The Tipping Point – How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

The idea behind “The Tipping Point” is that you should look at upward trends as an epidemic. Regardless of whether it is a kind of shoes, an illness, or children smoking, curbing crime or problem drug use and curbing it, or a wave of teen suicides in an environment where suicide in that age group did not originally occur, or awareness for safe behavior at work. The central idea is that ideas, products, messages and behavior spread like diseases do: exponentially or not.

Chapter one deals with the three rules of epidemics.

After all, there is more than one way to start an epidemic. It is a function of people who transfer infectious agents, the “agent” in itself and the environment in which the “agent” operates. When an epidemic “starts”, if the situation is out of balance, a social epidemic happens because something happened in at least one of those three areas. These three “agents” of change are called “The Law of the Few,” “The Stickiness Factor,” and “The Power of Context.”

These three rules give an idea to get an understanding of the “social epidemic” phenomenon. It also indicates how we can reach a “tipping point”. The key element here is often that “the devil is in the details”. And often everything works in one situation and not in another. As a result, even testing is sometimes not a luxury. Gut feeling sometimes has to make a step aside.

Chapter two is about “The Law of the Few”.

Three types of personalities are discussed therein: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. These people are essential for so-called social epidemics but are often overlooked for recognizing their importance in our lives.

Connectors are usually the (connecting) central party in a social network, as at the top of a pyramid. You often find them in your network by thinking about people you know by constantly repeating the question: “… whom I know through …”. They often introduce you to their network, we use such people more often than we think.

But Connectors are not the only kind of people who are important / useful when starting a social epidemic. Connectors are “specialists in people.” We trust them to bring us (spontaneously) in contact with other people. In addition, there are people we rely on to bring us into contact with new information. Someone who provides this is a “Maven”. That word comes from Yiddish and means “someone who gathers / accumulates knowledge.” They use their knowledge to keep the market advertising fair, for example. A seller who displays “price reduction” but does not implement it is caught by them. After all, most of us hardly pay attention to the price. But they can be the fear of an unfair shopkeeper in that area. But they do not only exist in terms of market prices. They might as well notice errors in a professional trade magazine of their interest. Or correct a specialist in his own domain.

But they are not passive collectors of information. Once they have solved their case, they also want to tell about it. They want to use it to help others. They take you to make purchases in the best places, for example, or they make purchases for you. They usually solve other people’s problems by solving their own problem. But the opposite is also true: a Maven solves his own (emotional) problems by solving those of another.

What is the difference between a maven and a connector? A connector tells 10 friends about a good restaurant and 5 try it. A maven advises 5 people about the same restaurant and 5 try it. A maven lays much more empathy in his story, so that his advice is relatively more followed. They both have a different strategy, different motives, but both, each in its own way, can trigger a social epidemic.

But there is a third social select group of people: the salesmen. They understand the art of convincing those people who were not yet convinced of the message. They are just as important in tipping a social epidemic as the maven and the connector. Who are they and what makes them so good at what they do?

They love their customers. In conversations they sometimes ask rhetorical questions. They like to help people. They have energy and are enthusiastic. They have charm and likeability. They are happy and optimistic.

Chapter three is about “The Stickyness Factor.”

In the late 1960s, a TV producer, Joan Gantz Cooney, came up with the idea of ​​sesame street. This became a social epidemic in which the alphabet was taught to children. The goal was to spread literacy as a virus in children from disadvantaged families. For 30 minutes and 5 times a week.

The “law of the few” says that the nature of the messenger is a critical factor to “tip” a social epidemic. But the idea / product / message must also be good enough. Is it “memorable”? such that it can bring about a change? Being successful also depends on the stickiness factor. That sounds like it’s straightforward. If we want our words to impress, we often speak emphatically. We also speak louder than. We repeat our claims. Repeating 6x before one remembers it is the maxim of marketing. Coca Cola has hundreds of millions of dollars for that. Sesame Street does not have that. Are there other more subtle ways to make something stick?

