Book Review: The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell (Part III)

See Review Part I – Introduction, central ideas of the Tipping Point
See Review Part II – were Gladwell’s Tipping Point ideas original?

Exactly what kind of argument was Gladwell putting forward in his Tipping Point?

In the introduction to The Tipping Point , Gladwell asserts that:

The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves . . . or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do. (p.7, emphasis added)

The reason for this focus is to address two practical questions:

. . . the point . . . is to answer two simple questions that lie at the heart of what we would like to accomplish as educators, parents, marketers, business people and policymakers. Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don’t? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own? (p. 14)

That is: Gladwell suggests at the outset firstly that the “tipping point” is an idea. Since that idea has a biography, one may infer that it has had some sort of history and development to date, and that Gladwell will provide that intellectual biography.

Secondly, Gladwell indicates that the idea of a “tipping point” will be demonstrated to have practical and useful implications that the reader can take away and apply to their problems.

From this we might expect that Gladwell is going to present the history and implications of a well developed idea, perhaps drawing on modern developments in epidemiology, social network theory, chaos theory, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines as they have applied to the spread of ideas and behaviours.

It would appear that Gladwell is going to be a ‘populariser,’ attempting to bring a body of well developed and highly refined theory to a new and wider popular audience in addition to its previous specialised technical audience. We might expect, therefore, that Gladwell’s work develops in a similar manner to James Glieck’s work to popularise Chaos Theory, Paul Davies’ efforts or Richard Feynman’s work to popularise physics, or Ian Stewart’s work to popularise pure mathematics.

Gladwell’s book, however, does not unfold along these lines. Gladwell devotes only a part of one paragraph (on p.12) to talking about the history of the notion of a “tipping point,” and that is pretty much it: Gladwell’s readers are not, as it turns out, treated to any systematic intellectual history of the development of the idea of tipping points, or to an examination of the unfolding of the various contributions to and perspectives on the idea of a tipping point in the scholarly and popular literature.

What the reader gets instead is a series of ‘intellectual vignettes.’ Gladwell from the first page engages the reader with a series of stories or anecdotes that suggest to the reader a variety of ‘tipping point’ style phenomena, which Gladwell then uses to motivate his three ‘laws’ of tipping points (the law of the few, stickiness, and the power of context). Gladwell then engages with research from epidemiology, social network theory, chaos theory, sociology, psychology, history etc rather selectively, picking out studies that ‘tell a good story’ to reinforce one or the other of his tipping point ‘laws’.

Consider for example the structure of chapter 2, “The Law of The Few” which (of course) is focused on articulating and defending Gladwell’s ‘law’that a few people are particularly influential in spreading ideas or behaviours.

Gladwell starts the chapter with a story: in this case, a historical story that Gladwell tells us “has become part of historical legend, a tale told to every schoolchild” – the story of the ride of Paul Revere to let people know the British were coming, and to be ready to meet them, with profound consequences for American independence.

From a brief recount of this story told from a single perspective (Gladwell’s) – and a comparison of Revere’s ride with a similar ride by William Dawes – Gladwell concludes that Revere was successful primarily because he was well connected and knew lots of people well enough to locate them and impart the message to them with a sufficient degree of urgency, whereas Dawes did not. From this, Gladwell concludes that some kinds of people “are critical to epidemics” and moves on directly to asserting that:

. . . we often fail to give them proper credit for the role they play . . . I call them Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. (emphasis added)

Gladwell then proceeds to elaborate and justify the concept and importance of these types of people. For example, to elaborate Connectors, Gladwell starts with Stanley Milgram’s experiment in relation to what is known as the “small world problem”: the famous experiment where Milgram gave letters to approximately 300 people who lived in Nebraska and asked them to forward them to the name and address of a stockbroker who lived in Sharon, Massachusets, finding that most letters got there in 5 or 6 steps – leading to the concept of “6 degrees of separation” between each of us and any given total stranger.

Gladwell then argued from his personal experience that there were particular people in his social network who knew a lot of people, and historically were the connection points between him and many of his later friendships.

