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Book Review #75 – The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Have you ever heard of the Butterfly Effect? If not, let me give you a glimpse of what it entails. In its most basic form, the butterfly effect asserts that small things can enforce vast non-linear impacts on a complex system. Even the simplest of systems can be impacted by few variables to result in complex outcomes. The most renowned exemplification of this effect is that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. The wings flapping might be in itself insignificant and have tiny changes in the atmosphere. However, with the right conditions and build-up of circumstances, the effect can reach a tipping point and things get haywire. Well, the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell does not fall very far from this theorem.

The book revolves around the notion of a Tipping Point and how tiny elements can make a difference. In reference to the Tipping Point element, the author explores the moment of critical mass or threshold. Whereas the build-up may take time and huge resources, the moment of critical mass is determined by little things that occur just before the ultimate threshold is reached. Such occurrences are a norm in our daily lives although they might go unnoticed or their coming into being may not be fully appreciated. The author compares such occurrences to viruses. Although a virus may seem insignificant when initially detected, its spread can be very quick and can lead to devastating effects. And what explains that better than the current Covid-19 that has forced the world to its knees?

The book discusses three agents of change that play as the tipping points. These agents are The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context.

The Law of the Few

The social epidemic does not depend on luck or chances, but rather necessitates a particular set of social gifts that must be integrated within the social epidemic to accomplish the desired goal. The author statistically presents this law using an 80/20 ratio. The author uses this ratio to show that most of the work is done by only a handful of people who possess a rare set of social gifts. Therefore, about 80% of the work is done by about 20% of the participants. Similarly, 80% of the crimes are committed by 20% of the criminals, 80% of road accidents are caused by 20% of the drivers, and 80% of beer is drunk by 20% of the beer drinkers.

These people who possess a rare set of social gifts are grouped into either connectors, mavens, or salesmen. The connectors are characterized by their extensive networks across social, economic, cultural, and professional circles. They are like a network hub that links people all over the world through their special skills of making friends and acquaintances. Mavens are the information gurus who can be viewed as extensive resources for understanding practically anything necessary to solve problems and make informed decisions. Lastly, the salesmen are the ‘people magnets’ due to their unique persuasive abilities and negotiation skills.

The Stickiness Factor

Not all ideas become successful and grow viral. Those which fail to spark a long-lasting interest fade away with time and lose their value. However, by incorporating something special or catchy, you can ignite an explosion that will shake the entire world. Such trivial details, as the author explains, are what made Winston the most popular cigarette brand in the United States and led Sesame Street to join the list of the most popular children’s shows of all time.

In the past year, how many movies have you watched or how many books have you read? Out of the long list, how many can you vividly remember their names, storyline, and characters? Is there a certain character or scene that you keep remembering? Now let’s view it from a different perspective. What makes you think or remember that character or scene? Is it something they said, such as a witty quote? Well, now that’s what constitutes the stickiness factor; that specific content that triggers or creates the memorable aspect.

The stickiness factor contributes to the social epidemic by prompting a following and retaining certain content in the memory of the masses. The elements of the stickiness factor are utilized to enhance retention and create memories that are integral to the success of social epidemics.

The Power of Context

Creating a successful social epidemic follows an array of steps and processes that may seem insignificant at first. These small movements are then integrated to result in one contagious movement that is unshakable. The small movements comprise small changes in our environment and various external circumstances that may initially seem irrelevant. However, the connection between external circumstances and our behaviors plays an integral role in the success of a social epidemic.

Social epidemics are highly influenced and impacted by the conditions under which they occur. They are influenced by numerous factors including the time of occurrence, the place of occurrence, the present conditions, and other circumstances. The author explores the rise of Hush Puppies shoes and the drop in New York City’s crime rate which can be individually analyzed through the power of context. For instance, the zero-tolerance initiatives were meant to fight minor crimes but they ended up having an unexpected effect of reducing the more violent crimes in New York City.

The power of context is also influenced by the aspect of size. Malcolm discusses how the group’s size plays a central role in the success rate of social epidemics. Malcolm advises that, for a social epidemic to be successful, one should limit the group to 150 people. He explains that for an epidemic to develop, the group must first be intimate enough, and it is, therefore, necessary to limit the size to enhance the group’s intimacy.

Additional Agents and Concepts

Despite the already rich resource of information contained in the three primary agents, the author goes an extra step. The two extra chapters are still related to the tipping point but focus on different circumstances.

One of the extensively discussed cases revolves around the shoe company Airwalk. The company utilized the three agents of the epidemic to evolve from being a mere skateboarding niche product into a popular commercial brand.

The author also takes into consideration some unresolved epidemics that are part of societal problems. He explores the epidemic of male teenage suicides in Micronesia and the epidemic of teenage smoking. Whilst the aspect of the social epidemic may work wonders for companies and others reaping various benefits, it racks into societal problems when it penetrates some behaviors such as teenage smoking and suicide.

Wrapping It Up

The Tipping Point is a rich resource for knowledge related to social epidemics and how small elements can be the basis for something complex. Some brands have utilized very small but catchy elements to promote their products and ended up becoming globally renowned brands. The application of the social epidemics in curbing crime is also evidenced in the New York City case. The knowledge from the book is highly relevant not only for business people and law enforcement but for everybody out there wishing to make a change through the social epidemic.

It’s just the kind of book that everybody should be aspiring to read … twice.

Reviewed by;

Tonny Rutakirwa,


Tonniez Group Holdings,

Serving since 28th December 2008.


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