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"The Tipping point" review

Updated on February 9, 2013

"The Tipping Point": in Review

“The Tipping Point” was written in the late 90’s by the popular writer at The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell. Mr. Gladwell was born in England, educated in Canada at the university of Toronto, and holds a degree in history. Mr. Gladwell has been a reporter with the renowned Washington Post and a staff writer for The New Yorker. He has written four books, all of which have been #1 bestsellers on the New York Times best sellers list. When I first heard of “The Tipping Point” from my wife, who had it recommended to her by a friend at work, I did some research on the book and the man who wrote it; to say the least, my expectations were high and finding out it was one of the books I could pick for my report was exciting, as I was planning on buying it for myself as a post-semester treat anyway. This book was published by Little Brown and Company in New York in 1999. The subject matter is how to create an “epidemic.” By which the author means, essentially, how to get your book to sell; or how to make your website popular, or any number of things that one would want to make “viral.” On the surface the book’s purpose is essentially to sell things to people, however, I think that it really does go deeper, in discussing those personality types and traits which affect the ability to create an “epidemic” and in assessing the sociological and psychological reasons behind why a product gets big; you can really tell that the author has great insight and has thoroughly researched every possible angle that has to do with his thesis. Because of this I think that the intended audience is wider than just the business world, and also includes anyone interested in creating an “epidemic” movement, Politicians, Businesspeople, salespeople; anyone with something to say to people. This book comes across as practically the product of an obsession on the part of the author; which is a great thing for the reader, who gets a complete view of the idea of “social epidemics.” That said, it seems the book is intended to be just that, a treatise on how to create “Social epidemics.”


So, how does one go about creating a social epidemic? Malcolm splits the idea behind how epidemics start into three broad categories: 3 rules of epidemics, the law of the few, and something he calls “stickiness.” He follows this by explaining the context in which these things must occur in order to be effective, and follows that up with some case studies dealing with the how to both create and fight epidemics.

The three rules of epidemics are 1. The Law of the few: A relatively small number of people are responsible for most of the “work” in spreading epidemics 2. The stickiness factor: which is the ability of a message to “stick” and 3. The power of context, which I will let the book sum up: “The key to getting people to change their behavior…. sometimes lies with the smallest details of their immediate situation. The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem.” (The Tipping Point)

The law of the few details those people who make epidemics possible; Malcolm calls them Connectors, mavens and salespeople. Connectors are people who know everyone, the kind of people who have their feet in ten different niches and who have a tendency to bring those worlds together. These are those irresistibly social people who know everyone and tend to have hundreds of acquaintances. They are like Social glue, their presence makes connections between different worlds possible.

Mavens are those with lots of information. They know about every deal; and they get personal satisfaction from telling you about that deal and helping you out. In a social epidemic they are the ones who tell others about things, they are the ones who put the information in people’s minds; especially connectors! This is how they start word-of-mouth epidemics; someone who knows everything (Maven) tells someone who knows everyone (connector.)

The third is salespeople. Salespeople are the ones who convince those of us not ready to jump on the bandwagon immediately. The fact is that most people are not willing to jump on a new craze until someone has made a convincing argument for it, salesmen are important to a social epidemic, as they are the ones who keep it moving once it has started, salespeople are the ones who can convince those who aren’t early adopters.

Next we delve into “Stickiness.” What is it that makes a message stick? Usually it is small and seemingly trivial things. It is usually the way a message is presented that makes it sticky or not. Making a message sticky usually involves changing things on the margin, not the foundation; this leads us directly to context.

The power of context is basically a way of saying that we are subject to our environment, and that the changes and decisions we make are mostly dictated by outside circumstances; entirely without us realizing it. Hence, a social epidemic entirely hinges on the context of its environment. It’s about just the right message at just the right time falling into the hands of just the right person, who causes it to spread. Malcolm points to the apparent possibility of making tiny changes in just the right spot to make epidemics tip. For example; serious crime is encouraged on by graffiti and panhandling; when you attack the graffiti and jail the panhandlers, serious crimes like assault and robbery fall dramatically. The reason is that the people in the environment of chaos are more likely to pursue criminal activity, in this way it is their environment which dictates their behavior, divorced of graffiti and panhandlers the world falls just enough more into order to keep them inside (hopefully filling out job applications!)

The final main point of the book is the rule of 150. This rule states that 150 is the (roughly) maximum number of people a group can have to effectively operate. In stating this, he argues that ideas tend to pass from one group to another group; for example, rather than a single club with 450 people, you would probably have 3 clubs of 150 people for an idea to effectively spread outside of that group. He also points out numerous examples of groups roughly this size, including religious communities and units in the military. His argument is that this is the maximum number of people we can keep track of in our head.


