Book Review/Essay

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
by Malcolm Gladwell
Review by William A. Spriggs
Origin, May 2007

This book is an independent study of how ideas amongst the general population turn into "epidemics." Economists study group dynamics for the simple reason that profit - or more aptly - success or failure - of a product or idea -- depends on how that product is received amongst various groups and how can they can get the most bucks from their propaganda bang.

Despite the fact that the book is non-academic in its approach on the subject, I still enjoyed Mr. Cladwell's views because he uses everyday language to teach his readers how "ideas" move in populations from one person to another and then "transforms" the world around us as those ideas "catch fire" - or more descriptively - passes the "tipping point."

After all, if a solid object can be talked about, held in one's hand, and "purchased" for consumption to satisfy a personal need, then the same human projection mechanism from solid to non-solid object can apply upon which we call "values," "ideals," "religious dogma," "morals," "political objectives," or any "isms" that have been created (i.e., "feminism," etc). These non-solid "objects" can also be subject to the "tipping point" and become part of the social fabric that binds our species together in our survival voyage. And once again, let me remind all readers that 60% of human behavior is affected by our social context. That mostly means the group we live in and where that group is located on the planet.

This is the first of two books that Gladwell has written. The second, Blink: the power of thinking without thinking followed in 2005. It focuses on the biological individual and the power of "gut" instinct. It is in this second book that Cladwell touches more on the biological aspects of our behavior - in particular our ability to pick up "face language" by understanding the unwritten language of muscle movements under the facial skin. I will review it next.

The Tipping Point enters the evolutionary perspective with hints and innuendos and with little citations, so the book does not meet my evolutionary "recommended" reading list, but I found the two books helpful in understanding my own overall understanding in the social dynamics of "group thinking" and how ideas move from one group to another. I plan to move my studies from the biological individual to group behavior in the coming years - As I write this, it is now 2007.

If the GOP -"Greed Over People" crowd can understand how to sell products to all of us and then apply their marketing techniques to political ideas that suck money up into their own little world while the rest of the world perishes, then the progressive liberals can use the same techniques to reverse the money flow -to really "trickle down" - to the base population. True "Trickling Down" of resources creates a stable foundation to our species' survival; we as a species can not survive if the "top" is the only benefit to the sweat, toil, and labor of those of us below their pampered and privileged positions.


First, let's define what the author means by "Tipping Point." What he is talking about is the sudden shift in movement of an idea that flows through a population and "sticks." But how it sticks depends on how the information is spread and within the "context." By context, I understand it to mean - "location, location, location."

Gladwell teaches us that in order for there to be an "epidemic" three rules have to apply:

¢ The Law of the Few
¢ The Stickiness factor
¢ The power of context

[for there to be an "epidemic"] "…a basic, underlying pattern [has to exsist]. First of all, they are clear examples of contagious behavior." P. 7.

It is at this moment that we evolutionists have to ask the question: Why would a group of people in close proximity act in a contagious manner? The obvious answer would be that the behavior must have an evolutionary advantage.

The first law in "contagious behavior" is that "When it comes to epidemics…a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work." P. 19.

Then the author identifies these "few" into three types: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

These three sub-groups that the author teaches us about are the ones who "spread the virus" or ideas. These are the humans that connect and then describe to others the advantages of a particular idea or product that is "being sold." The connector is useful in the amount of people he or she knows:

"…These people who link us up with the world, who…introduce us to our social circles…are connectors, people with a special gift for bringing the world together." P. 38. "Sprinkled among every walk of life, in other words, a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances." P. 41. "The purpose of making an acquaintance, for most of us, is to evaluate whether we want to turn that person into a friend; we don't feel we have the time or the energy to maintain meaningful contact with everyone." P. 46. "…for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches." P.48. "…their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy." P. 49.

What Mr. Gladwell is teaching us that a small minority of our population makes a decision about a product or idea and then "suggests" to the rest of us that by "following them" there would be a beneficial outcome. These "connectors" have "picked" us as "worthy" to receive the benefit of their knowledge - they have "evaluated" us and found us worthy of their time and effort. (This last sentence is very important in our species' social development - but that is for another essay).

Because if we think about this from an evolutionary perspective, we know that our ancestors lived in small groups or clans in Africa and looked to those higher in their hierarchies to take the most risks and follow their lead. Our author is giving us evolutionary clues about "herd mentality" and how any idea or thought may have moved through that "herd."

It does make survival sense because sometimes it's a good thing - but it could also be a bad thing: Perhaps the clan finds a new kind of tree that bares fruit; it will be the innovative types, the "leaders" that will take the first bite. If the fruit is good, the whole clan prospers.

But what if the fruit is poisonous and the "first biter" drops dead? The rest of the clan still prospers because it will continue to survive until the next batch of "safe food" is found. Being the first, "the leader" has its advantages. To quote the mighty warrior, Alexander: "Good fortune favors the bold." Of course, Alexander only lived until he was 33. So, you see, there are evolutionary advantages to both behaviors of "risk taking" and "playing it safe." The risk takers (usually males), driven by "sexual madness" consider the risks worth it because the females choose them as best candidates for passing on their child's genes, and as such, usually have the first access to the females.

