The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell Also available in audiobook: Download our app for free listening.

In December 1996 award-winning journalist Malcolm Gladwell published a column in the Washington Post with the idea behind the Tipping Point which is a point in time when a trend reaches a plateau and spreads at a frightening speed. The article was a great success and later was expanded into a book, creating a compendium on the subject of how ideas spread. It analyzes the patterns through which something new spreads and comes to the mass and brings various concepts that can be adopted by you, to help leverage ideas to the general public. For Gladwell, social phenomena are like viral infections. Subtle changes in the environment can strongly affect the transmission of a social phenomenon, just as the flu can spread more easily in the winter when people's immune systems are weaker. When an idea spreads, it can reach a turning point: a unique moment in time where nothing else can prevent the multiplication of an idea.

When Does A Trend Become An Epidemy?

When a trend turns into an epidemic and spreads without control from its creator, we come to a turning point. A virus, for example, may spread slowly in a community early on, but as more and more become infected, there comes a time when transmission rate speeds up so that the epidemic is out of control. In a graphical view, this virus spreads on a timid climb for some time and then fires, practically straight to the top, in a hockey stick or golf-like shape. That is the tipping point, the critical moment that brings explosive growth. Just as in the case of a viral epidemic, when new technologies emerge, their growth tends to follow this same pattern. At every turn, a fundamental change occurs, and an epidemic arises. For example, the Hush Puppies Shoes line was a popular brand in the 1970s, but in the 1990s its sales fell dramatically to about 30,000 pairs a year. Brand executives considered discontinuing the product, but in 1995, they became a fever in a group of teenagers and young people in Manhattan. Quickly various designers and fashion professionals across the country began to adopt them in their collections. At the end of that year, sales exploded, reaching 400,000 pairs. In 1997 they broke the 2 million pairs mark, all this by word of mouth, without investments in advertising. Another interesting example is crime level in New York City. The numbers had always been high between 1975 and 1992, with more than 600,000 crimes a year and 2000 murders. In 1993 a turning point occurred, and crime reduced dramatically. In just five years, the total number of crimes has dropped by half and murders to one third. What caused this decline? Long-term trends such as reducing drug use, aging populations and improving the economy could explain a gradual decline, but not the effect that made crime plummet so fast. For Gladwell, the sudden drop can be attributed to other factors. One of them was the cleaning of the graffiti in the subway system. Instead of using cops to stop violent crime, resources were allocated to remove graffiti from the subway and keep it always clean. If a train was vandalized, it was repainted the next day. It took nearly 5 years to clear all the trains. The graffiti were a symbol of a city in collapse. When people saw reconstruction and reorganization, the battle against vandalism was won, and this impacted on the morale and safety of people using public transportation.

Pareto And Epidemic Sources

The Pareto principle says that 20% of the population tends to generate more than 80% of the wealth of a community. Malcolm Gladwell appropriates this concept and points out that this distribution is quite common in the pattern of contamination of a virus. In many cases, the proportion is even more extreme: only a small percentage of those infected are responsible for most virus transmissions. An example cited by Gladwell is the possible zero patient of the AIDS virus in North America. A crew member of a Canadian airline was mapped by several studies as the focal point of the contamination. By having sex with more than 2,500 people, this patient has greatly accelerated transmission and has been assigned up to 40 transmissions which have resulted in thousands of second level contaminations. Similarly, in the case of social epidemics, we find that there is typically a small group of people who are responsible for speeding up the transmission rate. Social epidemics work the same way. They are guided by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people. In this case, they are not differentiated by their sexual appetite but by how sociable, connected, or influential they are among their companions.

The 3 Key Characteristics For Spreading Ideas

For Malcolm Gladwell, three characteristics are necessary to bring about the Tipping Point: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and Power of Context. Let's dive into each of them in the next sections.

Understand The Rule Of The Few

For an idea to spread, the message sender is the most important point. Gladwell places the emitters into three groups:

  • Communicators: They are people with a great social network and a lot of networking; Thy are the points where epidemics multiply. Most of the time, these people have relationships in multiple different areas, and they serve as the nodes that interconnect several networks. Because they belong to diverse groups (work, family, online communities, groups of activities) these people end up having many, if weak, ties that transmit the epidemic among these diverse groups. For Gladwell, for you to multiply your ideas and become a connector, having a vast network of contacts is much more important than having a small group of close contacts. The greater the breadth of your network, the greater will be your ability to connect and spread ideas. An interesting fact to show how communicators work is the experience of psychologist Stanley Milgram, who sought to find out how many degrees of separation there are, that is, how many people who know each other exist on average separating one person from another they do not know. The experience consisted of sending parcels of packages to random people asking them to forward the package to another person who might know the final recipient. If the recipient did not know the recipient, he would send the package again to another person who could possibly know how to deliver the final recipient again. Most orders went through only six intermediaries, and the most curious fact is that half the orders delivered to the final recipient came from only three individuals. That is, even on a random list of people, these three individuals ended up concentrating deliveries. Communicators can cross different ideological groups, demographics and different channels of communication. Spreading an idea through word of mouth means focusing on people who are connectors, as they are the only ones who can trigger social epidemics.