Gladwell illustrated this point by means of a quantitative test based on a selected list of surnames from the phonebook and assessing how many people the test recipient could list that they knew and had one of the surnames from the list. Gladwell noted that he had given the test to many people, and indicated how the degree of connectedness varies between people. Gladwell then recounted his meeting with several people who scored particularly highly on his test, such as businessman Roger Horschow from Dallas.

After recounting Horschow’s story and highlighting how Horschow’s genuine love of people and connecting also worked for him advantageously in the business sphere, Gladwell returned to another intellectual example: the ‘Bacon number’ – a metric arising from a parlour game, to determine how well connected actors in Hollywood to see how many links it takes through people they have acted with before they finally reach a film with Kevin Bacon in it. This intellectually stimulating vignette was then followed by another case study of an individual, Lois Weisberg (Commissioner for Cultural Affairs in the City of Chicago), before Gladwell returned to a sociological study of connections: Mark Granovetter’s classic 1974 study Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers.

Following this brief review, we can see clearly Gladwell’s discursive style. Gladwell’s discourse draws primarily on stories to both motivate and justify his ideas. Gladwell’s discourse in chapter 2 takes the following form: first, a historical story to introduce the general theme (some selected people are more important than others in relation to social epidemics) followed by the bald statement, without justification at that stage, that Gladwell categorises such people into three categories: Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople. Following this setting of the structure and tone of the chapter, Gladwell’s elaboration and justification of the category of Connectors proceeds in the form of a series of further stories, in this case a reference to a well known social psychological experiment (Stanley Milgram’s ‘6 degrees of separation’) followed by an intellectually engaging parlour game, leading to a metric around how connected people are and a personalised case study of such a person. This was followed by another intellectual parlour game, another personalised case study, and reference to a further respected sociological work.

It is immediately clear from a review of even this one chapter that Gladwell is not focused around any systematic intellectual biography of the specific idea that the spread of ideas and behaviours can be addressed through an epidemiological model. Gladwell’s discourse simply does not follow this discursive structure: it does not review existing literature, highlighting the history of the idea and the key contributions or its key features. Indeed, it is not intellectual biography at all. What it is is development of a story, an argument. What Gladwell does is to use carefully selected stories to motivate and buttress the specific claims he wants to make and put forward as his central thesis.

That is, Gladwell’s use of stories, intellectual games, and serious psychological studies, social studies or historical examples is geared towards one end and one end only: motivating and justifying Gladwell’s own particular tipping point ‘laws’.Gladwell’s use of scholarly material is primarily rhetorical: to accentuate and legitimise his story, in the minds of readers. It’s use was intended to build authority and support for the story that he wanted to tell – a story that he could claim as his own regarding tipping points.

It is worth emphasising in passing that Gladwell’s discursive approach is to build support specifically for what is to be taken as his story and ideas, not to systematically uncover any ideas already existing and developed in the literature. Gladwell’s book is constructed by using stories to motivate his three ‘laws’ of tipping points, and then drawing on further anecdotes and scholarly studies to support his tipping point laws. Gladwell does not point to a wider existing and respected epidemiological model of the viral spread of ideas and behaviours and say that that is important: Gladwell uses carefully selected existing scholarly material in a specific manner in relation to his specific points to buttress and support his ideas and approach.

That Gladwell’s approach is rhetorical can be further emphasised by examining his language. For example, Gladwell tells us that

Paul Revere’s ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic (p. 32)

or, discussing a classic Diffusion of Innovation theory case study,

. . . the . . . group that was infected by [the innovators] were the Early Adopters. (p. 197)

Gladwell rhetorically imposes the language of his epidemiological viral metaphor on quite unrelated contexts. The Diffusion of Innovation approach, for example, would not talk about Early Adopters being “infected” by Innovators: they might be influenced, but by using the term “infected” Gladwell is imposing an emphasis and meaning on the Diffusion of Innovations approach that was not there in the original.

This is not just a small issue of language. For example, Gladwell takes a theory from criminology (the ‘broken window’ theory) and recasts and interprets it as an “epidemic theory of crime,” a characterisation the theories inventors might or might not have agreed with.

