The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell
Contributed by Sherie Debus
Chapter 4

The chapter begins with a nasty encounter involving Bernhard Goetz and four black men whom he met in an underpass in New York. While in the subway, the four young adults demanded five dollars from Goetz who suddenly took out his gun and fired shots towards them. Three of them died instantly while the last one became completely paralyzed. Upon investigation, it was established that the four young men had criminal records. One of them had previously been arrested for robbery while the others had been linked to various cases of theft. Moreover, three of the victims were found with screwdrivers that were likely there to be used to cause harm. The incident stirred discussions across the United States especially as it happened at time when crime rates had been escalating in New York City. Goetz was perceived to be a hero, a death wish shooter, and a subway vigilante among other personas. Days later, the shooter turned himself in and was then charged with attempted murder and assault. However, the streets were filled with jubilance, and a party was even thrown outside Goetz’s neighborhood to recognize his heroic actions. On the contrary, some individuals perceived him to be a murderer and a racist who had no place in American society.

Gladwell notes that between the years 1980 and 1990, New York City witnessed a sharp decline in crime. He tries to explain the fall from the perspective of environmental importance, which is critical in influencing the tipping point. The sharp decline remains a mystery with some scholars attributing it to new policing techniques established in the Broken Window hypothesis. The hypothesis suggests that big crimes such as robbery, murder, and rape are often perpetrated by criminals who begin with trivial crimes such as drawing illegal graffiti and public urination. The idea is that combating minor crimes consequently reduces the possibilities of major crimes happening. When the administrators put the broken window hypothesis into practice, major crimes were significantly clamped down.


The chapter’s main idea revolves around how context, or environment, is an essential component in the development of social epidemics. The author introduces context as an aspect that holds a critical position in influencing the behaviors or characters of individuals. He argues that the minor contextual elements of an environment have far-reaching impacts on behavior and attitudes as compared to the broad perceptible aspects of the same environment. He further expounds on this aspect through the broken window hypothesis, which claims that government institutions can better combat major crimes by first eliminating minor offenses in society. The argument is that individuals with the potential of being violent are likely to be deterred from acting violently in an environment that has a reputation for punishing small crimes. This is because they are made to understand that any criminal acts cannot be tolerated. The evidence is drawn from New York, a city that experienced a sharp decline in crime rates after fighting small crimes such as public urination and illegal graffiti.

This chapter’s main idea is a continuation of the previous chapter’s key theme that small changes ultimately have significant impacts on the behaviors of individuals. Most of the time, significant changes in the environment do not result in huge impacts because many individuals receive them with normalcy and obviousness. Human beings will notice the vast perceptible changes in their environment but still, make no efforts in behaving differently. On the contrary, small changes such as the ones witnessed in New York have unique ways of unconsciously impacting a person’s behavior hence resulting in tremendous unexpected results such as the sharp decline of crime.

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