The Tipping Point

My brother visited for a few days and he was reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s newest book – Outliers. He repeatedly spoke of how much he was enjoying it, so I went out and bought a copy for myself. This conjured up in me a desire to review the concepts of his first book — The Tipping Point. Here’s a quote from Outliers jacket cover: “In The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell changed the way we understand the world. In Blink he changed the way we think about thinking. Outliers will transform the way we understand success.”

The following is adapted from Business Summaries. To read the whole article click here

The Big Idea
A business and science writer presents a book that is full of brilliant, fascinating and groundbreaking ideas that should affect the way every thinking person sees the world around him, or her. It is a must-read material for educators, parents, marketers, business people and policymakers. It shows how small changes can make a big difference (which brings to mind both Mother Theresa and The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge).

The book contains an analysis of the strategies people apply to influence and mold its direction. It is a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. It is a road map to change, with a profoundly hopeful message — that one imaginative person applying a well-placed lever can move the world, shape, and engineer the course of social epidemics.

Ideas, products, messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do. These often spread like outbreaks of infectious disease. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of flu, so too can a few fare-beaters and graffiti artists fuel a subway crime wave, or a satisfied customer fill the empty tables of a new restaurant. These are social epidemics. The moment they take off, when they reach their critical mass, is the Tipping Point. The Tipping Point is one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.

The three characteristics of epidemic:

  1. Contagiousness
  2. Little causes can have big effects
  3. Change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment

All epidemics have Tipping Points. The world of a Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more that possibility.

Epidemics are a function of:

  • The people who transmit infectious agents
  • The infectious agent itself
  • The environment in which the infectious agent is operating

1. The Law of the Few
One critical factor in epidemics is the nature of the messenger. The message itself is something that can be passed on. A pair of shoes, a warning, an infection, a new movie can become highly contagious and tip simply if associated with a particular kind of person.

The Law of the Few suggests that what we think of as inner states – preferences and emotions–are powerfully and imperceptibly influenced by seemingly inconsequential personal influences.

CHAPTER 1: The Three Rules Of Epidemics

2. The Stickiness Factor
In epidemics, the content of the message matters too. Is the message, the food, the movie, or the product memorable?

3. The Power of Context
The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem.

Success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts. The Law of the Few says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting social epidemics, and can make it tip.

The three kinds of people that control the word-of-mouth epidemics are:

  • Connectors – the social glue, they spread the message
  • Mavens – the databank, they provide the message
  • Salesmen – the select group of people who have the skills to persuade people unconvinced of what they hear

Connectors are people with a special gift for bringing the world together. They link us up to the world – people whom we rely more heavily than we realize. Word-of-mouth epidemics are the work of Connectors.

What makes someone a Connector?

  1. They know lots of people.
  2. Their importance is a function of the kinds of people they know.
  3. People whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because they occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches. Their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.
  4. They are at the center of events.

CHAPTER 2: The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen endlessly fascinating.

Maven is one who accumulates knowledge and is happy to pass it around. S/he is usually not a persuader.

Mavens are not passive collectors of information. They are not just obsessed with how to get the best deal on a product. What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that deal, they will tell you about it. Mavens are persons with on a lot of different products or prices or places. They like to be helpers in the marketplace. They connect people to the marketplace and have the inside scoop. Mavens are socially motivated.

Salesmen are charismatic people that can infect others with their emotions without saying anything and with the briefest of exposures. What makes the Salesmen in our lives so effective?

  • Little things can apparently make as much difference as the big things.
  • Nonverbal cues are more important than verbal cues. How we say things may matter more than what we actually say.
  • Persuasion always works in ways that we do not appreciate.

What makes someone so persuasive?
It’s more than eloquence. It’s more of the subtle, the hidden, and the unspoken. Super-reflex is a fundamental physiological ability. To have a powerful or persuasive personality, one must have the ability to draw others into her rhythms and dictate the terms of the interaction, ability to conduct conversation on his terms, and the ability to create synchrony. Salesmen can build a level of trust and rapport in a much shorter time than most people. (It seems to me that emotionally healthy salesmen will always seek to do what is best for the person or group and not use persuasiveness in self-serving ways.)

CHAPTER 4: The Power of Context (Part One): The Power of Context says that we are more than sensitive to changes in context. And the kinds of contextual changes that are capable of tipping an epidemic are very different than we might ordinarily suspect. For instance, crime is the inevitable result of disorder. The Broken Windows theory says that if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.