In addition, Gladwell’s use of those stories, on close examination, is intellectually disconcerting. For example, Judith Kleinfield, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has reviewed Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment in detail, and noted significant issues with the classic ‘small world’ experiment. While teaching an undergraduate graduate psychology class, Kleinfeld wanted to reproduce Milgram’s classic experiment, but using email as well as letters. However, going back to review the methodology of the original study, Kleinfeld was shocked:

To prepare for this research project, I needed to find Milgram’s original research materials, available for public review in Boxes 48 and 49, Stanley Milgram Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale Library (Kaplan, 1996) . . . What I found in the Milgram papers in the Yale archives was disconcerting and cast doubt on the validity of his findings . . .

For example,

Milgram published the arresting anecdote of the divinity student’s wife who had gotten a letter in four days . . . this popular publication is the commonly cited source for the idea of “six degrees of separation.” But . . . just 3 of the 60 documents (5%) reached the wife of the divinity student, and they passed through an average of 8 people (9 degrees of separation). The memorable anecdote in Psychology Today was at great variance from the actual, unreported results of the first study.

In addition, Kleinfeld noted that the construction of Milgram’s study strongly favoured transmission, and the people selected for participation in the experiment was biased towards people who were well connected.

But it gets worse. Social network theorist Duncan Watts, in his book Six Degrees notes (p. 133) that of the approximately 300 people chosen for the experiment, 100 were already living in Boston! Of the 200 in Nebraska, one hundred were from the mailing list, and the other 100 were blue-chip stock investors – a a group with ready connections to a final target of a stockbroker in Boston. Taking the 96 members sourced from the mailing list as the representative group for Milgram’s six degrees experiment as it is normally told, the numbers are more sobering: only 18 of them (i.e., 19% of them) even reached their destination, let alone reached it in 6 steps.

The February 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review lists its anticipated top 20 breakthrough ideas for 2007. The first of these is from social network theorist Duncan Watts, who argues in direct opposition to Gladwell’s Tipping Point thesis that “influentials” (i.e. connectors, mavens and salespeople) “have far less impact on epidemics than is generally supposed. In fact, they don’t seem to be required at all.” The argument, backed by Watt’s computer modelling, is that for a contagion to occur, the epidemic has to be passed through a chain of individuals and, with notable exceptions such as media figures like Oprah Winfrey who benefit from mass media, no single person makes such a difference. Instead, Watts argues that

. . . the principal requirement for what we call “global cascades” – the widespread propagation of influence through networks – is the presence not of a few influentials but, rather, of a critical mass of easily influenced people, each of whom adopts, say, a look or a brand after being exposed to a single adopting neighbour.

This, however, still does not answer the question completely . . . is there something about the message that makes it easier to communicate, and people more easily influenced? Or is the spread of ideas primarily influenced simply by how ‘influencable’ people are? I suspect it has to be a function of both the idea in conjunction with the particular people involved and the particular mindsets and attitudes they individually hold or collectively share.

Now, the above strands of scholarly research and discussion occurred predominantly after Gladwell’s publication of his 1999 New Yorker article on the six degrees of Lois Weisberg and his 2000 publication of the Tipping Point , so it is of course unfair to assess the value of what Gladwell had to say at that time solely on that basis. However, the example still serves as being indicative of Gladwell’s style of use of academic source material: Gladwell uses scholarly source material in an essentially rhetorical fashion, to tell a story from a single point of view in order to motivate assent from the reader to a wider proposition. Gladwell was not interested in and did not pursue a critical engagement with the range of discussion and the varying currents of intellectual thought around, for example, the Milgram small worlds thesis instead he used the small worlds thesis to garner support for his main proposition that there is a class of people he called ‘Connectors’ and the larger proposition that “influentials” such as Connectors play a pivotal role in the spread of ideas and behaviours.

