The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Difference

by Malcolm Gladwell
(Little, Brown & Co., 288 pp., $24.95)

In 1957, the sociologist Morton Grodzins introduced the idea of a "tipping point," in the context of a suggestion that once a certain percentage of minority group members enter a neighborhood (usually 20 percent, he proposed), the vast majority of whites will leave it. In the 1970s, the economist Thomas Schelling analyzed the "tipping point" phenomenon in considerable detail. In Schelling's account, in Micromotives and Macrobehavior, a tipping point is reached when a critical mass has formed, suddenly leading a large number of people to engage in behavior that they had formerly avoided. Like Grodzins, Schelling focussed on the phenomenon of racial segregation. When a few minority group members move into a neighborhood, Schelling observed, whites generally stay; but in some neighborhoods, many whites will leave once the percentage of African Americans goes above a certain point.

Schelling was writing three decades ago, and the dynamics of race relations in America are undoubtedly different today. Whites will typically have different "thresholds" for leaving; they will not agree about the precise percentage of minority group entrants that will lead them to leave. But what was important was not Schelling's example but his analysis, which can be applied far more broadly. What Schelling showed is that small individual decisions can produce an unintended social pattern of segregation, and that under certain assumptions a chain reaction will occur, as whites with the lowest thresholds leave early, then more minority group members move in, and then whites with low but somewhat higher thresholds leave, too. At a certain crucial stage--the tipping point--there is a dramatic increase in white flight.

The same concepts have been applied to many social phenomena, where dramatic shifts in behavior can be expected if and only if a critical mass is reached. "Tipping points" have been explored in connection with such varied activities as smoking, participating in political protests, voting for third-party candidates, going to college, striking, recycling, producing a revolution, using birth control, subscribing to magazines, rioting, even leaving bad dinner parties. Many people will strike, or smoke, or leave a bad party only after a certain number of people have already done so. But if and when a certain threshold is reached, the number of strikers, smokers, or delighted party-leavers can increase exponentially. Thus the notion of the tipping point--what used to be known as the straw that broke the camel's back--may cast light on many unanticipated and otherwise inexplicable large-scale social changes. The fall of communism, the rise of feminism, the attack on affirmative action, the power of the religious right, ethnic antagonism in Eastern Europe: all these have a great deal to do with tipping points.

A central lesson of the tipping-point literature is that small changes can make a large difference. The significant question is whether a critical mass can be reached, and little pushes and nudges may be sufficient to ensure that it is or is not reached. The tipping point is closely connected to the phenomenon of conformity: people tend to do what they think other people are doing. Thus teenage girls who see other teenagers having babies are more likely to become pregnant themselves; and those who know people who are on welfare are far more likely to go on welfare. If your neighbors recycle, you are much more likely to recycle. And so on. Whenever people observe other people doing something unanticipated or different, a process may be initiated in which social practices will eventually "tip."

Malcolm gladwell seeks to unite a wide range of social phenomena under the idea of the tipping point. Drawing on Schelling and others, Gladwell contends that social practices are often quite fragile, and small shocks can produce dramatic change. This is true, he suggests, for fashions, television shows, sneakers, and restaurant choices, and also for crime, smoking, suicide, and much more. Consider, for example, the astonishing and unanticipated success of Hush Puppies, the old shoe company, which had an increase in annual sales from 30,000 to 1.8 million between 1994 and 1996. Gladwell thinks that Hush Puppies was the beneficiary of a "social epidemic," in which a few iconoclastic young people in the East Village in New York started a huge rebirth for the company. Or consider the sharp decrease in violent crime in New York City under Mayor Giuliani, with a 64.3 percent reduction in murders, and a nearly 50 percent drop in total crimes, in a five-year span. Gladwell sees this as an epidemic in action, unified with the Hush Puppies case by "contagious behavior," producing dramatic changes at a relatively discrete moment as a result of "little causes."