The impetus to engage in a certain kind of behavior is not coming from a certain kind of person but from a feature of the environment.

Broken Windows theory and the Power of Context are one and the same. They are both based on the premise that an epidemic can be reversed or tipped by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment.

The essence of the Power of Context is that our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances. We need to remember that small changes in context can be just as important in tipping epidemics, even though the fact appears to violate some of our most deeply held assumptions about human nature.

Environmental Tipping Points are things that we can change. We can fix broken windows and clean up graffiti and change the signals that invite crime in the first place. Crime can be more than understood, it can be prevented.

Small, close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea.
As human beings, we can only handle so much information at once. We get overwhelmed once we pass a certain boundary. Our intellectual capacity and our ability to process raw information is limited. We clearly have a channel capacity for feelings as well. The most interesting natural limit is our social channel capacity.

The Rule of 150 suggests that the size of a group is one of those subtle contextual factors that can make a big difference. If we want groups to serve as incubators for contagious messages, then we have to keep groups below the 150 Tipping Point. Above that point, there will be structural impediments to the ability of the group to agree and act with one voice. Once the Tipping Point is crossed, group members begin to behave very differently as they become divided and alienated.

It says that congregants of a rapidly expanding church, or the members of a social club, or anyone in a group activity banking on the epidemic spread of shared ideals needs to be particularly cognizant of the perils of bigness. Crossing the 150 line is a small change that can make a big difference.

The kind of bond in small groups is a kind of peer pressure – knowing people well enough that how they see you matters. Peer pressure is much more powerful because it drives people to live up to what is expected of them.

The advantage of adhering to the Rule of 150 is that it provides a mechanism to make the flow of new ideas and information to move around the organization to tip– to go from one person or to the entire group all at once. You can exploit the bonds of memory and peer pressure.
The phenomenal book Secrets of Ya-ya Sisterhood, the widely spread early Christian church, Wesley’s Methodism and Gore Associates have successfully embraced and applied the Rule of 150.

CHAPTER 5: The Power of Context (Part Two): The Magic Number One Hundred and Fifty
Why did Airwalk tip? Airwalk tipped primarily because its advertising was founded very explicitly on the principles of epidemic transmission. The advertising company used dramatic images–single photographs showing the Airwalk user relating to his shoes in some weird way. In one, a young clad girl is holding up a shiny vinyl Airwalk shoe like a mirror and using it to apply lipstick.

The advertising firm Lambesis served as the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen for
Airwalk. The Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen simply take ideas and information from a highly specialized world and translate them into language the rest of us can understand. They are the translators. To make an idea contagious, they alter it in such a way that extraneous details are dropped and others are exaggerated so that the message itself comes to acquire a deeper meaning.

The most sophisticated analysis of this process of translation comes from the study of rumors, the most contagious of all social messages.

Studies suggest that suicide can be contagious. Suicides lead to more suicides. Suicide stories are a kind of natural advertisement for a particular response to your problems. The death of people in highly publicized suicides give others “permission” to die. This serves as Tipping Point in suicide epidemics.

Tipping Point Lessons

First Lesson
: Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas. The Law of the Few says that Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen are responsible for starting word-of-mouth epidemics.

Second Lesson: The world, as much as we want to, does not accord with our intuition. Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right. They deliberately test their intuitions. To make sense of social epidemics, we must first understand that human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.

Third Lesson: What must underlie successful epidemics is a bedrock belief that change is possible– that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus. This contradicts some of the most ingrained assumptions we hold about ourselves and each other. We think we are autonomous and inner-directed, that who we are and how we act is something permanently set by our genes and our temperament.

Fourth Lesson: We are actually powerfully influenced by our surroundings as shown by the following examples:

  • Taking the graffiti off the walls of New York subway turned New Yorkers into better citizens.
  • Telling seminarians to hurry turned them into bad citizens.
  • The suicide of a charismatic young Micronesian set off an epidemic of suicides that lasted for a decade.
  • Putting a little gold box in the corner of a Columbia Record Club advertisement suddenly made record buying by mail seem irresistible.

If there is difficulty and volatility in the world of the Tipping Point, there is a large measure of hopefulness as well. Merely by manipulating the size of a group, we can dramatically improve its receptivity to new ideas. By tinkering with the presentation of information, we can significantly improve its stickiness. By finding and reaching those few special people who hold so much social power, we can engineer the course of social epidemics.

The Tipping Point reaffirms the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. The world may seem like an immovable, implacable place, but it is not. With the slightest push in just the right place, it can be tipped.

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