4 Responses to Book Review: The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell (Part III)
  1. Dave Snowden
    March 4, 2007 | 10:35 AM

    Excellent review Lauchlan – I have attempted to get it read by othersby commenting here

  2. Leandro Herrero
    March 4, 2007 | 3:02 PM

    I agree with David Snowden that your review of Malcolm Gladwell’s book is excellent and some criticisms are well articulated and compelling. Malcolm has invented modern Applied Socialvoyerism, excuse my language. From a psychosocial viewpoint, argument flow and cohesive rhetoric, The Tipping point (concept certainly not invented by him) may have some soft spots with the consistency of a cream cake. BUT, and this is what I venture here, it has created unprecedented awareness on the mechanisms of social phenomena in people otherwise provided with antibodies to social-many-things. I have wrestled for a long time with the idea of whether a 75% rigorous description plus a 75% rigorous application, both creating an ‘aha!, if-this-is-so-then-imagine-if’ was legitimate enough to use and broadcast. As an organizational consultant tired of the mechano-hydraulic view of the organization that traditional management practices reinforce every single day, I have flagrantly opted for the legitimization ! I have myself unashamedly borrowed from Albert-László Barabasi whose book Linked is far ‘superior’ than Duncan Watts Small World and Six degrees, in the articulation of Viral Change, the methodology that I apply to management of change in organizations. Lauchlan would apply many of the same criticisms to my book and I would accept them. But, as a practitioner who has tried other tricks before to get clients out of the mechanistic box, I am quite proud of what Viral Change is achieving. If I get people to understand change and progression of new ideas more like an infection or internal epidemic of success, focus their minds on the richness of an internal network of champions or activists, and consequently ‘force’ to redefine leadership as a distributed mechanism across all the troupes… I have no problem with not providing a particularly accurate and mathematically sound description of how the rate of that ‘internal epidemic’ works, for example…

    I have achieved more through Viral Change than years of rational presentation to clients on the merits of looking into complexity theory, which usually led to deep sleep in the business audience as soon as I pronounced the terms. Many business people who have never read a book, including business books (Jack Wells pontificating does not qualify) have found The Tipping point in the airport bookshop and read it. Some of them may be a little bit closer to an ‘aha!, if this is so, then’. We need the Lauchlan’s of this world to keep us on track of rigorous thinking and we need them with his rather tolerant tone to give room to the ones like me who are going to use a less rigorous approach, otherwise producing results in the management of change area, via ‘unconventional’ approaches such as Viral Change.

    Incidentally I’d like to re-invent the six degrees theory as a six-blog-of-separation theory (I). My Google alert on Duncan Watts, led to Lauchlan’s book review on Gladwell, which led to David’s comments. Having ‘lost’ David for a while (!) here he is, just three blogs of separation away! – Leandro Herrero

  3. christianhauck
    March 4, 2007 | 6:42 PM

    I think you're (quite) right with your analysis, but not with your expectations (IMHO). I happened to meet him once in the context of an IBM Institute for Knowlegde Management meeting (Dave Snowden was there as well, if I remember correctly.) He is a very nice person, and a gifted journalist. He is not a scientist, he just does not think that way. I wonder if he will understand your critique at all – not intellectually, more like "what's the problem". He does not want to be innovative, or really deep thinking. He has a talent to sense what's in the air, and package it nicely (and rhetoricaly very well crafted) so that readers will like it and will think that they got it. A journalist, and a good one. Check http://gladwell.typepad.com/ .
    So if you judge him by your standards – he has no chance, of course.

  4. Cody McKibben
    June 12, 2007 | 3:17 PM

    Hi Lauchlan,

    Great review. It's interesting — I'm right in the middle of Keith Ferazzi's Never Eat Alone right now, and he uses the same ideas of six degrees of separation, and the anecdotes of Paul Revere's ride and the letter sent to 300 people all successively in his book. I think the anecdotal stories are more at home in his work because his goal is simply to show people the power of being a connector and a networker, and how to do that. But, it's interesting he uses the same examples…

    I haven't read Gladwell's work yet (seen him speak though). I'm surprised that at least from what you've concentrated on here, he doesn't focus more on ideas as "memes" and what makes them so viral.