There are six main points I have decided to evaluate this book on. The first is whether or not the author adequately explains his premise, which is “The tipping point.” What is that? Obviously a lack of fully explaining this will make for a bad book.

Second is that the author fully explains the idea of a social epidemic. The Social epidemic idea is mostly what makes the tipping point idea possible, without a thorough explanation of this concept; I believe the book would not be sensible. Together, the first and second criteria are a sort of “does the author adequately explain the main points” section. Both ideas are pivotal to put the rest of the book in context.

Third, does the author provide adequate evidence of the concept presented in the book? The idea of “stickiness” the “Law of the Few” and “The power of context” cannot just be said. It is easy to say that all of these concepts apply; I intend to evaluate how well he proved these concepts through research.

Fourth is do these concepts, thoroughly understood, matter to the reader. On the face of it they seem like they would, but the real question is; after reading this book, does the reader have the ability to see these patterns and put these concepts into effect?

Fifth has to do with the author’s assumptions. The theory presented in this book is some pretty radical stuff when compared to a more traditional worldview. Is the author making unwarranted assumptions about social behavior and psychology based on his desire to see things in a certain, different way?

Finally there is the most important factor. Is it readable? Is it presented in a way that makes sense to the average reader? Can one read this book and then understand the concepts in a way that are applicable to him? Additionally, is it pleasant to read?

1. Does the author adequately explain what “the tipping point” is and how it works?

Yes, the tipping point is that moment when an epidemic “tips.” By which the author means it takes a dramatic step forward or backward. This part was well explained even in just the introduction. Imagine a line graph, “the tipping point” is that part where the graph shoots way up or way down. I chose this as one of my criteria because this idea is so crucial to the understanding of this book; even if its not that complicated of a concept, a failure to properly explain it would have hamstrung the whole book. The author did explain this concept very well though, and did an excellent job setting the stage for what was to come in doing it.

2. Does the author thoroughly explain what he means by a “social epidemic,” this idea is central to the book.

The author gave many examples of “social epidemics” which served as a sort of implied definition. From reading his various examples I feel as though I have a good understanding of what a social epidemic is, but I also feel as though it is still hard to actually define, even after reading through the book. I think the author does an adequate job of explaining this concept, but in a roundabout way, through examples and by connecting the idea to each of his other ideas. From all of this I gather that a social epidemic is pretty much anything that can spread into a people’s collective consciousness. It could be a cool type of shoes, or it could be a disabling pessimism about the future(my own example, to illustrate the vagueness of the concept.) The closest thing I found to an explanation was “When it comes to epidemics, [the disproportionality of the 80/20 Principle] becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work.” (The Tipping Point) I did understand the concept, but only because of the context it was presented in, for example, the above quote sort of explains how social epidemics spread, but still doesn’t entirely answer the “social epidemic” question itself unless it’s in the context of an example.

3. Does the author have evidence of the concepts explained in the book? Such as “The law of the Few” and “The power of context?”

Yes. That’s the short answer. The book is filled with both documented and anecdotal evidence of it’s main concepts, in fact, the chapters dealing with each subject are mostly made up of stories and research dealing with the concept, rather than concrete “explanations.” But these serve to explain them better than I think most “explanations” would. When dealing with, “The law of the few” Malcolm details people he has known in the past, Connectors, Mavens, and salespeople and talks extensively about their behavior and personalities, which sets the stage for understanding the type of person who is each of these things. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without these examples “The law of the Few” would be nothing but conjecture. It is only by concretely seeing who these types of people are and what they do and what makes them that way that these concepts are intelligible. For example: “Six degrees of separation doesn’t mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.” (The Tipping Point) That is a description of what connectors are, and it is how Mr. Gladwell chooses to illustrate his points.

The power of context was explained in great detail, once again through the agency of examples and stories rather than explanations. Which is sort of ironic (in a good way) since it is context we are talking about, and that is just where the author puts this concept!

In the first chapter on context, Malcolm details the story of a man who shot several people on a subway who had the look of robbers. In a normal situation this man would have been jailed, as this shooting is, according to the law, unjustified. Only when one believes that they are about to suffer death or great bodily harm can one use deadly force. However, New York was in the midst of s crime spree and people were sympathetic, he got off scot-free. It was the context of his situation which dictated his outcome, even though it is clear he violated the law, from the perspective of twelve average people from New York at the time, the victims, who all had criminal records were getting what they deserved. It was context which dictated the circumstances, even for the shooter, Bernie Goetz, who had lived a hard live of abuse and was mentally unable to put up with being accosted by some thugs on a train, even if they had made no attempt to hurt him.

