The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell
Contributed by Sherie Debus
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
The Impacts of Small Changes

In this book, Gladwell tries to provide an account of why certain behaviors, products, messages, or ideas achieve popularity while others do not. He, therefore, argues that for a trend to become successful, it must, first of all, reach the tipping point. Throughout the book, Gladwell suggests that for these ideas or behaviors to become a social epidemic, it is not necesary that large and resource intensive efforts be used. Instead, the author believes that trends becomes popular due to small but significant changes on the content, the message, the context and the individuals who convey the messages. According to Gladwell, the tipping point is reached when individuals pay proper attention to small changes that carry enormous effects.

Gladwell proposes various ways in which an idea can reach the tipping point through these small but significant changes. Firstly, an idea becomes a social epidemic when certain individuals grasp the content of the message and spread it out to the rest of the community. However, Gladwell points out that only a small fraction of the population with specific attributes are capable of spreading this kind of information. Secondly, ideas spread more quickly when they are catchy and memorable. However, Gladwell argues that people do not enjoy every aspect of a concept but instead pick out small fragments that make the message interesting and memorable. Thirdly, small changes in the environment such, as in the case of banning graffiti to reduce major crime rates in New York City as explained in Chapter 4, can lead to significant behavioral changes.

The Power of the Word of Mouth

Word of mouth holds a vital position in spreading information from one person to the other. In this book, Gladwell suggests that certain products or ideas owe their popularity to the power of word of mouth whereby people pass a trend from one individual to the other until it becomes popular. However, this process requires specific kinds of people with large amounts of social clout in order for ideas to become social epidemics. In chapter one, Gladwell mentions that “there is more than one way to tip an epidemic… Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating.” The sentiments show that only a particular group of people are equipped with the right attributes of spreading information rapidly.

According to Gladwell, these kinds of people include mavens, connectors, and salesmen. The mavens spend a better part of their time researching new ideas and products whereas the connectors comprise of a group of people who happen to know lots of people. On the other hand, the salesmen consist of people with a specific talent of persuading people to react on the idea such as subscribing to a particular religion and buying specific kinds of shoes among other influences. Gladwell, therefore, emphasizes that connectors, mavens, and the salesmen uniquely ensure that information spreads through word of mouth from one person to the other until it reaches the tipping point.

Stickiness of a Message

Another theme that is prevalent throughout the book is the stickiness of messages.  Gladwell uses stickiness to refer to the aspect of a message or idea being catchy enough to hold an individual’s attention and remain memorable. Even though it is essential that people spread products or ideas, these people must, first of all, determine whether the concept is worth disseminating. According to Gladwell, this is to ensure that the message is appealing, likable, and sticky. These aspects are the most vital elements of any given message because they determine how an idea is received and passed on to the next person.

Gladwell claims that sometimes stickiness can prompt negative consequences and therefore, harm people. For instance, Gladwell points out how cigarettes can be extremely sticky in making smokers develop an active nicotine addiction. Addiction to cigarettes has severe consequences including the risk of developing lung cancer. Nevertheless, stickiness can have positive implications as long as the product or idea in question is affirmative. For instance, Gladwell narrates the case of the Sesame Street show, an educational television show targeting children that gained popularity by maximizing the aspect of stickiness.  Producers of the show studied what children preferred in terms of entertainment and used this to redesign the TV show to include engaging characters who taught children valuable lessons in reading and counting. The research succeeded in using the concept of stickiness to adjust the content of the show to reach the goals of educating children on a broad level.

Context and Social Epidemics

Throughout the book, Gladwell refers to context—as described as the setting, social situation or the environment—as an essential element of any social epidemic. The book suggests that context holds a more significant position in influencing people’s behavior as compared to their inherent character, emotions, interests or ambitions. Gladwell points out that the microscopic features of any given social situation or context have noteworthy impacts when compared to the large apparent aspects of the environment.

This idea is exemplified by the sociological concept known as the broken window hypothesis which was enacted in the streets of New York City. The hypothesis proposes that government institutions can eliminate major crimes such as rape and murder in society by fighting trivial offenses such as public urination and illegal graffiti. The main idea behind this hypothesis is the belief that potentially violent individuals will fear acting upon their instincts in a context or environment that punishes even smaller crimes.

Gladwell argues that massive noticeable changes do not often significantly influence people’s behaviors since they are deemed obvious. Therefore, no matter how much people recognize them, they still choose to stick to their old practices. On the contrary, small changes in the environment, such as the implementation of the graffiti laws in New York City, subconsciously influence behaviors in a rather compelling way. Gladwell concludes that even though character largely determines what an individual thinks or imagines, it doesn’t define their behavior in public.

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