Book Review: The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell (Part III)

See Review Part I – Introduction, central ideas of the Tipping Point
See Review Part II – were Gladwell’s Tipping Point ideas original?

Exactly what kind of argument was Gladwell putting forward in his Tipping Point?

In the introduction to The Tipping Point , Gladwell asserts that:

The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves . . . or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do. (p.7, emphasis added)

The reason for this focus is to address two practical questions:

. . . the point . . . is to answer two simple questions that lie at the heart of what we would like to accomplish as educators, parents, marketers, business people and policymakers. Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don’t? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own? (p. 14)

That is: Gladwell suggests at the outset firstly that the “tipping point” is an idea. Since that idea has a biography, one may infer that it has had some sort of history and development to date, and that Gladwell will provide that intellectual biography.

Secondly, Gladwell indicates that the idea of a “tipping point” will be demonstrated to have practical and useful implications that the reader can take away and apply to their problems.

From this we might expect that Gladwell is going to present the history and implications of a well developed idea, perhaps drawing on modern developments in epidemiology, social network theory, chaos theory, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines as they have applied to the spread of ideas and behaviours.

It would appear that Gladwell is going to be a ‘populariser,’ attempting to bring a body of well developed and highly refined theory to a new and wider popular audience in addition to its previous specialised technical audience. We might expect, therefore, that Gladwell’s work develops in a similar manner to James Glieck’s work to popularise Chaos Theory, Paul Davies’ efforts or Richard Feynman’s work to popularise physics, or Ian Stewart’s work to popularise pure mathematics.

Gladwell’s book, however, does not unfold along these lines. Gladwell devotes only a part of one paragraph (on p.12) to talking about the history of the notion of a “tipping point,” and that is pretty much it: Gladwell’s readers are not, as it turns out, treated to any systematic intellectual history of the development of the idea of tipping points, or to an examination of the unfolding of the various contributions to and perspectives on the idea of a tipping point in the scholarly and popular literature.

What the reader gets instead is a series of ‘intellectual vignettes.’ Gladwell from the first page engages the reader with a series of stories or anecdotes that suggest to the reader a variety of ‘tipping point’ style phenomena, which Gladwell then uses to motivate his three ‘laws’ of tipping points (the law of the few, stickiness, and the power of context). Gladwell then engages with research from epidemiology, social network theory, chaos theory, sociology, psychology, history etc rather selectively, picking out studies that ‘tell a good story’ to reinforce one or the other of his tipping point ‘laws’.

Consider for example the structure of chapter 2, “The Law of The Few” which (of course) is focused on articulating and defending Gladwell’s ‘law’that a few people are particularly influential in spreading ideas or behaviours.

Gladwell starts the chapter with a story: in this case, a historical story that Gladwell tells us “has become part of historical legend, a tale told to every schoolchild” – the story of the ride of Paul Revere to let people know the British were coming, and to be ready to meet them, with profound consequences for American independence.

From a brief recount of this story told from a single perspective (Gladwell’s) – and a comparison of Revere’s ride with a similar ride by William Dawes – Gladwell concludes that Revere was successful primarily because he was well connected and knew lots of people well enough to locate them and impart the message to them with a sufficient degree of urgency, whereas Dawes did not. From this, Gladwell concludes that some kinds of people “are critical to epidemics” and moves on directly to asserting that:

. . . we often fail to give them proper credit for the role they play . . . I call them Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. (emphasis added)

Gladwell then proceeds to elaborate and justify the concept and importance of these types of people. For example, to elaborate Connectors, Gladwell starts with Stanley Milgram’s experiment in relation to what is known as the “small world problem”: the famous experiment where Milgram gave letters to approximately 300 people who lived in Nebraska and asked them to forward them to the name and address of a stockbroker who lived in Sharon, Massachusets, finding that most letters got there in 5 or 6 steps – leading to the concept of “6 degrees of separation” between each of us and any given total stranger.

Gladwell then argued from his personal experience that there were particular people in his social network who knew a lot of people, and historically were the connection points between him and many of his later friendships.

