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The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point Summary
Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 978-0316346627

Also available in audiobook


Have you ever wondered how a fashion trend takes off? Or why some news spreads like wildfire, while other news doesn’t? Malcolm Gladwell decided to investigate these phenomena more deeply and came to the conclusion that there is always a tipping point, a moment when suddenly everything changes. But how are tipping points created? And how can you use them to your advantage? Get ready to learn all about the power of the tipping point.

What is the tipping point?

Between late 1994 and early 1995, Hush Puppies, the classic American brushed-suede shoes, experienced a tipping point. At that time, sales of the shoes were only at 30,000 a year and the company was thinking of phasing out the shoes since they did not seem to be popular.

Then, something unforeseen happened. A few kids in Manhattan started wearing the shoes to nightclubs and cafés, and suddenly, sales exploded. The popularity spread rapidly through word of mouth and eventually, Hush Puppies ended up on the runway and set off a new international fashion trend. Wolverine, the company that had created Hush Puppies, were baffled - they had spent no money on marketing, and no one had expected this sudden trend. So how did this happen?

Products, ideas, and messages spread in similar ways to viruses. They share three basic characteristics: they are contagious, little changes have big effects, and changes happen quickly, almost overnight. Social epidemics (and viruses) also have a sudden tipping point. This is the moment of critical mass when a slight change can tip things over the edge and cause an epidemic growth.

Take yawning, for example. Simply reading the word “yawning” in the last sentence and in this one again will probably make you yawn. And if you are in a crowded room, your yawning has probably caused everyone around you to yawn as well.  

Not only did you yawn, but you may have been led to feel slightly tired as well. How impressive is it that by simply reading a word you can be manipulated into a physical state? Thinking of society in terms of having epidemics entirely upends our world view. As the author writes, “The world of the Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is - contrary to all our expectations - a certainty.”

Three rules of epidemics

There are three rules that can help make sense of epidemics, be these viruses or social epidemics. The tipping point in any epidemic is reached when one of these three areas changes. The three agents of change are: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

Remember that it was only a handful of Manhattan kids who started a global fashion trend. If you look into other areas of life as well, you will notice that it is often the few that have a big effect. This is also known as the 80/20 principle - 20% of participants will do 80% of the work.

For example, 20% of criminals commit 80% of the crimes in most societies. Similarly, 20% of motorists cause 80% of accidents. In epidemics, this disproportion only increases.

When winter comes around, flu season starts. Most viruses are much more aggressive at the end of winter because they evolve over the season. They develop more dangerous strains and that is what makes them “stick.” It is the same with social epidemics. The higher the “stickiness factor” of an idea or a message, the more likely it is to create a social epidemic.

Just take Winston filter-tips cigarettes as an example. In the spring of 1954, the company decided to advertise their cigarettes with the following slogan, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” The grammatical error of using “like'' instead of “as” immediately caught people’s attention and helped make Winston the bestselling cigarette brand in the U.S. over the following few years.

The law of the few

To create a word-of-mouth epidemic, it only takes a handful of people. In 1960, psychologist Stanley Milgram was curious to learn how human connections worked. To that end, he started an experiment: he gave 160 random people in Omaha, Nebraska, a parcel with instructions to get it to a stockbroker in Boston. They were instructed to send the parcel to someone who they thought might know the stockbroker.

In the end, most of the parcels arrived to the stockbroker within six connections. This is where the saying of “six degrees of separation” comes from (the idea that we are only five connections away from every other person on the planet.) What is more, most parcels arrived to the stockbroker through the same three people! So not all degrees are equal.

There are a few people who seem to know everyone, who Gladwell calls “The Connectors.” They are the kind of people that bring the world together, largely because they have mastered the art of maintaining a wide network of “weak ties,” a kind of “friendly yet casual social connection.” Connectors are the social glue, the spreaders of the word-of-mouth epidemic. 

Another kind of person who plays an important role in social epidemics, according to Gladwell, is the Maven: they are the data banks, the people who know everything. Mavens are motivated by a desire to help and to educate. They might not know as many people as the Connectors do, but when they recommend something, people will follow their advice. They also have great social skills.

