The Tipping Point
by Malcolm Gladwell
- Ashto =
- Jonesy =
What is a Tipping Point?
The Tipping Point is about understanding the notion of virality. What exactly triggers the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or the phenomena of “word of mouth”? Gladwell suggests that the best way to understand any of these is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas, products, messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do. The tipping point is that one dramatic moment in an epidemic where everything can change all at once.
The point of all of this is to answer two simple questions that might help us accomplish success in our lives.
- Why is it that some ideas start epidemics and others don’t?
- What can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?
The Three Principles & Three Rules of Epidemics
First Principle: Contagiousness
Think of the word “contagiousness”. That word reminds us of the common cold, something more dangerous like HIV and Ebola, or even the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We have in our minds a particular, biological notion of what “contagiousness” means. But if there can be epidemics of viruses, there must be other things that are just as contagious as viruses.
Have you ever thought about YAWNING? It spreads in all sorts of ways. By reading the word “yawn”, hearing someone say “yawn”, seeing someone yawn, or hearing someone yawn, you can yawn yourself. And if you yawn, there’s a good chance that you will think that you’re tired and need a rest. Simply by writing or saying the word “yawn” effectively, we can convince someone that they’re tired. Contagiousness is an unexpected property of all kinds of acts and phenomena, so we need to remember this when diagnosing epidemic change.
Second Principle: Little changes have big effects
The human brain has evolved to make rough approximations between cause and effect. If something big happens, we assume something big must have caused it. We are trained to think that what goes into any transaction or system must directly relate to what comes out.
For example, When a virus spreads through a population, it doubles in size, then doubles again. At first, going from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8 seems like nothing. But when it goes to 25,000, then 50,000, then 100,000, then 200,000 with each doubling? Shit starts to get pretty scary.
Humans have difficulty grasping these geometric progressions because the results seem far out of proportion to the initial cause. To properly understand how things spread, we need to abandon our human notion of proportionality. We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes emerge from smaller events.
Third principle: changes happen very quickly
The third principle is that things can happen so suddenly that they seem like a “sudden” change.
Take the freezing water in cold weather as an example. Say the previous evening was about 2 or 3 degrees, and now the temperature has dropped below zero celsius. Suddenly rain becomes snow, and dew becomes frost. In our mind, we expect the change to happen slowly and gradually. The temperature can drop to 1 or 0.5 degrees, but it still wouldn’t freeze the water. Only when the temperature drops below zero, the water turns into ice in an instant. All it needs is a small change and everything just tips.
THE THREE RULES OF EPIDEMICS
The Law Of The Few
One of the country’s leading epidemiologists, John Potterat, developed a theory around how diseases spread through cities and countries. He examined the spread of HIV in the 1980s, syphilis through Baltimore in the 1990s, and gonorrhea through Colorado.
In Colorado Springs, he interviewed everyone who came through the public health clinic with gonorrhea over a six month period. From an interview with 768 patients, he found that 600 of them either didn’t pass it on or passed it on to only one sexual partner. That means the other 168 were the super spreaders. But in a city of 100,000, why only those 168 people?
They were the types of people that had an active sexual life. They could’ve had multiple sexual partners every week or even in a single session. So, the tipping point that started the epidemic was the 168 people with a certain lifestyle hanging out in 6 bars across the city.
Social Epidemics spread in the same way. They spread from person to person, but it’s not the “normal” people that can spread an idea. A handful of exceptional people are the ones that drive forward ideas or trends, or products. To spread a virus or trend more effectively, the following factors are essential: how sociable people are, how many people they know, how much they know about a certain niche, and how persuasive they are. If you want to start a word-of-mouth epidemic, you need to find the super spreaders and focus all your effort solely on these types of people.
The Stickiness Factor
In “the law of the few”, we focus on the messenger, but in “the stickiness factor”, we’re looking at the message itself. Because no matter how influential the messenger is, if the message sucks, it won’t catch on.
Gladwell found that one of the key factors in improving the transmissibility of a virus is Stickiness, which sounds very straightforward. When most of us want to make sure what we say is remembered, we speak with emphasis and a serious tone; we also talk loudly or repeat ourselves to make a point. Marketers feel the same way. The rule in advertising is maximising brand exposure to the target audience at least 11 times. That’s probably useful for Coke or Nike, who has millions to spend on advertising, but not so much for a Joe Blow like you or me. Are there smaller, subtler, easier ways to make something stick?
The Power Of Context
Syphilis spread through Baltimore faster in the summer than in the winter because people were out and about and partying more and having more sex. Hush Puppies worked in the East Village because they were the cutting-edge neighbourhood setting the trends. We’re extremely sensitive to our environments, and context plays a massive part in deciding which epidemics spread and which ones don’t. Take the following case study as an example:
GOOD SAMARITAN STUDY
Some Princeton University psychologists decided to conduct a study based on the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. The story from the New Testament Gospel of Luke tells of a traveller who has been beaten and robbed and left for dead by the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest came upon the man in the street but did not stop; he crossed the street and looked the other way. The only person to help was a Samaritan – a member of the despised minority – who went up to him and bound his wounds and took him to an inn.
The Princeton psychologists wanted to replicate this story to see how people would respond to someone in need. Priests-in-training were asked to come and prepare a short speech on a theme from the bible, then walk over to a nearby building to present it to a group of students. On the way from one room to another, these would-be-priests would pass by a man in a corridor – slumped over, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning. The question was: would they stop and help?
The psychologists tried to test many different variables to see what impact they would have on who stopped and who didn’t.
- First, they asked subjects to fill out a questionnaire on why they wanted to study theology – whether for spiritual fulfilment or career progression.
- Next, they varied the topics of what theme they would present – some subjects were given a random passage from the bible, while others were given specifically the good samaritan passage.
- Then they gave a variety of instructions to the subjects just before they left. They told one group that they were late and told the other that they were early.
If you were to predict which factors would be likely to have the biggest impact, you’d probably say the people who were studying theology for intrinsic motivations would stop and help. Plus, those that had literally just read the Good Samaritan passage of the bible would have this imagery front of mind and be more likely to stop. But, they found that these two factors had minimal impact on the results.
The one factor that did have an impact was whether they were in a rush or not. The researchers reported that some of the people who had just read the Good Samaritan passage literally stepped over the man in need if they were in a rush. Only 10% offered assistance, and 90% power walked right over him. And the group that was told that they had time to spare? 63% of them stopped to ask the man if he needed help.
The world of the Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected. It’s a place where radical change is more than a possibility. It is a certainty.
In the Good Samaritan case, the words “oh, you’re late” turned someone who was ordinarily compassionate into someone indifferent to human suffering. In a certain moment, the power of context can transform someone into a different type of person. This attitude change is the tipping point that leads to a specific pattern and finally starts an epidemic.
When trying to initiate an idea or attitude, we’re also trying to infect our target audience, sweep them up in our epidemic, and convert them to accept our change. We can do that by identifying the tipping point, improving the message we want to deliver, or making subtle changes in the subjects’ circumstances.