Gladwell illustrated this point by means of a quantitative test based on a selected list of surnames from the phonebook and assessing how many people the test recipient could list that they knew and had one of the surnames from the list. Gladwell noted that he had given the test to many people, and indicated how the degree of connectedness varies between people. Gladwell then recounted his meeting with several people who scored particularly highly on his test, such as businessman Roger Horschow from Dallas.

After recounting Horschow’s story and highlighting how Horschow’s genuine love of people and connecting also worked for him advantageously in the business sphere, Gladwell returned to another intellectual example: the ‘Bacon number’ – a metric arising from a parlour game, to determine how well connected actors in Hollywood to see how many links it takes through people they have acted with before they finally reach a film with Kevin Bacon in it. This intellectually stimulating vignette was then followed by another case study of an individual, Lois Weisberg (Commissioner for Cultural Affairs in the City of Chicago), before Gladwell returned to a sociological study of connections: Mark Granovetter’s classic 1974 study Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers.

Following this brief review, we can see clearly Gladwell’s discursive style. Gladwell’s discourse draws primarily on stories to both motivate and justify his ideas. Gladwell’s discourse in chapter 2 takes the following form: first, a historical story to introduce the general theme (some selected people are more important than others in relation to social epidemics) followed by the bald statement, without justification at that stage, that Gladwell categorises such people into three categories: Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople. Following this setting of the structure and tone of the chapter, Gladwell’s elaboration and justification of the category of Connectors proceeds in the form of a series of further stories, in this case a reference to a well known social psychological experiment (Stanley Milgram’s ‘6 degrees of separation’) followed by an intellectually engaging parlour game, leading to a metric around how connected people are and a personalised case study of such a person. This was followed by another intellectual parlour game, another personalised case study, and reference to a further respected sociological work.

It is immediately clear from a review of even this one chapter that Gladwell is not focused around any systematic intellectual biography of the specific idea that the spread of ideas and behaviours can be addressed through an epidemiological model. Gladwell’s discourse simply does not follow this discursive structure: it does not review existing literature, highlighting the history of the idea and the key contributions or its key features. Indeed, it is not intellectual biography at all. What it is is development of a story, an argument. What Gladwell does is to use carefully selected stories to motivate and buttress the specific claims he wants to make and put forward as his central thesis.

That is, Gladwell’s use of stories, intellectual games, and serious psychological studies, social studies or historical examples is geared towards one end and one end only: motivating and justifying Gladwell’s own particular tipping point ‘laws’.Gladwell’s use of scholarly material is primarily rhetorical: to accentuate and legitimise his story, in the minds of readers. It’s use was intended to build authority and support for the story that he wanted to tell – a story that he could claim as his own regarding tipping points.

It is worth emphasising in passing that Gladwell’s discursive approach is to build support specifically for what is to be taken as his story and ideas, not to systematically uncover any ideas already existing and developed in the literature. Gladwell’s book is constructed by using stories to motivate his three ‘laws’ of tipping points, and then drawing on further anecdotes and scholarly studies to support his tipping point laws. Gladwell does not point to a wider existing and respected epidemiological model of the viral spread of ideas and behaviours and say that that is important: Gladwell uses carefully selected existing scholarly material in a specific manner in relation to his specific points to buttress and support his ideas and approach.

That Gladwell’s approach is rhetorical can be further emphasised by examining his language. For example, Gladwell tells us that

Paul Revere’s ride is perhaps the most famous historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic (p. 32)

or, discussing a classic Diffusion of Innovation theory case study,

. . . the . . . group that was infected by [the innovators] were the Early Adopters. (p. 197)

Gladwell rhetorically imposes the language of his epidemiological viral metaphor on quite unrelated contexts. The Diffusion of Innovation approach, for example, would not talk about Early Adopters being “infected” by Innovators: they might be influenced, but by using the term “infected” Gladwell is imposing an emphasis and meaning on the Diffusion of Innovations approach that was not there in the original.

This is not just a small issue of language. For example, Gladwell takes a theory from criminology (the ‘broken window’ theory) and recasts and interprets it as an “epidemic theory of crime,” a characterisation the theories inventors might or might not have agreed with.