  • Experts: They know a lot about many different things and keep constantly updated - often about new trends or specific products and how much they cost, etc. Experts, although they do not have large networks, constantly pass on their knowledge to others by having a great influence on those in their network. People usually rely on the expert, because everyone knows that he/she has insider knowledge and information. Also, they are socially motivated to be useful and convey information to others. If they are confident about a product or service, they recommend it to their friends and acquaintances - and their friends and acquaintances follow these recommendations and propagate them.

  • Sellers: These are the ones that convince people to try something, with persuasive talent. To really convey an idea you need to develop empathy and the ability to connect with others. To multiply emotions and ideas, one needs to change people's perceptions about a subject, as a good salesperson does by persuading a potential buyer. Sellers sell brands, ideas, and any concept, not only multiplying the idea but also changing people's perceptions.

Simplify To Improve The Sticky Factor

The content of the idea itself, its message, is also important in predicting its ability to spread. It should be easy to remember, simple and thus easy to disseminate. To settle, a message has to be interesting. Normally, improving something - even a small detail - in the way the message is presented is what makes all the difference. One of the examples cited by Gladwell is a tetanus vaccination campaign at a US university. In this case, research was done to see if a strong material, portraying the effects of tetanus with strong photos and text, was more efficient than lighter material. In the case, it was concluded, after testing, that the most alarming information left students more interested in preventing the disease. However, a month after the experiment, only 3% of those impacted had gone to the medical center to get vaccinated. In this case, this message had a low sticky factor and did not go forward. Subsequently, another experiment was conducted which increased vaccinations by 28%. A simple item was added to the brochure: A map of the campus, with the location of the vaccination posts, which made the content more familiar and brought the vaccine to the student world. When the advice is practical and personal, it is easy to remember.

Power Of Context Is Essential For An Epidemic

Power of context means that we can change our attitudes depending on the context in which we are inserted at the moment. Small or close-knit groups have the potential to create and raise epidemics at high speeds, after all, the environment influences more than our standard behaviors and thoughts. There is no use having Communicators, Experts, and content with a high sticky factor if the context does not contribute to the dissemination. If it is not in the right season, for example, a Christmas story will not be spread as much as if we were in December. In an experiment called Stanford Prison, made by Stanford University, twenty-four healthy men were selected to spend two weeks in a sham prison where each of them was assigned to serve as a guard or prisoner. In this experiment, the simulated guards became sadistic and intolerant, dramatically damaging the prisoners. The experience had to be canceled immediately. Despite being a simulated prison with acted roles, the participants became completely different people, and their behaviors were completely altered. Often small changes can start major epidemics which are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the time and place in which they occur. An example is the "broken windows theory" of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They consider that crime results from disorder, that is, a dirty and disorganized environment passes on a message of permissiveness, indiscipline, lack of control, which encourages and authorizes transgressive behavior. Such behaviors, finding a favorable environment, tend to multiply, creating a social tendency. Thus, small changes in the environment can induce trends in the opposite direction. Like the environment, groups also influence behaviors, that is, when people are in a group, the responsibility to act becomes diffused. Malcolm cites the Dunbar rule, which says that when groups exceed 150 members, social cohesion weakens and a tendency toward fragmentation arises. The number 150 seems to represent the maximum number of people with whom we can have an authentic social relationship, which means knowing who they are and how they relate. This rule suggests that the size of a group is one more of those subtle contextual factors that can make a big difference. It is necessary to keep the number of people in the groups below the tipping point of 150. Above this, obstacles to the ability of groups to agree and act uniformly arise.

Final Notes:

To create powerful epidemics and to make your ideas viral, you have to look at three key items. The few (the people selected and their roles in multiplying their idea), the fixation factor (the ability of their idea to be passed on and in people's minds and the power of context (how prone the environment is to help the multiplication of their content.) When combined, these three factors permeate major epidemics and help them reach the tipping point.

12min tip: How about checking out our microbook Sticking Ideas? We're sure you'll love it.

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