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Gladwell's Book Reaches a Tipping Point

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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Gladwell's Book Reaches a Tipping Point

Stefanie Fedak

For this assignment, I decided to play it safe and select something from the suggested reading list. As I read the list over to a friend, she exclaimed loudly, "I loved that book", when I made mention of The Tipping Point. I came to find that a number of other friends had experience with The Tipping Point, and emphatically recommended the book, whether or not they had agreed with Gladwell's observations. These friends came from a wide variety of academic fields including, sociology, education, psychology, biology, and political science. Before I ever opened the cover, I was drawn in by the book's ability to appeal to an audience from such a broad spectrum of academia. When I had finished the book, on top of all of the new ideas rushing through my head, I wondered about the experiences that informed author Malcolm Gladwell's perspective and set out to uncover what inspired The Tipping Point.

My search took me to, Malcolm Gladwell's internet homepage, complete with interviews, biographical information, archives from his writings for The New Yorker, and information about his other works. I learned that Gladwell had spent a portion of his career, before beginning his contributions to The New Yorker, writing about the AIDS epidemic for The Washington Post. Through his research of HIV and AIDS, Gladwell began to delve into the world of epidemiology – the study of epidemics. He began to notice differences in the way epidemiologists view the world, and became intrigued by the notion of the 'tipping point' – a phrase commonly used to explain the moment where a virus reaches critical mass. Gladwell began to contemplate the 'tipping point', and its host of inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural possibilities. Gladwell remarked in an interview posted on,

"When I heard that phrase [Tipping Point] for the first time I remember thinking--wow. What if everything has a Tipping Point? Wouldn't it be cool to try and look for Tipping Points in business, or in social policy, or in advertising or in any number of other nonmedical areas?"

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell does just that – exploring how trends and ideas are proliferated and why they often suddenly, and unexpectedly, die out. He uses his own kind of language to explain these phenomena, attributing them largely to three laws: the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the law of context. Each of these explains a portion of the Gladwell notion of social epidemic, and together help to formulate the framework of the author's understanding of the "Tipping Point".

While the stickiness factor centers on the ability of the message to be understood, remembered, and passed on; and the law of context deals directly with the environment in which the message come to fruition – geography and willingness of the population in question to "tip"; the law of the few appears to be most important, and most applicable to neurobiology and the lessons learned this semester.

The law of the few contextualizes the structure of social networks, and functions on the notion that there are three types of people who expedite information through these social networks. Gladwell's types include the Connector, the Maven, and the Salesman – each serving a particular purpose in the scheme of trendsetting and idea proliferation.

The Connector is able to bring people together, with the help of their sociable nature and willingness to meet and play host to a wide array of individuals. The Connector has more friends and acquaintances than the average person, not just because they are more sociable, but because they are more willing to maintain these relationships than the average person. Mavens gather, evaluate, and pass along information and evaluations to other members of society. The Mavens are central in regulating what passes through the network and have the trust of others within the network – this is essential if something is actually going to "tip". Finally, there are the Salesmen. The aptly named Salesmen are responsible for promoting the message, idea, or trend – no matter the content and characteristics, or their level of expertise. Together, these three personalities function to create a social network capable of bringing something to a Tipping Point.

So how does this aspect – the law of the few – relate to neurobiology? One of the first ideas I had regarding the understanding of this theory in relation to neurobiology brought me back to our first few classes of the semester, where we discussed brain equaling behavior. There were a variety of opinions on whether or not brain in fact equaled behavior and if so what the implications might be. In terms of The Tipping Point, if brain equals behavior, one might think that individuals are born as Connectors, or Mavens, or Salesmen; but, that might not necessarily be the case. Our brains may not necessarily dictate how we behave; rather, they might instead facilitate the acquisition of behaviors through interactions with other individuals and our environments. In this model, it can be thought that behavior is acquired and stored in the brain; so in essence, does behavior equal brain? If so, then Connectors, Mavens, or Salesmen would be made, not born. Perhaps it is possible to take one of two avenues in order to become a Connector, Maven, or Salesman. Some individuals might be natural Connectors, Mavens, Salesmen, while others could be nurtured? Brain equals behavior then becomes something of an if/then statement – if brain equals behavior, then behavior equals brain.

I also thought about the identities assigned to individuals by Gladwell, and what those identities mean for their place within the social network. Are these identities flexible? For example, what if a Connector were to be involved in an accident resulting in the loss of their memory; then would they still be a Connector? After the accident, could said individual then be a Salesman? I would be led to believe that Gladwell's notions of the social network are flexible enough to allow for these sorts of changes.

Gladwell is not a scientist, but that does not mean he cannot make observations, evaluate them, and propose his own theories about the way the world works; anyone can in essence be a scientist. His position in life as a writer/journalist does not inhibit him from producing a book that plays with scientific notions of epidemics and the individual's interaction with society. His willingness to explore scientific ideas relating to neurobiology and epidemiology in a societal context concerning culture and identity is worth reading. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring alternative understandings of how change occurs – or to anyone interested in exploring generally.