In addition, Gladwell’s use of those stories, on close examination, is intellectually disconcerting. For example, Judith Kleinfield, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has reviewed Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment in detail, and noted significant issues with the classic ‘small world’ experiment. While teaching an undergraduate graduate psychology class, Kleinfeld wanted to reproduce Milgram’s classic experiment, but using email as well as letters. However, going back to review the methodology of the original study, Kleinfeld was shocked:

To prepare for this research project, I needed to find Milgram’s original research materials, available for public review in Boxes 48 and 49, Stanley Milgram Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale Library (Kaplan, 1996) . . . What I found in the Milgram papers in the Yale archives was disconcerting and cast doubt on the validity of his findings . . .

For example,

Milgram published the arresting anecdote of the divinity student’s wife who had gotten a letter in four days . . . this popular publication is the commonly cited source for the idea of “six degrees of separation.” But . . . just 3 of the 60 documents (5%) reached the wife of the divinity student, and they passed through an average of 8 people (9 degrees of separation). The memorable anecdote in Psychology Today was at great variance from the actual, unreported results of the first study.

In addition, Kleinfeld noted that the construction of Milgram’s study strongly favoured transmission, and the people selected for participation in the experiment was biased towards people who were well connected.

But it gets worse. Social network theorist Duncan Watts, in his book Six Degrees notes (p. 133) that of the approximately 300 people chosen for the experiment, 100 were already living in Boston! Of the 200 in Nebraska, one hundred were from the mailing list, and the other 100 were blue-chip stock investors – a a group with ready connections to a final target of a stockbroker in Boston. Taking the 96 members sourced from the mailing list as the representative group for Milgram’s six degrees experiment as it is normally told, the numbers are more sobering: only 18 of them (i.e., 19% of them) even reached their destination, let alone reached it in 6 steps.

The February 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review lists its anticipated top 20 breakthrough ideas for 2007. The first of these is from social network theorist Duncan Watts, who argues in direct opposition to Gladwell’s Tipping Point thesis that “influentials” (i.e. connectors, mavens and salespeople) “have far less impact on epidemics than is generally supposed. In fact, they don’t seem to be required at all.” The argument, backed by Watt’s computer modelling, is that for a contagion to occur, the epidemic has to be passed through a chain of individuals and, with notable exceptions such as media figures like Oprah Winfrey who benefit from mass media, no single person makes such a difference. Instead, Watts argues that

. . . the principal requirement for what we call “global cascades” – the widespread propagation of influence through networks – is the presence not of a few influentials but, rather, of a critical mass of easily influenced people, each of whom adopts, say, a look or a brand after being exposed to a single adopting neighbour.

This, however, still does not answer the question completely . . . is there something about the message that makes it easier to communicate, and people more easily influenced? Or is the spread of ideas primarily influenced simply by how ‘influencable’ people are? I suspect it has to be a function of both the idea in conjunction with the particular people involved and the particular mindsets and attitudes they individually hold or collectively share.

Now, the above strands of scholarly research and discussion occurred predominantly after Gladwell’s publication of his 1999 New Yorker article on the six degrees of Lois Weisberg and his 2000 publication of the Tipping Point , so it is of course unfair to assess the value of what Gladwell had to say at that time solely on that basis. However, the example still serves as being indicative of Gladwell’s style of use of academic source material: Gladwell uses scholarly source material in an essentially rhetorical fashion, to tell a story from a single point of view in order to motivate assent from the reader to a wider proposition. Gladwell was not interested in and did not pursue a critical engagement with the range of discussion and the varying currents of intellectual thought around, for example, the Milgram small worlds thesis instead he used the small worlds thesis to garner support for his main proposition that there is a class of people he called ‘Connectors’ and the larger proposition that “influentials” such as Connectors play a pivotal role in the spread of ideas and behaviours.