In Gladwell's account, social epidemics are governed by three rules. First, they are initiated by a small number of people. Second, what Gladwell calls "stickiness" is extremely important; an idea or a product sticks when and because it is memorable ("Winston tastes good like a cigarette should"). Gladwell urges that "there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes." Third, context matters a great deal. We tend to think that people are what they are, and like what they like, and we attribute their behavior to their character, to their likes and to their dislikes. But Gladwell thinks that behavior is often a function less of character than of the particular setting; small changes in setting can produce large changes in people's actions. Much of Gladwell's discussion consists of an elaboration of what he calls the three rules of social epidemics: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

Gladwell divides the "few" who account for social epidemics into three categories: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. (Gladwell likes capital letters.) Connectors are people who know many other people and who link people to one another; they collect "people the same way others collect stamps." For the purpose of understanding social epidemics, it is important to recognize that connectors "manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches."

Connectors--Gladwell's primary example is an exceptionally social Dallas businessman named Roger Horchow--are well positioned to spread an idea or a product; they are the source of "word-of-mouth epidemics." Mavens, by contrast, are interested less in socialization than in the collection and the transmission of information. Gladwell believes that these "walking encyclopedias" are "important in starting epidemics," because they both know a great deal and seek to "pass it along," and thus operate as "sparks." Here Gladwell refers to Mark Alpert, who teaches at the University of Texas and who appears to be an expert on an astonishing range of products (hotels, cars, retirement plans, videos, and much more). But neither Connectors nor Mavens have the capacity to persuade; and this is where Salesmen become significant. Some people are especially convincing to others, often because of their optimism and confidence, which is frequently captured in subtle, nonverbal cues. These people can be extremely important in spreading an idea or a product.

To understand the Stickiness Factor, Gladwell turns to television, and more particularly to two popular shows for children, "Sesame Street" and "Blue's Clues." The producers of "Sesame Street" developed a set of strategies for holding children's attention. The trick was to ensure that children were not confused, for it is when children are confused that they stop watching. The producers used a great deal of pretesting to determine when children were actually attending to the screen and learning something from it. But "Blue's Clues," a show for pre-schoolers, is "even stickier."

"Blue's Clues," for those not in the know, is a show in which Blue, a cartoon dog, offers clues to the single live actor, Steve, about some puzzle, such as Blue's favorite story or favorite food. The viewer's task is to use the clues to guess the answer. As it happens, "Blue's Clues" has been a runaway hit, trouncing "Sesame Street" itself within months of its debut in 1996. Gladwell claims that the reason is that "Blue's Clues" is extremely sticky. It lacks the cleverness and the wordplay of "Sesame Street"; it is less cluttered; it involves a great deal of repetition (children like repetition). Maybe most important of all, it is unified by a simple narrative with which it is easy to engage. According to Gladwell, the lesson is that there "are simple ways to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it."

By emphasizing the "Power of Context," Gladwell means to suggest that what people do is often a result of the setting, not of individual dispositions. Psychologists refer to the "fundamental attribution error" as the tendency to attribute behavior to people's innate characteristics rather than their situation. Gladwell offers a lot of evidence that the situation is important, not the person. Consider a chilling study by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues at Stanford in the early 1970s. To learn something about why prisons are such nasty places, Zimbardo created a mock prison in the basement of Stanford's psychology building. Out of seventy-five applicants for the study, he chose the twenty-one who appeared most normal and healthy on psychological tests. Of the twenty-one, about half were selected, at random, to be guards in the mock prison; the other half were told that they would be prisoners. After six days the experiment had to be discontinued, simply because the students were taking their roles so seriously. The guards became increasingly abusive, even sadistic, while a number of the prisoners became hysterical, enraged, depressed. The study suggests that socially prescribed roles are often what is important, not individual character.