Finally, Gladwell describes the Salesmen: people incredibly skilled in the art of persuasion. If you are unconvinced about a new idea that has come to your attention, the Salesmen are the kind of people who will convince you, mainly because they are great at reading and mirroring nonverbal signs. Studies have shown that if your conversation partner mirrors your body posture, you are more likely to trust what they say.

Context matters

New York City was a hotspot for crime in the 1980s and early 1990s. Around dusk, the streets would be empty since drug crimes and gang warfare were so out of control, and people felt safer staying inside after dark. But then, without any obvious explanation, the crime rate dropped. Over the next five years, overall criminal acts dropped by half, and murders by 64.3%. A tipping point had been reached. So how did the New York police manage to turn around the numbers to such an extent?

It was not due to the fact that policing strategies had improved or that the city’s crack trade declined. It was neither caused by an improvement in the city’s economy nor the aging of the population. In fact, something much smaller had had a big impact: the subway system was rebuilt. Before the crime drop, the subway stations and trains had been covered in graffiti, and people could easily get away with not paying their fare. In short, the subway system sent a subconscious message that not only was crime happening, but also that you could get away with it.

Once the stations and trains were cleaned up and the tracks were repaired, the crime rate in the city dropped as well. This is the last rule of epidemics: The Power of Context.

Context matters a great deal in the way we conduct ourselves in daily life. On top of that, humans have what cognitive psychology calls channel capacity: it means there is a limit to the amount of information we can take in at one time.  

Experiments have shown that humans can usually distinguish between six or seven categories, but any more than that and we get flustered and start making mistakes. That is also the reason telephone numbers are usually made up of seven digits: any more than that and we would struggle to remember them.

Humans also have a channel capacity when it comes to social interactions. At the magic number of 150 people, something interesting happens -  when interacting in groups with fewer than 150, people are friendly with one another and seem to know each other. Once the group grows beyond, 150, however, the group begins to feel like a group of strangers. Gladwell describes the religious Hutterite groups who live in self-sufficient agricultural communities across Europe and the United States as an example.

When a Hutterite community approaches 150 people, they split it in two and start a new settlement. They do this because once a group gets close to 150 people, the Hutterites start to become divided and alienated. The rule of 150 seems to be another tipping point.

How to spread ideas

Nurse Sadler had a problem. She wanted to increase awareness of diabetes and breast cancer in the black community of San Diego but did not know how to get her message across. She was also operating on a tight budget. 

She started by giving seminars after church, but soon realized that the only people who stayed were those who already knew about the illnesses and wanted to learn more. How could she get through to those who had no idea about breast cancer or diabetes?

Eventually, she decided to change the context. After church, most people wanted to rush home to eat. But in beauty salons, women would spend up to eight hours to get their hair braided! Moreover, they often had a close relationship with their stylist - once they found someone who could expertly style their hair, they would drive hours to get to that trusted beauty salon. 

Since stylists are natural communicators (they are the natural Salesmen), Nurse Sadler gathered them together to instruct them on breast cancer and diabetes. The stylists could then speak to their customers about it during the long styling sessions.

Nurse Sadler had successfully created a word-of-mouth epidemic: she had focused her efforts on bringing her idea across in the best possible setting.

Tipping points are almost like Band-Aid solutions: they require little effort and have big impacts. They can be valuable shortcuts if you know how to use them. Never go over the magic number of 150 people, for example. And try to involve a few Connectors, Salesmen and Mavens in your efforts. Most importantly though, believe that change is possible.

Final Notes

The world, contrary to our intuition, is not governed by clear cause and effect. Instead, we live in a world of social epidemics, where small changes can have tremendous impacts. The world of the tipping point is a world in which a few people have the power to create change, and where using one word instead of another can completely change the impact a message or idea will have.

The New York Times described “The Tipping Point” as follows: “Malcolm Gladwell proposes a fascinating and possibly useful theory in ‘The Tipping Point.’ What makes his book so appealing is the way he approaches his subject. He follows his precept of his subtitle and explores the little things that make a big difference.”

12min Tip

When you want to get a message across, pay special attention to the context - subtle changes in the environment can have a big impact on how your message is received.

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Who wrote the book?

Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian author and longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. Gladwell is renowned for his unique viewpoints of popular culture, and author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” “What the Dog Saw,” and... (Read more)