Malcolm also details how cutting down on little things like graffiti and panhandling helped reduce the New York City crime rate. “This is an epidemic theory of crime. It says that crime is contagious — just as a fashion trend is contagious — that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community.” (The Tipping point) The reason is because you are changing the context in which people make their decisions, this makes sense, a youth who feels as though he lives in a world of chaos is less likely to respect the law. The author did an excellent job in explaining context and chose excellent examples. “The solution for New York city’s subways was simply removing graffiti, and arresting “fare-jumpers” (a very minor infraction). This works because “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”. (The Tipping Point)

4. Does it matter? Do the concepts in this book actually mean anything in the real world?

Yes! That was the best thing about this book; the majority of information was very relatable. I believe that once you have read this book, you will have the ability to use these concepts to your advantage. The author was very careful, I think, in choosing what examples to use, and he did a great job. When he talked about the “Law of the few” I could envision the type of people he was talking about and I thought of the people I knew who fit into those categories. When he talked about how context affect ones actions in a situation I found it sort of mind-blowing, but in hindsight, totally logical. The author did an amazing job of translating his sort of unquantifiable subject into relatable material that makes sense in the real world; mostly through the use of case studies and real world examples that actually happened. There is a certain anecdotal quality to it, which might make some people inclined to disregard the information as just circumstantial or not generally true, but to me, the patterns that Malcolm lays out in this wonderful book are obvious in many different places in life. Since reading it I have started to see the patterns he talks about; especially when I read history, I can see what he says playing out in real life.

5. Is the author making any assumptions? Do they make sense? Or is he reaching?

On a shallow level, it sometimes feels as though the author is reaching a bit. As previously noted, the author uses many stories and examples to explain his concepts. He does this because it is only in the context of real situations that these concepts begin to make sense, explained on paper without examples they seem dull at best. It would be easy to say reading this book that what is described here is true for the examples in the book but not universally so. This may be true, but I felt, when reading it, that their was a certain underlying, honest admission that things don’t always follow the exact same pattern; but I also think that ones perspective does change once you’ve read it, and you can really see how the pattern of a slow initial build-up followed by tremendous growth once the tipping point is reached bears-out time and time again; read about colonialism or the gold rush after reading this. I think the pattern’s of organizational behavior laid out in this book are not necessarily “universal” in that they always happen a certain way, but are a looser set of guidelines that help to put behavior into context and explain how the little things inside a whole make a big difference.

6. How readable the book is/ how well everything is explained?

The book was very readable, it was easy to read and it was laid out very well. As I read the book I was already making mental notes and seeing an easy layout in my mind, just as if I was making an outline of a paper in my head. Each bullet point I was clearly explained. Malcolm Gladwell certainly does not leave the reader wanting for understanding; literary professionals often look down on this as “dumbing down” but I don’t think that’s what happened here. The author is just clearly very talented at getting a point cross and writing things in just a certain way that makes them clear and connects them to everything else in the book. Which brings me to another point, everything in this book is connected to everything else; as I stated near the beginning it seems to be the product of an obsession, in that it covers it’s topic as thoroughly as possible and clearly connects each individual thought, story and idea back to the original premise, which is the “tipping point.”

Also, in comparison to other similar books, such as The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less and Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die; The Tipping point is very readable. The former is especially dry, it covers almost the same subject matter as Malcolm’s chapter on stickiness but does it in a boring, textbook sort of way, I remember I started reading this book, but I kept falling asleep before I got anywhere (I mostly read at night, in bed.). Made to stick was intended to be a “sequel” of sorts to The Tipping Point but really once again only talks about stickiness rather than expanding on other of Malcolm’s idea like social epidemics. All Told, I think that The Tipping Point is probably one of the most readable books in it’s field.


The Tipping point by Malcolm Gladwell is a great read. It is informative and pleasant to read. The concepts presented here will certainly give you lots to think about, and they shed tons of light on the subject of Organizational behavior. I can say, having read this that I wish Malcolm Gladwell had written my Organizational Behavior textbook! Not just for content but for readability as well. I would highly recommend this book for any student of behavior in organizations, any manager, and any business professional, politician, or salesperson.


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    • Dee aka Nonna profile image

      Dee aka Nonna 

      5 years ago

      Based on your review, I will get this book. Really enjoyed your fact, I think I will read it much great information. Thanks for writing it.


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