Many studies show that small changes in context can matter a great deal to behavior. John Darley and Daniel Batson at Princeton attempted to find some causes of good samaritanism, or helping behavior, through an experiment at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The students in the experiment were asked to walk over to a nearby building to give a brief speech; and along the way, each would run into a man slumped in an alley, coughing and groaning. To test what would make people help, Darley and Batson introduced three variables. First, they asked some students, and not others, to speak about why they chose to study theology. Second, they asked some students, and not others, to speak on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. Third, they told some students that they were running late, and others that they were a bit early. Contrary to expectations, the content of the speech made no difference to behavior. People asked to give either speech--including the one on the Bible's parable of the Good Samaritan!--were no more likely to help. What mattered a great deal, by contrast, was whether students were in a hurry. Of those who were told that they were in a hurry, only ten percent stopped to help; of those told that they were early, sixty percent stopped to help.

Gladwell thinks that such experiments, showing the large effects of apparently small changes in context, cast light on the decline in crime in New York City. He accepts the thesis, associated with James Q. Wilson, that "fixing broken windows"--combating small problems generally indicative of disorder and lawlessness--is largely responsible for the dramatic decline of violent crime there. The basic idea is that both law-abiding citizens and potential law-breakers take their cues from order or disorder. People who obey the law are less likely to use the streets in the presence of disorder, and prospective criminals are more likely to engage in criminal activity, taking disorder as a signal of what is possible. But if minor problems--such as panhandling, graffiti, prostitution, loitering, littering, and broken windows--are sharply reduced, the signals will be very different, and more serious crimes will decline, too.

In this view, crime is contagious, and efforts to stop or reverse a crime epidemic at the very start, through seemingly small changes in context, can have large beneficial consequences. For Gladwell, the tipping point, with respect to crime, is connected with "something physical like graffiti." The lesson of New York's successful attack on crime is that "an epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment."

Gladwell applies these general ideas to two case studies, one involving a terrifically successful sneaker company, the other involving smoking. The sneaker company is Airwalk, which exploded in the early 1990s. It went from sales of $16 million in 1993 to sales of $175 million in 1996. The reason was an advertising campaign aimed at young people, based on a careful analysis of the emerging styles in various neighborhoods. Gladwell apparently thinks that Airwalk's success worked not merely through advertising, which is obvious enough, but through a form of contagion. With respect to smoking, Gladwell wants to know whether it might be possible to create a kind of nonsmoking epidemic by "tipping" social practices in a new direction.

Despite all the information about health risks, teenage smoking actually increased between 1993 and 1997. Since 1988, the number of teen smokers in America has jumped by no less than seventy-three percent. What might be done? Gladwell notes, by way of analogy, that highly publicized suicides often lead to more suicides, especially among young people, because the publicity makes suicide seem thinkable, not unusual, even cool. In the same vein, teenage smoking is contagious, above all because of the social meaning of smoking, which, for many adolescents, connotes a kind of sophistication and rebelliousness to which many young people are drawn.

What makes this troublesome is that smoking is addictive: it is not only contagious, it is also "sticky." Gladwell thinks that reductions in smoking are unlikely to come from government efforts to make it seem less cool. He thinks that this is a doomed project, since any efforts will tend to backfire. He favors instead attempts to combat nicotine addiction by requiring tobacco companies to lower current levels of nicotine so that even heavy smokers would get a substantially reduced level. Gladwell also argues that that there is an association between cigarette addiction and depression. Hence efforts to combat the latter, through drug therapy, may well reduce the former.

Gladwell concludes with considerable optimism about the possibility of self-conscious public management of social change. Our practices are far more malleable than they appear. They are not only malleable, they are also subject to sensible control: "we can shape the course of social epidemics." Thus an understanding of tipping points shows "the potential for change and the power of intelligent action."

