Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Tipping Point: telling us what we want to hear, or changing the way we see the world?

Zoe Fuller-Young's picture

The Tipping Point: telling us what we want to hear, or changing the way we see the world?

The book that I am reviewing is The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book, Gladwell explains the rise, and in some cases the fall, of epidemics. He uses examples such as crime, shoe brands, and television shows to highlight patterns of popularity. Gladwell argues that there are three rules of epidemics which are the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context. Through these rules, there is the possibility that epidemics can be understood, manipulated, or even prevented. The Tipping Point is easy to read and provides many examples that keep the reader interested to learn more. An advantage of the book is that the concepts are not very complicated, but therefore the ability of Gladwell’s theory to travel across cases is questionable. Do Gladwell’s theories make epidemics too easy to understand, or do they allow for epidemics to remain complex? In Neurobiology and Behavior, we discussed ways in which our sense of reality is influenced by our environment and interactions with others. In this way, we might want to do or wear something that someone else is wearing, for reasons we might not comprehend at the time. We also might exhibit strange behavior in certain contexts. There are many issues that Gladwell raises that were not mentioned specifically in class, but can be correlated to class discussions of both reality and the I-function, the assumed power we have over our own actions.

Two of the most interesting points that Gladwell raises stem from two of his rules, the law of the few and the power of context. These two rules of epidemics are interesting when they are put together because they work in seeming contrast to one another, but also if paired at the right time have the possibility of accelerating an epidemic. The law of the few explains three types of people that are necessary for spreading epidemics. These three types of people are three versions of a “people person.” The first is a connector, someone who is able to bring people together from many different places and backgrounds. The second is a maven, someone who is always searching for more knowledge and enjoys helping others and sharing that knowledge. The third is a salesman, someone who is talented at persuading others and can encourage people to do things (or buy things) that they are not particularly inclined toward doing. Gladwell explains that these types of people are not extremely common, but they are the most important few people needed to produce an epidemic. They often know a lot of people, the people they know are important, those people respect them for their help or knowledge, or they are able to call upon these people and convince them to do certain things. They “…are the ones who make it possible for innovations to overcome this problem of the chasm. They are translators: they take ideas and information from a highly specialized world and translate them into a language the rest of us can understand” (200). Connectors, mavens, and salesmen are so naturally talented at connecting people that they seem to have the power to produce an epidemic even in an unfavorable context.

The power of context explains that certain epidemics are possible due to their environment. Gladwell gives an example of graffiti and its impact on crime in New York City. He explains that the existence of environmental circumstances such as graffiti on the subways in New York City had a profound influence on the increase in crime. However, the seemingly small process of constantly painting over and preventing graffiti on trains became an integral part of the end of crime in New York City. Gladwell also explains that a man who murdered some young criminals was praised during the period of high crime, but was forgotten when the crime faded. Context seems constantly important for epidemics. Gladwell argues that

…there are specific situations so powerful that they can overwhelm our inherent predispositions... His point is simply that there are certain times and places and conditions when much of that can be swept away, that there are instances where you can take normal people from good schools and happy families and good neighborhoods and powerfully affect their behavior merely by changing the immediate details of their situation. (154)

The Tipping Point describes the enormous success of the television show Blues Clues, but could the producers of the show been as effective if their target audience did not have televisions, or if their televisions did not have color? Both the power of context and the law of the few are compelling components of the explanation of epidemics. However, it seems possible that perhaps a particularly strong few could counterbalance an unfavorable context and a particularly bad context could thwart the efforts of a connector, maven, or salesman.

