The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Summary

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, he advances a somewhat novel theory of how systemic change occurs.  Using three guiding premises–the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context–Gladwell explains that seemingly insignificant factors can cause cultural trends to “tip” and become epidemics.  The law of the few posits that epidemics are essentially spread by three types of exceptional people: connectors, mavens, and salespersons.  Connectors are incredibly social, bringing disparate people together and acting as dispersion channels for ideas.  Mavens are notoriously well informed people who freely offer their expert advice to others concerning trends.  Salespersons are convincing (some would say manipulative) personalities who are highly attuned to communication cues and can “seduce” people into believing or buying something.  The stickiness factor posits that the design or content of a potential epidemic is important in determining its eventual success or failure.  Something is sticky if it has the right mixture of appealing elements.  Finally, the power of context posits that environment and timing are important components in achieving a tipping point.  If an idea’s time hasn’t yet come or it is introduced in the wrong place, it will not take hold and tip to epidemic proportions.

Critique

I had, up to the point when I read this book, avoided anything written by Malcolm Gladwell.  The slickness of his presentation and the buoyancy of his hair made me suspicious of his theories.  Call it snobbery, but I regarded his work as “pop-science”–heavy on coolness and light on facts.  After reading The Tipping Point, I’ve come to hold Gladwell in a much higher regard.  What Gladwell does exceedingly well is explain abstract concepts using engaging narratives. Everyone loves a good story, and Gladwell’s style of writing clearly communicates ideas in a way that inspires excitement and understanding in the reader.  It’s hard to argue with a lot of the conclusions that Gladwell comes to in this book because all of them are backed up by convincing stories.  I agree with him that environment probably conditions our behavior a lot more than we’d like to think.  I also agree with him that radical change can be triggered by tiny catalysts, and that we have a hard time explaining how this can be because our minds struggle to conceive of exponential growth or decline.  After reading this book, I will definitely check out some of Gladwell’s other books.  But don’t call me a “Gladwellian” just yet.

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