Gladwell is an engaging writer, with a fine eye for detail, memorable stories, and diverting facts about human psychology. With respect to "stickiness," he takes to heart his own advice about the vivid packaging of information. (He appears to have learned something from "Blue's Clues.") But he also ventures over an extremely wide territory, with phenomena that have important differences, and not everything hangs together. In particular, Gladwell does not sort out the relationships among the three supposed "rules" of the tipping point--the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

In identifying them as "rules," I am not even sure what he is intending to claim. As the segregation example suggests, a tipping point depends on the achievement of a critical mass, and this may be reached without any particular "stickiness," and without changes in context of the sort that Gladwell describes. Gladwell's three supposed rules are better viewed not as rules at all, but as relevant factors in some social epidemics, though hardly in all of them. Once they are seen in this light, Gladwell seems to have less an argument, or a single phenomenon, than a collection of interesting but quite distinct narratives about popular programs and activities.

Consider a few examples. "Blue's Clues" has been a real success, and many children really do like it, partly because it contains vivid characters and a mystery, and partly because it is easy to follow. But Gladwell does not show how the techniques used for pre-schoolers bear on epidemics among adults; and in any case it is not clear how the "Law of the Few" played a role in the success of that particular television show. Gladwell does not identify the relevant Connectors, Mavens, or Salesmen. He does not even show how the tipping point idea applies to the program.

Nor does Gladwell spell out how, if at all, the Stickiness Factor helped to produce the decline in crime in New York. In fact, it is not clear that "fixing broken windows" and related police activity are the major reason for that decline; this is a greatly disputed question among specialists, with much uncertain evidence not reviewed by Gladwell. Critics suggest that changing demographics, increased police, changes in drug use, and computerized tracking systems help to explain New York's success. But even if "fixing broken windows" played a large role, the reason is that government created important new signals to both law-abiding citizens and prospective law-breakers, encouraging the former and discouraging the latter. At some point New York may have reached a tipping point, and seemingly small policies, such as fixing broken windows, may have played a significant part; but Gladwell's account is far too sketchy to demonstrate how or even whether this happened.

Many large-scale social changes do depend on the acts of a few entrepreneurs of one kind or another. Some of them are very good at selling, some of them know a lot of people. But in pointing to Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, it is not clear what Gladwell means to do. Is he claiming, quite implausibly, that all three of these stylized creatures necessarily play a role in every social epidemic? Or is he claiming, trivially, that some of them sometimes do? While Gladwell tells some vivid tales, what he shows is simple, far from law-like, and not so surprising: that social changes are often fueled by people who know many other people; that we all benefit from those who spread specialized information; and that especially persuasive people can help produce large-scale shifts, simply because they are especially persuasive.

Nor does Gladwell explain when social practices are subject to tipping and when they are not. Sometimes he writes as if society were quite plastic--as if tipping were always possible, as if any idea, practice, or product could be spread if only Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen get behind them. But this is implausible. Communism and Fascism never had much success in the United States, though McCarthyism had a good short run; the Edsel never caught on with consumers, despite an extensive advertising campaign; consumers firmly rejected the New Coke. In Gladwell's own account, there might seem to be some real puzzles here. Communism, for example, is sticky ("workers of the world unite"; "from each according to ability, to each according to need"), it was popularized by a few (including Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen), and it faced some apparently hospitable contexts (the early 1930s, the 1960s). Why didn't it catch on?

We can make some progress on the question by understanding two important mechanisms behind large-scale social movements. The first mechanism involves information. The second mechanism involves reputation. Gladwell neglects both of these. He writes as if some ideas and products were literally contagious, when the idea of contagion is only a metaphor, and a misleading one, too.

Begin with information. If your friends are going to a certain restaurant, or supporting a particular candidate, or smoking cigarettes, or eating fruits to reduce the risk of cancer, then their actions provide signals about what it makes sense to do. If most people you know are following a certain course, you may want to do the same--not because you are a conformist, but because so many people are unlikely to be wrong.

