • The Correlation between Smoking and Depression

Depression is a trigger for the tipping point of smoking. Therefore, one solution to alter the addiction phenomenon would be to address this vulnerability.

  • The nicotine tolerance threshold

Nicotine addiction is not instantaneous, nor is it proportional to the number of cigarettes consumed. As with any other contagious drug, experimentation and regular consumption are two distinct behaviors.

In fact, what the author explains to us is that there is a threshold of dependence specific to each person: below a certain number of cigarettes, one does not get used to nicotine; beyond that, one becomes addicted. Consequently: the occasional smoker is a person who never smokes enough to reach the addiction threshold. The hardened smoker is someone who has crossed it.

Gladwell believes that the solution would be to force tobacco companies to reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes; so that heavy smokers consume a dose small enough to prevent or limit the development of addiction; but large enough to satisfy both the taste and to stimulate the senses. In this way, the amount of nicotine they would consume would remain below the addiction threshold and they would not develop an addictive habit.

  • Another point is to ensure that the experiment does not have serious consequences.

Moreover, the author emphasizes that adolescent smoking is a phenomenon that essentially involves youth. It is linked to the sharing of emotional experiences and is “the expression of impenetrable and irrational rituals for anyone who is not a teenager”. Therefore, rather than trying to oppose experimentation in vain, it seems more appropriate to ensure that experimentation does not have serious consequences.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a safe suicide attempt. However, one can design a way to use tobacco that is as non-addictive as possible; with attention to the tipping points of addiction.

Conclusion – The Lessons of the Tipping Point | Target, Test, Believe

“It is possible to accomplish great things with little means.”

In his conclusion, Malcolm Gladwell reviews the two major lessons of the Tipping Point:

  • The first lesson of the Tipping Point is that in order to trigger an epidemic; you have to set your priorities.

Tenacity and persistence are not always possible. Sometimes you need shortcuts, levers, tipping points, which require a new world-view and a focus on priorities.

If, for example, you are interested in word-of-mouth as a means of propagation, you should devote most of your resources to connectors, vendors and mavens, because it is only rare birds that count in this case.

  • The second lesson of the Tipping Point is that those who trigger social epidemics not only follow their intuition, they deliberately test it.

In social epidemics, communication follows unpredictable rules. Therefore, to “succeed” in an epidemic, one should not rely on intuition but test and believe that people, in response to the right stimulus, can change and metamorphose.

“Ultimately, the tipping point confirms the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. The world may seem immutable, implacable. It is not. A little push in the right place can tip it over.”

Afterword – Lessons from implementation

In this last part, Malcolm Gladwell tells us that he is convinced that we are about to enter the era of word of mouth.

Computer technology and the multitude of ways to access information will, he says; “lead us to deal with the complexities of modern society by relying on connectors, mavens and vendors”. And he believes that this reality is part of many social changes to come:

  • Increased isolation (especially among adolescents) ;
  • Increased resistance.

Isolation epidemics

Here, Malcolm Gladwell looks back at the Columbine Massacre in the United States; a school shooting that took place in 1999 and was followed, over the next 22 months; by nineteen similar incidents (ten of which resulted in no injuries).

The author’s belief is that this wave of school violence cannot be explained by an increase in the general level of violence or by the loosening of the social fabric. For him, it follows mysterious internal rules, which can only be understood in the closed universe of adolescents. It is an epidemic of isolation.

“The epidemic of shootings…was triggered by the Columbine tragedy and because self-destructive, dramatic and ritualized behaviour – whether suicide, smoking, shooting or fainting – is extremely contagious among young people. …] Columbine is the most eminent tragedy arising from the phenomenon of youth isolation. The trigger for the tipping point.”

Increase the resistance

  • The fax effect or abundance principle

The concept of resistance, created by Kevin Kelly, is this:

“To develop the first fax machine, says Kelly, we invested millions of dollars in research and development. The first machine sold for about $2,000. But it wasn’t worth anything until it could communicate with another fax machine. So the second fax machine increased the value of the first one, the third one even more, and so on. “Because fax machines form a network, each new machine increases the value of all the others,” Kelly writes. In fact, when you buy a fax machine, you’re buying access to an entire network of fax machines; which is infinitely more valuable than the machine itself.”

