The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Book Review by Bill Cattey

Why should you care about what's in the book?

In Gladwell's own words:

Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push — in just the right place — it can be tipped.

I came to this book while going through a challenging time career-wise. Although I had achieved many things, I felt like I'd put in too much effort for not enough effect. Here was this guy, Gladwell, identifying the situations where a little effort brings about big changes. Better yet, he identified a short list of how these sorts of interventions come about.

What is a tipping point?

We've heard of the straw that broke the camel's back. That is an example of a tipping point. The place where a little difference has a big effect. Gladwell studies several cases in detail, and supplies non-obvious, but verifiable evidence of situations where a little bit of effort goes a long way.

Here's a simple one that he gives near the end, in his conclusions section:

A nurse wanted to get women in her community to get themselves tested for diabetes and breast cancer who would not ordinarily do so. She began by holding seminars at local churches, but discovered that most of the people attending were already knowledgeable, women seeking more information. She didn't want to be preaching to the converted.

Applying principles consistent with Gladwell's model of how to create a tipping point, the nurse switched venues to beauty salons. She trained some stylists in the information to transmit, in how to weave it into the sorts of conversations stylists and patrons already have in the salon. She supplied handouts laminated in plastic to survive in the salon. She measured the success of her interventions, and refined her training, techniques and handouts. With a demonstrably small investment, she showed new group of women getting mammograms and diabetes tests, with a success rate far in excess of what she was getting from her church seminars.

She created a tipping point.

How is a tipping point created?

Gladwell models the introduction of a new idea, a new product, or a behavior like an epidemic. He shows certain non-obvious aspects of epidemics that give simple, powerful, yet usable insights into how to create an epidemic as well.

In an epidemic, the thing being introduced must be:

Non obvious fact about dissemination in epidemics: They're spread not by large numbers of people randomly interacting. They're spread by a very few key people with exactly three roles:

Sometimes a single person can serve multiple or all three roles.

Gladwell then gives some incisive case-study examples of how to understand, measure, and take advantage of stickiness and context.

For stickiness he talks about the Sesame Street and Blue's Clues television programs. The creators of those shows had some powerful intuitions about how to reach young minds, and in how to make ideas stick there. When they made the effort to measure the impact of their intuitions, they discovered many important cases where they were wrong.

Originally, the child psychologists advising Sesame Street said that mixing fantasy and reality would confuse children. The Sesame Street creators came up with a way to measure the attention paid by children to the show. They set up a shiny blinky light show next to the TV and noted when the kids were distracted by it. When there were just people talking to people, the kids were easily distracted. When the muppets were brought in and interacted with the people, the kids paid attention. The producers literally called up their psychologist advisors and told them they were going to go against advice. Imagine what Sesame Street would have been like without Big Bird talking to Mr. Hooper? Chances are if they'd not made that courageous break with the best intuition of the time, we'd not have a Sesame Street to remember.

Blue's Clues Did Sesame Street one better. Sesame Street embodied the intuition of the time was that children would would not pay attention to a single story thread for a full half hour. The Blue's Clues creators created whole stories, and asked kids questions about them, and measured the impacts of pacing and repetition. They discovered the powerful impacts of showing the same show 5 days a week and crafting with Steve, the host, asking questions and leaving preschooler sized pauses before the off-stage audience answered them. By measuring the impact of the show, and changing subtle aspects Blue's Clues turned the transmit-only medium of television into something that the target audience perceived as interactive, and the information in the show stuck with that audience big time!

For context he looked at some well-known news stories but with a different interpretation of cause and effect than has been conventional wisdom.

To give the second big example first, he rehashed the well-known Stanford University psychological study where students, chosen specially for their psychological stability were divided into prisoners and guards, with such powerful behavioral results that the study was ended after six days.

Gladwell's assertion is that we'd like to believe people behave certain ways because they're "that sort of people", when the actuality is that people's behavior is strongly influenced by context. Probably much more strongly than we are ready to accept.

He rehashed the Bernie Goetz case where, in 1984 an unassuming little man boarded the subway, and instead of giving five dollars to the four guys mugging him for it, he shot them. At that time, that sort of thing was expected, but today it's nigh inconceivable.

Gladwell asserts that a primary driver of the change between 1984 and current times was changing the subway environment based on the "Broken Windows" theory of crime: That crime is the result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, passerby will decide nobody cares and nobody is in charge. More windows get broken, and anarchy gradually ensues.

The new subway director David Gunn, against the recommendations of others, focused on systematically eliminating graffiti from the subway cars and keeping them clean from 1984 to 1990. Importantly, the new trains brought online by 1990 to recapitalize the system stayed clean! His successor in 1990, William Bratton took the next step, and focused on fare beating. These seem like ridiculously minor infractions to focus upon, especially in view of the large numbers of felonies being committed on the subways at the time.

Bratton, starting with the stations with the biggest number of fare beaters made a big show of arresting people for not paying their fare, but the payoff was how that sweep turned into an easy way to rid the system of people who had outstanding warrants, were carrying dangerous weapons, etc. Crime dropped dramatically.

Recognize that this was not a zero tolerance action per-se. There were insufficient resources to put policemen everywhere. It was the same resources re-deployed in a non-intuitive way that had the effect of changing the context so the crime epidemic was starved.

Why should you read the book?

Gladwell's is a simple, powerful and elegant model: Create an epidemic from the introduction of some new thing by having the 3 crucial kinds of people, Connector, Maven, and Salesman after making sure that the thing is sticky enough, and that the context is right.

Gladwell gives examples and details that make his arguments compelling and give insights into how the reader can apply his model.

Perhaps from my synopsis you have enough understanding to refocus your own efforts more effectively by being more of a Salesman, Maven, or Connector or to make your intervention more sticky, or to alter your context. If not, the book is a fast read, and may well supply the additional information you need to do so.


© 2005 William D. Cattey ALL rights reserved.

Last updated: $Date: 2005/03/29 23:13:15 $ by $Author: wdc $.

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Last modified: Fri Mar 25 00:20:30 EST 2005