Book Review: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell Review

Though it’s been 20 years since The Tipping Point was first published, it’s still a great read – relevant and topical.

Malcolm Gladwell is a fantastic writer, and if this is the first of his books that you read I’m sure that you’ll be heading back to the bookshop to buy more of his work as soon as you’ve finished reading this one.

His style is fairly conversational. He’s not a scientist, he’s a journalist, and therefore through his years of interviewing people and writing features, Gladwell has perfected the art of storytelling.

His books are packed full of interesting research studies, fascinating people and engaging anecdotes.

More by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers

Malcolm Galdwell’s latest book came out a couple of months ago. It challenges our assumptions about other people, and is even more topical than Gladwell could have predicted when it hit the shelves in April.

Outliers: The Story of Success

Maybe Gladwell’s most famous book. This book tackles the question of how some people succeed way beyond the achievements of the average person.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

This is a book about instincts and intuition. Gladwell uses his flair for storytelling to argue that there are ways to hone and develop our instinctive thoughts, to enhance our relationships and professional lives.

David and Goliath

A feel-good book on a classic theme. Taking on giants. Again, Gladwell’s storytelling prowess comes to the fore in this book. A very enjoyable read.

Case studies – liberally used throughout the book – whilst not current, don’t seem outdated. And an additional endnote, penned in 2013, provides additional case studies.

Gladwell’s overarching argument is that there are clear conditions required to “tip” a phenomenon into an epidemic – though what the specifics of each case are (or are not) will not always be revealed until afterwards.

This seems especially relevant to the world in 2020.

Subliminal: How your unconscious mind rules your behaviour, by Leonard Mlodinow

Gladwell details the dramatic reduction of violent crime in New York City as a consequence of thoroghly cleaning the Subway system. Social psychologists predicted that these seemingly unconnected factors were linked – and they were proved correct.

On the other hand, a case study that Gladwell often refers to regards the shoe known as a Hush Puppy. The Tipping Point for the adoption of this shoe into mainstream fashion came from an unpredicable – or rather, un-organised – transition.

The shoes were unpopular. However, a small subculture accepted the design. This was then picked up by some fashion photographers and designers, and suddenly – boom! – the shoes “tipped” and anyone who was anyone wanted a pair too.

All because of a small group of “trendsetters” who only bought the shoes because they weren’t part of mainstream culture!

The Tippping Point is divided into eight chapters, followed by a 2013 addendum.

Gladwell suggests that there are three “rules” of the tipping point:

  1. The law of the few
  2. The stickiness factor
  3. The power of context

These three, albeit poeticised, “rules” are expertly presented, such that the reader is left with little doubt of Gladwell’s accuracy in their importance.

The law of the few focuses attention on three very special types of individual, all who play key roles in “tipping” ideas and products.

“Connectors”, as their title suggests know everyone and have a strong network of people around them. If you’ve heard of the six degrees of separation, for these people it’s more like three degrees.

“Mavens”, the second of Gladwell’s select “few”, collect information rather than people. Whilst they may have a smaller social network than connectors, they are the go to person for knowledge in their area. These people have a lot of influence as an “expert”.

The third type of person Gladwell says is required to “tip” an epidemic is the “Salesman”. These are the people within society who help you realise why you need to invest in their idea.

Connectors know lots of people. Mavens know lots of facts. And Salesmen know how to make you feel the same way as they do about something.

Chapter three considers the message iself. The stickiness of a message is critical to ensuring its success.

Gladwell uses examples from children’s television to highlight why some shows succeed and others don’t. He says the successful shows are “sticky”.

Though I think a more scientific approach could aid in the presentation of this idea, the case studies Gladwell presents do go some way to tackiling the complex notion of something gripping an individual to such an extent that they might be conisdered stuck or glued to it.

The two chapters on context are hugely important and provide a strong nod to the powerful role of social factors in the transmission and acceptance of ideas.

Chapter four looks specifically at the local environment as a physical social context. And chapter five delves deeper to tackle the question of what a social group is – how large, and what role does it play?

The two chapters dedicated to case studies are fascinating. This is Gladwell’s USP. His storytelling ability is really on display here.

Gladwell offers case studies from a wide spread of backgrounds and disciplines: physical case studies, behavioural case studies, American, British, and even Micronesian case studies. There is very much a sense of universality in Gladwell’s argument.

If there is any weak moment of this book, it’s Gladwell’s conclusion. This chapter is rather unmemorable, though perhaps this should be seen as a sign of the strength of the rest of the book rather than a weakness of this particular chapter.

The afterword stands out as a public dialogue between Gladwell and some readers who have engaged with his ideas since The Tipping Point was first published.

New case studies – provided by readers – and even a tipping point grant fund are quoted by Gladwell as he openly discusses the impact and legacy of his book.

This reflection adds authenticity to Gladwell’s argument and his reason for writing the book to begin with.

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About Daniel Edward 65 Articles
Daniel set up Psychology Unlocked in 2016 to support Psychology students in higher and further education. Daniel has a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Psychology, Politics and Sociology from the University of Cambridge.