This point suggests that social epidemics should be understood not as a matter of contagion, but as snowball effects or cascades. When an "informational cascade" (explored by, among others the economists Ivo Welch and David Hirshleiger, and the political scientist Suzanne Lohmann) occurs, a small group of people engage in certain behavior; and others do the same thing, simply because the small group is doing so; and still more join, simply because the group engaged in the relevant behavior is no longer so small; and before long large numbers eventually join, simply because a growing number of people seem to think that what is being done is good or right or fun to do.

Such an explanation emphasizes the information provided by the acts of others, and so it suggests that social epidemics are far less probable when most people are confident in the relevant beliefs, and hence unlikely to be impressed by the informational signals sent by others. There is not going to be a social cascade on behalf of communism, or a return to typewriters, simply because the vast majority of people have enough information to reject the signals provided by those who say that communism is good, or who think that typewriters are much better than word processors.

Turn now to the very different matter of reputation. When a number of people engage in a certain behavior, you might follow them to improve or even to preserve your reputation. Sometimes we do the same thing that others do not because others are likely to be right, but because others are likely to think better of us if we follow the same path, or less of us if we do not. Here, too, it is possible to imagine cascades and snowball effects (a point well discussed by Timur Kuran in Private Truths, Public Lies). A precondition for this sort of process is that many people's choices, in the relevant domain, must depend in large part on a desire to maintain or to improve their reputation. Sometimes this is true: consider clothing choices, where epidemics are pervasive. But often reputation is quite unimportant in people's decisions. When children watch "Blue's Clues," it is not because they care about their reputations; it is because they like the show. Many people choose recreational and political activities for reasons that have little to do with what other people think of them. In such circumstances, peer pressure is not an important variable.

These points help sort out several puzzles that are obscured in Gladwell's extremely anecdotal account. When private views are firm, and when people are confident that they have sufficient information, they are far less likely to be vulnerable to the signals sent by other people. When the reputational effects of one or another course are not an important determinant of choices, peer pressure is neither here nor there. Many of Gladwell's examples can be better understood in these terms. Teenagers generally care a great deal about their reputations with their peers, and so we are likely to observe what appears to be "contagion" with respect to their choice of sneakers, fashion generally, smoking, even crime. And in many areas where things can be made to "tip," it is because people lack much private information, and small changes give some important signals about what it makes sense to do. Where people have enough information, and when they are not likely to do something merely because of a concern for reputation, a social cascade is not going to get off the ground.

An understanding of these matters could help in designing strategies for moving social practices in a better direction. Many college campuses, for example, face a problem of "binge drinking" among students, and administrators have struggled to find an approach that will actually reduce the problem. One of the few successful policies is astonishingly simple: inform students of the actual number of students who are binge drinkers. The actual number tends to be a lot lower than most students think; and once informed of the low number, students become far more reluctant to engage in binge drinking, and the problem is much reduced. Nor is this an isolated example. States have found that a successful strategy for increasing tax compliance is simply to inform people of the currently high level of the voluntary compliance. The lesson here is that most people do not like to be either dupes or freeloaders, and large behavioral changes can be produced simply by providing new information about what most people are doing. Once a critical mass is reached, things can indeed "tip."

Gladwell does not explore the many interesting ethical and political issues raised by the phenomenon of "tipping." There are significant differences, after all, between the growing popularity of a brand of sneakers and people's increasing willingness to refrain from violent crime. Everything in the world should not be seen as a commodity that one or another person is trying to "sell." It is also possible to raise questions about the idea that government should feel free to shape the course of social epidemics. Gladwell does not discuss the considerable potential for abuse here. But similar social dynamics may be at work in apparently unrelated areas, and alert policy-makers and propagandists, private or public, do have real opportunities to channel conduct in preferred directions, even to initiate cascades. Gladwell has not provided an adequate account of social epidemics, but he is correct to suggest that our practices are sometimes far more tractable than they seem. What we do and what we think is fascinatingly dependent, much of the time, on what we believe that other people do and think.

Cass R. Sunstein is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By Cass R. Sunstein