What choices we make as individuals depends on our "flash decisions" of the moment. A young male in his primal prime, say, 19 years old (primal ancestral prime, that is) most likely will take a more risky behavior path to "impress the girls" as a good candidate for mating; while an old fart like myself (I'm 61 as I write this), would most likely take the "safe road" and make sure that the strange fruit that I am about to eat is safe. And in both examples, one still must take into account the cultural context of the clan, village, city-state, etc., with regard to their longitude and latitude location on the planet.

The second type of person "who control word-of-mouth epidemics" (p. 60) are "Mavens."

"If you look closely at social epidemics, however, it becomes clear that just as there are people we rely upon to connect us to other people (the connectors), there are also people we rely upon to connect us with new information." P. 59.

"The word Maven comes from the Yiddish, and it means one who accumulates knowledge." P. 60. "The critical thing about Mavens, though, is that they aren't passive collectors of information…What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that [deal or information on an item] they want to tell you about it too." "This person likes to initiate discussions with consumers and respond to requests." "They are socially motivated." P. 62.

The third type of individual Gladwell has identified that help social epidemics to start is the person who "persuades" others.

"For a social epidemic to start, though, some people are actually going to have to be persuaded to do something." P. 69.

Gladwell thus introduces us to the Salesman:

".. with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics…" p. 70.

Cladwell then leaves the reservation by delving deeply into Cultural Microrhythms and Interactional Synchorony with language when two individuals meet - I will leave these for further study as they are very important, but will spare the momentary reader because I want to sum up all three roles from an evolutionary perspective and how "informational epidemics" spread.

If we go back into our primal ancestral group what we most likely found is that one or two in those ancient groups were all three of the personalities that Gladwell described. It wasn't until, we as a species, became so diverse and dense in our populations and accumulated resources that the information was so vast as to require specialization from various individuals. Crunch all three mechanisms together and you still have the same information that was necessary for our species to survive.

One of the theories about how our species emigrated out of Africa was that Shamans, priests, or religious "crazy" people with charismatic personalities "sold" people on the idea that following the beasts [of meat] on their migration path out of Africa (or within easy commute out of the continent) would be the only way for their clan to survive. Let me return to early part of the book for this quote from Gladwell concerning "group behavior":

"When people are in a group…responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem - is really not a problem." P. 28.

The second rule in Tipping Point is "Stickiness":

"In epidemics, the messenger matters: messengers are what make something spread. But the content of the message matters too. And the specific quality that a message needs to be successful is the quality of "stickiness." Is the message...or the food, or the movie, or the product - memorable? Is it so memorable, in fact, that it can create change, that it can spur someone to action?" p. 92.

I think what Mr. Gladwell is trying to tell us is merely a re-framing the age old question: "Does the food, movie, or product" fill a need that the consumer thinks s/he needs to fill? If the item goes beyond the immediate need of survival, then the "extended need" goes to the next higher level of need, i.e., status - eating at a uppity and swank new restaurant, for example…by being seen and heard at a place where "non-qualifying" persons [of that status heirarchy] are priced out.

The final setting in which Gladwell posits for "epidemics" to occur is that there must be The Power of Context. He continues for about 20 pages in telling us about broken windows and street crime prevalent in New York City during the 1980s and comes to the conclusion that:

"they say that the criminal - far from being someone who acts for fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world - is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him." P. 150.

"It says [The Power of Context] is an environmental argument. It says that behavior is a function of social context." P. 150.

"TPoC had little to do with the tangled psychological pathology of [the cited criminal] and very little as well to do with the background and poverty of the [perpetrators] who accosted him, and everything to do with the message sent by the graffiti on the walls and the disorder at the turnstiles." P. 150-1.

Well, Mr. Gladwell, welcome to one of the principles of evolution - and let's condense those 20 pages down into one sentence: Evolution is the adaptation to local environments. By "local environment" one means the mean streets of New York or Los Angeles or any major city with their graffiti, poor schools, and general lack of available resources to those "criminals" trapped in that environment. Sorry, old boy, but poverty [lack of resources] does have major impact on human behavior.

But is "environment" more important than the people that surround us? Gladwell seems to take that lead by telling us:

"…Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people's behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context." p. 160.

"We [humans] do this because,…we are a lot more attuned to personal cues than contextual cues." P. 161.

So, Mr. Gladwell seems to contradict his own teachings about "The Power of Context" by telling us that humans place more importance on other individuals than "context." It appears that Mr. Gladwell is showing his inexperience with evolution and human behavior.

But it does make sense when we understand that human behavior is about 40% nature and 60% nurture and that the social groupings of our fellow humans matter most. We are social creatures and we put more emphasis on following other's leads than on our immediate surroundings [context].

Overall, The Tipping Point is an interesting book in explaining human behavior to the common person. and how "epidemics" spread throughout those socieites. He ties everything nicely together to non-scientifically explain "herd mentality" in our species. But one has to be cautioned that because of the lack of scientific framework of this book, one can easily become confused as to "the bigger picture" of human behavior.

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