4 Responses to Book Review: The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell (Part III)
  1. Dave Snowden
    March 4, 2007 | 10:35 AM

    Excellent review Lauchlan – I have attempted to get it read by othersby commenting here

  2. Leandro Herrero
    March 4, 2007 | 3:02 PM

    I agree with David Snowden that your review of Malcolm Gladwell’s book is excellent and some criticisms are well articulated and compelling. Malcolm has invented modern Applied Socialvoyerism, excuse my language. From a psychosocial viewpoint, argument flow and cohesive rhetoric, The Tipping point (concept certainly not invented by him) may have some soft spots with the consistency of a cream cake. BUT, and this is what I venture here, it has created unprecedented awareness on the mechanisms of social phenomena in people otherwise provided with antibodies to social-many-things. I have wrestled for a long time with the idea of whether a 75% rigorous description plus a 75% rigorous application, both creating an ‘aha!, if-this-is-so-then-imagine-if’ was legitimate enough to use and broadcast. As an organizational consultant tired of the mechano-hydraulic view of the organization that traditional management practices reinforce every single day, I have flagrantly opted for the legitimization ! I have myself unashamedly borrowed from Albert-László Barabasi whose book Linked is far ‘superior’ than Duncan Watts Small World and Six degrees, in the articulation of Viral Change, the methodology that I apply to management of change in organizations. Lauchlan would apply many of the same criticisms to my book and I would accept them. But, as a practitioner who has tried other tricks before to get clients out of the mechanistic box, I am quite proud of what Viral Change is achieving. If I get people to understand change and progression of new ideas more like an infection or internal epidemic of success, focus their minds on the richness of an internal network of champions or activists, and consequently ‘force’ to redefine leadership as a distributed mechanism across all the troupes… I have no problem with not providing a particularly accurate and mathematically sound description of how the rate of that ‘internal epidemic’ works, for example…

    I have achieved more through Viral Change than years of rational presentation to clients on the merits of looking into complexity theory, which usually led to deep sleep in the business audience as soon as I pronounced the terms. Many business people who have never read a book, including business books (Jack Wells pontificating does not qualify) have found The Tipping point in the airport bookshop and read it. Some of them may be a little bit closer to an ‘aha!, if this is so, then’. We need the Lauchlan’s of this world to keep us on track of rigorous thinking and we need them with his rather tolerant tone to give room to the ones like me who are going to use a less rigorous approach, otherwise producing results in the management of change area, via ‘unconventional’ approaches such as Viral Change.

    Incidentally I’d like to re-invent the six degrees theory as a six-blog-of-separation theory (I). My Google alert on Duncan Watts, led to Lauchlan’s book review on Gladwell, which led to David’s comments. Having ‘lost’ David for a while (!) here he is, just three blogs of separation away! – Leandro Herrero

  3. christianhauck
    March 4, 2007 | 6:42 PM

    I think you're (quite) right with your analysis, but not with your expectations (IMHO). I happened to meet him once in the context of an IBM Institute for Knowlegde Management meeting (Dave Snowden was there as well, if I remember correctly.) He is a very nice person, and a gifted journalist. He is not a scientist, he just does not think that way. I wonder if he will understand your critique at all – not intellectually, more like "what's the problem". He does not want to be innovative, or really deep thinking. He has a talent to sense what's in the air, and package it nicely (and rhetoricaly very well crafted) so that readers will like it and will think that they got it. A journalist, and a good one. Check http://gladwell.typepad.com/ .
    So if you judge him by your standards – he has no chance, of course.

  4. Cody McKibben
    June 12, 2007 | 3:17 PM

    Hi Lauchlan,

    Great review. It's interesting — I'm right in the middle of Keith Ferazzi's Never Eat Alone right now, and he uses the same ideas of six degrees of separation, and the anecdotes of Paul Revere's ride and the letter sent to 300 people all successively in his book. I think the anecdotal stories are more at home in his work because his goal is simply to show people the power of being a connector and a networker, and how to do that. But, it's interesting he uses the same examples…

    I haven't read Gladwell's work yet (seen him speak though). I'm surprised that at least from what you've concentrated on here, he doesn't focus more on ideas as "memes" and what makes them so viral.