This principle called “the fax effect” or “the principle of abundance” by Kevin Kelly is completely opposed to the rules of traditional economics that value comes from scarcity (the more something rare becomes available, the more its value decreases). Conversely, in a network logic, power and value increase with quantity: the more copies of a software program, for example; the more users there will be in the network and the more influential the program will be.

  • The solution to the resistance problem: rare birds

“In their own way, epidemics are networks: a virus spreads from person to person; and the more people infected, the more powerful the epidemic.”

But what Malcolm Gladwell wishes to emphasize; in this network logic, is that once a person has been affected by a contagious disease; he or she becomes immune and is able to resist it. Once a large number of people are immune to a disease, the epidemic stops. Therefore, every epidemic carries with it the possibility of resistance!

To illustrate his point, the author gives us the example of e-mails: the more e-mails we have; the more selective we become, the later and briefer our responses will be. In fact, we resist the e-mail phenomenon for the very reasons that made it attractive; because it allows us to contact someone easily and at low cost.

As a result, swamped with information, people will resist certain forms of communication; with a tendency to rely on the advice of people they trust, respect and admire. The author concludes that the solution to the problem of resistance is the discovery of mavens, connectors and vendors!

Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” Conclusion

  • The author’s three ideas to remember!

Malcolm Gladwell’s message in “The Tipping Point” revolves, in my view, around three key ideas:

    • Contagion, carried out by a handful of very unusual protagonists, is the common trigger of all “snowball” phenomena.
    • Minimal but planned changes produce maximum effect.
    • These changes are not slow and steady, but sudden.

In fact, Malcolm Gladwell’s message reminds me of many entrepreneurs who say that in order to get results, you don’t necessarily (or don’t only) have to work hard, but you have to work smart: here, it’s all about work with the goal to target and satisfy a customer base of connectors, and focus on simple but carefully considered changes.

  • A design that brings its own thoughts and keys to understanding in marketing and communications

There are many interesting ideas and insights to be drawn from the Tipping Point. The reader will have food for thought in terms of communication and marketing strategy; and sometimes even management: the concept of adherence, the layers of distribution; the role of connectors in the communication of information, the translation process; the influence of the environment and the fundamental error of attribution; the power and rise of word-of-mouth (linked, to a large extent, to social networks).

Furthermore, in addition to the strategic approaches that this book raises, and even if the examples are a bit “old-fashioned”; the book also provides many keys in order to understand viral marketing and its “buzz” phenomenon; as well as the process involved to switch from what is called a niche trend to a mass trend.

Finally, “The Tipping Point” provides an opportunity to better theorize some very interesting concepts such as the strength of weak ties; the six degrees of separation, the theory of the broken tile, the 150 bar; the principle of abundance, transactional memory, peer pressure in management, etc.

  • A feeling sometimes of extrapolations and inconsistencies

There are a lot of stories, facts, scientific experiments described and this creates a lively tone to the book. But the author did not always convince me. I had the impression at times that he deliberately extrapolated; or deliberately matched the results of the research linked to these ideas with questionable shortcuts. I also noticed some inconsistencies from chapter to chapter: for example; when he states that nicotine is not addictive; yet he proposes to reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes as a solution to addiction.

  • The author’s writing talent

“The tipping point” is easy to read, mainly because of the author’s particular style of storytelling; as he links them together throughout the book. You are then transported to completely different worlds, different times, different fields of analysis, in a smooth rhythm.

Strong Points:

  • The idea that you don’t necessarily need a lot of changes to turn everything around: it’s an inspirational message.
  • Practical ideas along with theoretical data that holds great interest, mainly in terms of marketing and communication strategy.
  • The author’s writing ability: with the use of a multitude of stories and scientific experiments; the author has the ability to transport us from one universe to another; to connect the stories to each other and help guide us towards his general principles.

Weak Points:

  • I noticed a few extrapolations and inconsistencies on some topics (particularly smoking and the influence of context).
  • It is not always straightforward to make the link between all the information mentioned.
  • The studies or examples that are supposed to support the author’s claims are decades or even centuries old.

My rating : The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell The Tipping Point Malcolm GladwellThe Tipping Point Malcolm GladwellThe Tipping Point Malcolm GladwellThe Tipping Point Malcolm GladwellThe Tipping Point Malcolm GladwellThe Tipping Point Malcolm GladwellThe Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell

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