The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell
Contributed by Sherie Debus
Chapter 7

In this chapter, Gladwell explores two big epidemics—suicide in the Islands of Micronesia and teenage smoking. The chapter begins with a story of a young teenage boy in Micronesia by the name of Sima who experiences a misunderstanding with his father. One particular morning, Sima’s father orders him to go and look for a specific kind of knife in the nearest town. When the boy fails to come back with the knife, his father becomes angry and chases him away telling the boy never to return. Out of desperation, the boy leaves and eventually hangs himself. When this particular incident happened, suicides seldom happened in Micronesia. Gladwell proclaims that some years later, Micronesia experienced several instances of teenage suicides that originated from disagreements between teenagers and their parents or lovers. Suicide became the norm of the day with some anthropologists even arguing that suicide had become an integral part of Micronesia’s culture. Indeed, the aspect of teenage suicides has mainly been expressed in literature, film and music.

Gladwell compares the epidemic of teenage suicides with that of teenage smoking where traditional measures to combat smoking had proved futile. Just like smoking, suicides can be contagious, with high-profile suicides becoming the tipping points. What he means is that the first suicide case opens the idea to other teenagers to follow suit and commit suicide as well. Gladwell strongly suggests that imitators tend to copy the behavior, get influenced and choose the initial method of suicide. Suicide, therefore, becomes a language familiar to individuals sharing a subculture similar to teen smoking. As Gladwell explains, heavy smokers have certain behaviors that are adored by teenagers such as being rebellious and impulsive. Indeed, many smokers associate their smoking habits with certain personalities they see in pop culture.


The case studies presented in this chapter expose darker social epidemics that are in nature similar to more positive ones. Gladwell draws similarities between the suicide epidemics in Miconesia to that of the sharp rise in popularity of Airwalk, as discussed in the preceding chapter. The idea is that when certain individuals commit suicide, they influence the rest of the population to want to die in similar ways. Though Gladwell withholds his moral judgment as far as various trends are concerned, he shows strong emotions against smoking and suicide in this chapter. The main idea as presented in this section is that humans are sometimes easily convinced or swayed by the subconscious or irrational changes within their environment.

Even though it is disturbing to perceive that suicide can become a trend just like any other, it is important to recognize that even negative behaviors have the capacity of inspiring an upsurge of copycats. Suicide as an epidemic is particularly striking since it is more of a personal decision that is less influenced by actions from other groups of persons.

Gladwell explores the teenage smoking issue again from the point of view of the salesmen who in their own behaviors end up persuading others to follow suit. The salesmen have various shared attributes, but most notably, they find pleasure in influencing people to follow certain behaviors. The aspect is well explained by Gladwell’s law of the few that affirms that a small group of influential persons can influence a whole generation. In this case, the few charismatic smokers inspired teenagers who found pleasure in smoking as well.

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