The difficult thing is not reaching the customer. The hard thing is to make him stop at the message, read it, remember it and then act upon it. To see what works best, direct marketers do extensive testing. They sometimes work with a dozen variations on the same theme. Conventional marketers have predetermined fixed ideas of what makes their advertising work: humor, splashy graphics, celebrities who recommend the product. Direct marketers do not have these securities. They are the real students of stickiness. The most intriguing conclusions about how to reach the customer come from them.

There is something deeply counter-intuitive with the definition of stickiness that emerges from the book’s examples. We all want to believe that the key to making an impact lies in the inherent quality of the ideas presented. None of the examples in the book changed the content of what they said. They tipped the message each time by tinkering with its presentation. To the presentation of their ideas. A pause after a question a second longer than normal, a muppet behind the word to be read, a large speaking “big bird” next to a person in the street, a small “gold box” in the corner of an advertisement …

The lesson of stickiness is that there is a simple way to package information that can make it irresistible under the right circumstances. All you have to do is find it.

Chapter four is about “The Power of Context (Part One)”

The great example in this chapter is the rise and fall of crime in New York.

Viewing crime as an epidemic comparable to the success of sesame street is somewhat peculiar. Some epidemics need no more than a product and a message. Crime, however, is not about a situation, but an almost infinitely varied and difficult set of behaviors. Malicious behavior is contagious, as the New York case showed.

Epidemics are sensitive to conditions and circumstances of the time and place in which they happen. For example, there is more crime in dirty metros than in clean and tidy subways, both the vehicles and the subways. Crime happens more at night, protected by the dark, than during the day. This is relatively straightforward. The lesson of “the power of context” is that we are more than just sensitive to changes in the context. We are extremely sensitive to it. And the nature of the contextual changes that an epidemic can bring is very different from what we normally expect.

  • Grafitti cleaning up of metro sets and in metro stations. Potential victims are intimidated by it and criminals think they are less likely to be identified and caught.
  • Keep garbage off the streets
  • Replace broken windows (also: broken windows theory: crime is the result of disorder): a broken window leads to anarchy: crime is contagious.

The “broken windows theory” and “the power of context” are the same theory. It states that a criminal does not have fundamentally intrinsic reasons and does not live in his own world. It is someone who is acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all sorts of incentives, and who is persuaded to commit crimes based on his perception of the world.

A great success too: by checking for ‘petty crimes’ such as not paying the metro (‘fare beaters’) and responding to this with police intervention, fines and loss of time in police stations, other crimes with large percentages also went down, such as murder, etc. So there is indeed sensitivity in a complex system. Behavior is therefore a function of social context. Instead of solving big things such as tackling social injustice, structural economic inequality, unemployment, racism, social neglect…, to stop crime this theory says rather that what really matters are the small things.

People can show affection and transfer emotion. This suggests that what we think are internal states, preferences and emotions, is actually powerful and imperceptibly influenced by seemingly insignificant personal influences (“law of the few”). The same applies to our preferences, emotions and behavior from an environment instead of from a person.

Chapter five: “The Power of Context (Part Two)”: the magic number 150.

This is about the role that groups play in social epidemics.

E.g. the size of the group of people in a movie theater also determines how well the film scores in polls. Group decisions and evaluations also produce different results than individual ones. This is partly due to peer pressure and social norms and a number of other types of influences (see previous chapters) (and size of the group) that can play a role in tipping a social epidemic. For example, a connector can be a person with many ties with groups instead of individuals. Such a person realizes that if you want to make fundamental changes in behavior and thoughts, such a change of exemplary behavior needs a community around them (the exemplary ones), where their behavior and thoughts can thrive.

A lesson from “The Ya-Ya Sisterhood” (a book) and from (religious) connectors (e.g. John Wesley) is that small, close-knit groups have the power to increase an epidemic potential of a message, product or idea. A question is “what is a group”? And what are the most effective types of groups to start an epidemic? Is there a rule of thumb? “The rule of 150” provides an answer to this. It is a fascinating example of the peculiar and unexpected ways in which the context helps determine the course of social epidemics.

