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

See Part 1 – Introduction, central ideas of the Tipping Point

Were Gladwell’s ideas in The Tipping Point original?

Of course, Gladwell hardly claims that the term “tipping point” was his unique innovation. Indeed , Gladwell himself noted (p. 12) that “the expression first came into popular use in the 1970s.”

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “tipping point” was first coined by Morton Grodzins in the early 1960s in relation to a study of the integration of American neighbourhoods, and the idea was expanded and built upon by Economics Nobel Prize-winner Thomas Schelling in his influential 1971 paper on racial dynamics titled “Dynamic Models of Segregation“.

The concept of a tipping point, likewise, has certainly been endemic in popular culture since before Gladwell’s book: for example the phrase is found embodied in the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It seems, therefore, that Gladwell’s original contribution in The Tipping Point was not in coining the term or concept of the ‘tipping point’ itself.

Perhaps Gladwell’s innovation lay in the notion of using an epidemiological or viral model for understanding the diffusion of ideas and behaviours?

The notion that Gladwell was the first to use an epidemiological approach to studying the spread of ideas and behaviours does not, unfortunately, hold up. To take but one example, Colander and Coats’ classic 1989 economic text The Spread of Economic Ideas describes (as one of several metaphors through which to understand the spread of economic ideas) a viral or ‘infectious disease model.’ That is, Colander and Coats considered an infectious disease or viral model for the spread of ideas a good 11 years before Gladwell’s Tipping Point was published.

Perhaps the originality of Gladwell’s Tipping Point thesis lies in his three ‘laws’: the ‘law of the few’, ‘stickiness factor’, and ‘the power of context.’ Let us consider these one by one.

The ‘law of the few’ proposes that in the diffusion of an idea, some people matter more than others.

One classic example of ‘the law of the few’ is found in the sociological notion of ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘advocates’: a select few people, by virtue of the positions they hold in the social hierarchy, have a singular capacity to advance or retard the social diffusion and uptake of ideas and behaviours. A multitude of examples of gatekeeps and advocates could be given: one example drawn from a quick Google search is the 1976 article “Gatekeepers and the Social Control of Social Research” in the journal Social Research.

Similarly, Everett Rogers’ 1962 classic Diffusion of Innovations (updated to the revised fifth edition in 2005), clearly identified the pivotal role of “opinion leaders” and “change agents” in the diffusion of ideas and behaviours, providing a clear recognition of the pivotal importance of ‘the few’ in the spread of ideas.

Social Network Theory is a branch of social theory focused on understanding the structure and pattern of social networks and patterns of influence. Social Network Theory developed well before Gladwell wrote his Tipping Point: the International Network for Social Network Analysis, for example, was founded in 1977.

Even a casual glance through Social Network Theory (such as in the Wikipedia article I referred to above) highlights at once the degree to which Gladwell drew on Social Network Theory in formulating his Tipping Point theory. To argue that at pivotal junctions of social networks one might find ‘connectors’ who know and connect to many people; that at various nodes one might find people capable of particularly strongly influencing along the connections they do have or encounter (salespeople); and one might find people who bring high quality information to the network and have it listened to (mavens), is simply to restate several key insights of Social Network Theory in less formal language.

Clearly the notion of the importance of ‘the few’ was alive and well, well before Gladwell’s Tipping Point.Gladwell’s ‘law of the few’ cannot be considered novel from the point of view of social theory research.

What about the ‘stickiness factor’ and the ‘power of context’?

The central tenet of the ‘stickiness factor’ is that ideas that ‘stick’ are more likely to be assimilated, influence behaviour or thinking, and lead to transmission of ideas and behaviours to others in a way that could become ‘contagious.’ Individuals or companies who want to get their idea accepted and taken on board by people, or to change people’s behaviours, should present their idea in a ‘sticky’ form. An additional tenet was that in order to accomplish this, systematic testing should be performed to test how ‘sticky’ the idea to be disseminated is with its target audience.

Apart from calling it ‘stickiness,’ there is nothing novel about the proposition that to get ideas taken on board by people and for behaviours to change, the ideas need to be attractive and clear enough to get people’s attention, be understood, and be retained. One could refer to mountains of literature from educational pedagogy, organisational training and change management, and in particular marketing, advertising and consumer psychology.