As stated previously, The Tipping Point is a well written book that is easy to read and be able to grasp the concepts. Gladwell uses examples of epidemics that I have never thought to investigate, but somehow the way he describes them and their possible impetus causes me to be intrigued. His argument is so smooth and organized with his three rules that it is difficult to argue against his theory. This is often a sign of a good argument, but perhaps it is also a sign of an argument that explains something that people want to hear, and contains certain disclaimers that prevent dispute. Like the issue of the power of context versus the law of the few. In an explanation of an epidemic, if one of these is missing, then the other can explain the case. Gladwell’s third rule is stickiness, which is the ability of epidemics to be maintained and entice people to join. He explains that something has to have a certain appeal in order to become an epidemic, but I am left wondering exactly how this is accomplished. It seems that producing stickiness is indeed complicated and requires many ideas and people to propel. Specifically, how did pre-teen and teen suicide become an epidemic in Micronesia? What was so “sticky” about committing suicide?

The section of this book that I found most closely related and able to be compared to the course Neurobiology and Behavior was Gladwell’s discussion of the research done surrounding the story of The Good Samaritan. Gladwell explains an experiment was conducted which asked seminarians to prepare a short speech on a given bible story or theme. Some were asked to prepare their talk using the The Good Samaritan while others were given a different topic. Then, the experimenters told some of the seminarians that they late for their talk, and others that they were early and could take their time getting to their talk. On the way to their talk the researchers placed a man on the side of the road who was sick and in need of help, therefore reenacting a “Good Samaritan” situation. The seminarians who had just prepared a speech on The Good Samaritan would presumably be most inclined to stop and help the man, but instead the researchers found that what mattered most was whether or not the seminarian was in a hurry. If the seminarian was told he was late, he would most likely not stop and help. On the other hand, if he was told he was early, he was more inclined to assist the sick man. Gladwell claims that “…the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior.” (165) This story reminds me of many conversations that took place in class surrounding the I-function, particularly our free will and ability to act “of our own accord.”

In our spring 2008 Neurobiology and Behavior class with Paul Grobstein we talked about many things from neurotransmitters to eye balls to pain. Throughout many class periods, someone would become uncomfortable at the idea that perhaps our body does a lot more on its own than we previously imagined. “Perhaps Emily was right,” would be a common response to those shifting in their seats. What is interesting about the experiment on The Good Samaritan is that it brings into reality how little our assumed “free will” can play in our everyday lives. The experiment also causes us to realize that context, meaning the world outside of our nervous system, is possibly stronger than the convictions of our heart or contents of our thoughts. This particular point that is made by Gladwell is congruent with arguments made in class, where we often realized that our actions are guided by many factors that are frequently separate from our personal opinions and convictions. What becomes even more interesting is the possibility, as discussed in class, that the “reality” of our context is dictated from the inside, from our nervous system. For example, if our vision is chosen for us, and some of us have different types of vision and ideas about what we are viewing, then it is possible that the same context for multiple people causes different reactions. This situation is definitely possible, but what is more interesting to me is the pattern of similarities between those tested in The Good Samaritan experiment. The majority of those tested only stopped to help if they knew they had time, therefore their context of having time made it possible for their ethical principle and opinions about helping people to surface.

An interesting next experiment might be to join the law of the few with the power of context. Although the law of the few is concerned with epidemics and those able to translate epidemics, the Good Samaritan experiment might test how well connectors, mavens, and salesmen can cope with a difficult context. Are they able to overcome unwelcoming contexts, like being late for a speech, in order to stop and help someone that could possibly be a very interesting, useful person? This experiment would combine ideas from Gladwell and from the course Neurobiology and Behavior. Connectors, mavens and salesmen have certain preconditions that they were probably born with, and therefore specific behavior. These are people who really enjoy meeting, working, and helping other people. But is the power of context so strong that it prevents the “few” from doing their job? The Tipping Point is a very interesting, easy read that feeds into what people want to hear but also changes the way we think. Gladwell’s claims are hard to argue, which is both good and problematic. Many of the issues that he raises, particularly the power of context, is relatable and a helpful addition to the issues raised in our class Neurobiology and Behavior.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the few and tipping points

Maybe knowing about the "Tipping Point" can give our I-function the capability to stop despite context?