In small groups people are more closely involved with each other. This is important for the success of community life. Both for the individual and for the group. If your group becomes too large, you do not do enough together. Then you have too little in common and you grow apart. And then the group becomes less close and falls apart. Multiple clans then form within the group.

In a company, if the group becomes too large, it can happen that sales do not know the R&D, nor production, etc. It then becomes more difficult to (quickly) answer the customer’s question. There is no benefit of unity: the people in a complex company have no common relationship and no common knowledge / memory. In psychology, this is called a “transactive memory.” Much of what we know and remember is stored outside our brains. E.g. birthdays in a birthday calendar.

Due to the right group size, peer pressure is also optimal, which increases the liability of one’s own duties and increases the efficiency of the performances.

Chapter six: Case Study, “Rumors, sneakers, and the power of translation”.

With high-tech products, there are often two groups side by side in the word-of-mouth continuum, which communicate little with each other: the Innovators and the Early Adopters. They are visionary and want revolutionary change. They buy new technology before it is completely perfect. They have small businesses, they are just starting and they are willing to take huge risks. They are followed by the Early Majority, which are often large companies. The goal of visionaries is to make a “quantum leap forward”, which is from pragmatic to make a percentage improvement.

A lot of high-tech fails if the Early Adopters find no way to transform it into an idea for the Early Majority, to give it a better ‘Gestalt’, a better, simpler, more significant configuration. That is “translation.” What mavens, salesmen and connectors do with an idea to make it contagious is to change it so that strange details fall away and others become exaggerated so that the message acquires a deeper meaning. Translating the idea of ​​innovators into something that others can understand.

Chapter seven: Case Study, “Suicide, smoking, and the search for the unsticky cigarette”.

Suicide, it turns out, is contagious. It is not rational or even necessarily conscious. It doesn’t seem like a convincing argument that someone did it for you. It is more subtle than that. More like pedestrians crossing a red light. Someone took the lead. Like a kind of imitation. You get permission from the person who gave the example. It may be conscious or not. Suicide of a celebrity has the same effect. In the case of lots of publication through the media, this gives permission to do the same. That can cause suicide epidemics.

Mutatis mutandis: rebellious nature of youth, impulsiveness, risky behavior, indifference to others and precociousness: the cigarette-problem. This seems simple, but it is complex and essential why the war against smoking fails among young people: they want to get rid of a wrong image: they want to believe that smoking is not cool. Wrong ! Smokers are cool and are imitated, so anti-smoking campaigns fail because they are beside the question.

There is also a difference between “contagiousness” and “stickiness”. Contagiousness is a function of the person as a messenger. Stickiness is first and foremost a characteristic of the message, the product, itself.

A first way to fight smoking is to prevent the example functions: the “cool kids” who no longer smoke. A second possibility is that the followers no longer look at the examples, the cool kids, but that they redefine what is cool and look for their examples in adults who do not smoke. But parents often do not have such an influence on their children. So the second option is a lot harder.

Is it bad that teens are experimenting with cigarettes? Because the cool kids do it etc. but as long as they have limited smoking with nicotine levels below the addiction threshold, the use is not sticky. Smoking is then more like a fall than the flu: “easily caught but easily defeated.” Instead of fighting experimentation, we must ensure that there are no major consequences.

Chapter eight: Conclusion “Focus, Test and Believe”.

A first lesson from the Tipping Point is that starting a social epidemic requires that you concentrate the resources on a few key areas. If you want a word-of-mouth epidemic, you have to focus on mavens, connectors and salesmen.

Second lesson: The world does not match our intuition. People who succeed in setting up a social epidemic don’t just do what they believe is the right thing. They voluntarily test the accuracy of their intuitions. To prevent errors on a large scale.

Communication between people has its own set of very unusual and counter-intuitive rules.

Third: The basis must be a firm belief that change is possible. That people can radically change their behavior and beliefs under the influence of the right approach. Because nobody is only inner-directed. Peers are very important.

However, by working on the size of the group, we can get new ideas into effect. Even by tinkering with the presentation of information, it can become more sticky. By finding the right people with social power, we can shape the course of a social epidemic.

Often only a small push is needed to start an epidemic.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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