Book Review: The Tipping Point

There aren’t that many economists who become celebrities; there’s something about the profession (or perhaps the people who gravitate to the profession) that keeps them from achieving the same level of almost certain celebrity as, say, athletes or actors.  One of the exceptions to this rule is Malcolm Gladwell, who has a tendency to write interesting and thought provoking books that get people talking (and sometimes end with him on a Talk Show).

The first of these books is The Tipping Point, a look at how relatively small changes can have a disproportionately large effect.  It’s a somewhat counter-intuitive to us, since we tend to believe that small changes cause small effects; that is, that the effect should be proportionate to the cause, but that’s not always the case.  Does a deeper look at this phenomenon lead to a more thorough understanding of the world around us?  Let’s find out.

Summary

Tipping PointThe Tipping Point starts with several examples of the disproportionate behavior noted, such as the sudden rise in popularity of Hush Puppies in the mid-nineties and the sharp decline in New York City crime rates around the same time.  These examples serve to demonstrate the point that changes, even big, drastic changes, can occur quickly in response to changing external circumstances.  The first chapter introduces the three laws that govern these behavioral ‘epidemics’: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context, followed by a quick introduction to what each of these concepts mean.

The second chapter goes further in depth on the Law of the Few, explaining exactly what types of people you need to reach a tipping point.  There are Connectors, those people who bridge the gap between different disparate groups, the types who can link different people together and spread word of a new trend from one social group to another.  Then there are Mavens, the people who accumulate information about a particular subject and take delight in passing their knowledge on.  Finally, the Salespeople are the ones who convince others to take action, changing our behavior in some way in response to this new information.  All these people have their roles in reaching the tipping point in a social epidemic.

The third chapter covers the Stickiness Factor, how much information stays with us, and uses children’s shows like Sesame Street as prime examples.  Much research was done in the way that toddlers pay attention in order to determine what types of imagery and story lines ‘stuck’ in the children’s minds.  They also discovered the importance of repetition in making a message stick.

The fourth chapter starts to cover the Power of Context, the importance of having the right setting for a particular message to tip.  It covers New York City crime levels, and how, by focusing on changing small things like the level of graffiti in the city and fare-jumping, it was possible to change the context in which crimes were being committed and actually drive down the crime rate.  In the same way, contexts that allow (or even encourage) cheating in a classroom setting have more incidents of cheating than those that don’t; the students themselves didn’t change, but how much cheating occurred did change.

The fifth chapter looks closer at the type of groups in which we associate ourselves, noting that humans, in general, have about 150 reasonably close acquaintances.  Beyond that number, we simply don’t have the mental space left to form a genuine connection with the hundreds upon hundreds of other people we meet everyday.  It’s also linked to the idea of transactive memory, the concept thatwhile I may not know a particular fact, I know where (or who) has that fact, thus allowing me to essentially boost my memory power using external sources (such as having my fiancee remember much of our social circle).

The sixth chapter provides several examples of how all these factors come together to cause certain situations to tip.  It covers everything from the spread of a story of Japanese spies (really, a Chinese tourist) during WWII to the effects of a needle exchange program in Baltimore to show how, when everything is aligned right, circumstances can ‘tip’ to help spread a social epidemic.  Chapter seven is another collection of case studies, this time focusing on how to stop social epidemics from tipping.  It covers cases as diverse as suicide in Micronesia to teen smoking here in the United States.

The eighth chapter wraps up the book, drawing some conclusions about how to create a situation that will lead to tipping (or stop a situation that seems to be tipping).  The key, as Gladwell notes, is focusing on a relatively small, narrow set of changes and building up from there.  The afterword covers some of the real world effects of the book, such as a program to help libraries in New York state that was inspired by the content of the book, as well as further examples of where situations tipped.  It also discusses the ‘fax effect’, that methods of communication become more valuable as they link more and more people (so the first fax machine became much more valuable when the second was purchased, and the third, and so on).

Pros

-Thought Provoking: As mentioned already, thinking in terms of tipping points and small changes leading to big results is not the way we normally look at the world, and doing so gives us a different perspective on life.  You’ll think about the root causes of the big events you see and read about in a different way, and it might just help you to understand the world a bit better.

-Well Sourced: Gladwell draws on a huge number of resources to make his conclusions, demonstrating the numerous circumstances that illustrate the ideas developed in the book, showing how everything from the American Revolution to modern day sales campaigns can be seen as part of various social epidemics.  The examples cited in this review cover only a small part of the numerous areas from which he pulled together interesting data.

-Entertaining: While the topic he’s discussing is rather abstract and hard to grasp, Gladwell manages to make a book that’s fun to read, as well as being informative.  From learning about all the testing that went into Sesame Street to seeing how researchers are trying to make a less addictive cigarette, there’s lots of interesting anecdotes that pepper this book.

Cons

-Not a How-To: I suppose this would be a conditional con, depending on your desired goal.  Still, if you’re hoping to cause something to ‘tip’ in your own life (personal or professional), there’s not much in the way of specific instructions.  You’ll learn about Mavens, Connectors and Salespeople, for example, but the amount of information on how to find them is rather lacking.  The same goes for much of the rest of the material; you’re not going to have much luck if you’re hoping for a step by step guide to make your own venture sticky.

Somewhat Complex Narrative: In the course of the book, Gladwell will go from one example to another, tying in multiple situations before showing how they all fit together.  Add in the fact that many of these examples are from psychological or sociological tests that are rather complex in and of themselves, and it can sometimes be easy to lose track of the point that is being made.

Overall

The Tipping Point is a very interesting book that will, if you can ignore the cliche, change the way you look at the world.  While it can be a bit hard to follow at some points, it’s overall a very interesting and entertaining guide to how situations can ‘tip’ from relatively small changes, and what that means for all of us.

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