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Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Book Review: The Tipping Point

I just finished reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. His book is about how changes in human society can happen so quickly and so widely that it resembles an epidemic.

Things seem to be plodding along at first, but once a threshold he calls the "tipping point" is reached, everything just explodes. Small changes applied in the right places can result in large effects.


Gladwell believes that there are three rules governing the tipping point:

1. The Law of the Few
2. Stickiness Factor
3. The Power of Context

1. The Law of the Few states that only a few people are directly responsible for spreading change. He further categorizes these people into three groups:

A. Mavens
B. Connectors
C. Salesmen

Mavens are specialists who are well-read in technical information and willing to share their knowledge with many people. Connectors are highly sociable characters who appear to know everyone. They simply love people; in fact they seem to "collect" people as their hobby. Salesmen are persuasive individuals who simplify complex ideas to make them relevant and significant to their customers.

So the mode of transmission is like this: Mavens reads some new weird stuff and like it. They tell it to their friends. One of them is a Connector, who then spreads the news to a large number of people. Many of these people are Salesmen, responsible for interpreting the weird stuff into cool stuff that everyone likes.

A social epidemic thus results.

2. If the Law of the Few is about messengers, then Stickiness Factor relates to the nature of the message itself. Even if everyone is informed about some great new idea, if the message doesn't stick, it won't change their behavior. Gladwell proposes that making small changes to tweak the message can substantially increase its stickiness .

3. Finally the Power of Context is important because human beings are flexible social creatures who are sensitive to their surroundings. Making small changes to their physical and social environment can have profound effects on the behavior of people.


First of all I think this book is quite readable. Mr. Gladwell is an experienced writer, using fluent prose and simple language to get his ideas across. He is also careful not to make too large a claim, unlike that other writer I've reviewed before.

However, the principle strength of The Tipping Point also harbours its big weakness. The book contains some specific, almost scientific claims, but logical clarity is lost in the noise of extraneous details and in its distracting, interspersed narrative style.


The book is easy to read. It contains a set of interesting ideas that may well be earth-shattering to the casual reader. For a popular book, the author's scholarship is good - he reads widely and uses the results of classic scientific investigations (mainly from psychology) to demonstrate his points. He stresses the importance of testing your intuitions in a real world setting. He also uses a number of examples to support his three rule model, including one counterexample.


i) In my opinion, the biggest problem with The Tipping Point is noise.

The author provides too many details that are tangential or even extraneous to his argument.

For instance, he uses real life stories to illustrate his idea of a Maven, Connector and Salesman. But he gets so chatty and spends so much time in conversation with these individuals, that he fails to distill a clear, identifying set of characteristics for these groups of people.

Who is a Connector, in general? Is she just someone who knows lots of people? Mavens and Salesmen also know lots of people.

Why isn't a Connector also a Salesman? People who are highly sociable also tend to be more persuasive. In order to put people into distinct categories some unique features should be described.

In his chapter on the Stickiness Factor, he also uses specific examples but goes into so much detail the reader is once again lost. He claims that stickiness can be improved by making small tweaks in the presentation, rather than radical changes to the content of the idea. But what kind of small change should one make? Is there an underlying principle, or is it completely on a case-by-case basis?

In addition, he likes to weave examples together in an interspersed narrative style. Though a common device in novels, in a non-fiction book this technique just increases the noise surrounding his central argument. He has to restate his ideas again and again in the book for fear that the readers have forgotten his point.

ii) From a scientific point of view, another big problem is confirmation bias. He gives many examples to support his idea of a tipping point, but he did not provide enough counterexamples.

Are there any stories where all his ingredients for a social epidemic appear complete, but yet the tipping point failed to occur?

Careful comparisons with failure stories are important because they help to reduce the number of alternative explanations that can also cause the same result.

For example Gladwell proposes that crime in New York during the 1990's suddenly plummeted because of a small change - the subway system was cleaned up. But within that time period many other things were in flux, such as increased police presence, tougher laws, decline of cocaine trade and improved economy.

Why does he conclude that the subway system clean-up is the major factor that caused the tipping point? How can he dismiss all other possible explanations without showing us a comparison of New York city to at least one other specific example?

To be fair to him though, undersampling of failure is a common oversight, thus he probably couldn't find that many failure stories to begin with.

iii) A third important limitation of this book is the author's overemphasis on the messengers, their environmental context, and underappreciation of the message-human interaction. Just as a simple indicator, he spent 58 pages talking about The Law of The Few, 59 pages describing The Power of Context, but just 43 pages on the Stickiness Factor.

Why is the Stickiness Factor so important to me?

Let me illustrate this with two ultra-short examples.

Just one match (Maven) in a fireworks factory can blow everything up. You don't need to set up a comprehensive network of fuses (Connector) and detonators (Salesman) first.

In contrast, even a hundred detonators would have trouble blowing up a hydroponics farm.

Also, just a tiny amount of deadly bacteria can kill a person, but huge amounts of benign bacteria slosh around in our digestive systems without causing any trouble.

What is crucial is that message interacts so strongly with the make-up of a person that its effect is highly contagious.

In addition to looking at the differences between the messengers and "ordinary" people, you must examine the underlying similarities between people that allow the social epidemic to grow to such a scale.

We must understand enough about people to know why messages stick.

Gladwell says this:

There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.

So what is the magic formula for a sticky message? That, my friends, is the million dollar question.

Which isn't answered in this book, but he made his millions anyway.

If you like to read more:

The Tipping Point - Net Version

Critique of The Tipping Point (warning: includes partisan opinions)