For example, advertisers go to phenomenal lengths to work out what we naturally feel emotion towards and respond to, and formulate their product pitch to associate their product with those sentiments and feelings. For instance, one study (from a journal on consumer psychology, selected from the initial results from a quick Google search on “marketing” and “consumer psychology”) systematically examines the effect of humour in advertising on brand attention and its value in building brand retention.

Advertisers in this school of thought do not provide humour in advertising simply because they are nice people and want to entertain us as a public service – they systematically link the humour to their brand or product and cold-bloodedly test the value of the humour in getting our attention, associating the brand with the good experience, and raising our conscious and subconscious awareness and opinion of the product or brand. All this with a deliberate view to affecting our brand retention and shopping decisions. In other words, advertisers and marketers seek to develop a science of consumer psychology that is effective in developing ‘stickiness’ for their brand and products in consumers’ minds.

Is the principle of a ‘stickiness factor’ unique to Gladwell’s Tipping Point? Gladwell might be argued to have coined the name ‘stickiness,’ but it is clear that the principle well and truly preceded him – as Gladwell himself pointed out effectively via the use of Sesame Street and direct marketing as his key examples in introducing ‘stickiness’.

Finally, what about the ‘power of context’?

The ‘power of context’ as presented by Gladwell has two components.

Gladwell argues first that the general circumstances affect the dynamics of a system and the possibility of an epidemic. For example, the state of the economy, the weather, a shift in age demographics in the population etc could all potentially have an impact on crime taking place in New York City.

Gladwell argues secondly that people are highly psychologically attuned to the specific circumstances in which they operate, and the social and psychological framing of those circumstances. Gladwell cites a range of case examples and psychosocial studies showing that people are less likely to help people if there are other people around to help, if they are not under time pressure for other commitments, if they are placed in certain roles, etc.

The first of these aspects of the ‘power of context’ – that general circumstances matter to system behaviours – amounts to a statement of the fact that system dynamics depend on a range of externally given conditions. If the conditions change, the dynamical behaviour of the system may be quite different.

In this regard, it is quite striking that in Gladwell’s Tipping Point he did not take the ‘obvious’ intellectual route book in relation to system dynamics, and draw on complexity theory to discuss sensitivity of a dynamical system to initial conditions. For example, in certain configurations of initial conditions a dynamical system might be very sensitive to initial conditions and progress down quite different dynamical paths depending on the conditions at the outset – hence the famous account of the dynamical effect that the consequences of a butterfly flapping its wings might have. Similarly, Gladwell’s point is that if the larger conditions around the dynamical system being studied change, the dynamics of the system may change considerably. It is noteable that Gladwell did not draw on any system dynamical argument or on complexity theory to develop this line of thought.

Gladwell’s second proposition regarding the ‘power of context’ focused on the social psychological aspects of how people respond to the nuances of framing of their circumstances: we are “powerfully influenced by our surroundings, our immediate context, and the personalities of those around us.” This point is not particularly novel, as indeed evidenced by the social psychological studies Gladwell drew on to make his point. In addition, this point was well known in the popular media: for example, Allen Funt’s TV show “Candid Camera” had been making this point since 1948 with a range of colourful demonstrations changing the social and psychological context around everyday events (e.g. the other people in an elevator all turning around and facing the rear). Funt showed that these changes influenced people’s behaviour – even when they knew it was strange and abnormal.

Given the extent to which Gladwell drew on a range of established social psychological studies to make his point about the power of context, it would be difficult to assert that the ‘power of context’ was an original intellectual contribution.

See Review Part III – what kind of argumentive style does Gladwell use to establish his case?

2 Responses to Book Review: The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell (Part II)
  1. Dr. Lauchlan A. K. Mackinnon
    March 3, 2007 | 2:09 AM


  2. Aaron W.
    January 2, 2012 | 11:04 AM

    Personally, I could not really not get into The Tipping Point. Most of what he said in the book seemed like common sense that was given fancy names to sound more complicated than it was. In fact, this blog post was more mentally stimulating than the book itself. This is without a doubt one of the most thorough analyses of Gladwell’s book.

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