THE TIPPING POINT: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book’em.....take our poll!

(June 9, 2005) Book-'Em members are sometimes hesitant about non-fiction titles that might appear on a college course syllabus. It was a welcome surprise to find that Malcolm Gladwell's social psychology work, The Tipping Point, was engaging, interesting, and sparked lengthy discussion.

Gladwell's premise is that behaviors, attitudes, trends and fads mimic the spread of viral epidemics. They are contagious. The "tipping point" is that moment when everything suddenly changes. There are three conditions that influence this epidemic and the author clearly lays out these requirements - 1) The Law of the Few; 2) The Stickiness Factor; and 3) The Power of Context -- with illuminating, and often fascinating, examples. The resurgence of Hush Puppy shoes, the sudden decline in New York City crime rates in the 1990s, a rash of suicides in Micronesia and the popularity of "Blue's Clues" are some of the phenomena illustrated.

To begin, one learns that only a few key people are responsible for these movements: the connectors or "people specialists," the mavens who are "information specialist," and salesmen, the persuaders. The message or commodity must posses "stickiness." Something about it is memorable and compelling. Equally essential is the environment or circumstances in which the message spreads.

Gladwell's anecdotal style is punctuated with some known psychological constructs and experiments. The author's writing is well organized and lucid in its presentation of his postulates and the supporting data.

Conversation was animated as our members targeted "connectors" and "mavens" of their own acquaintance and concluded that these are natural personality traits of special individuals. We found the question of stickiness elusive. What detail is it that can transcend the "clutter problem" of our information age in a particular message? While the environmental influence (Power of Context) seemed self-evident, we marveled at Gladwell's application of it to the Bernard Goetz case of the 1980s. "This is all about looking at something differently in a way no one else has thought of before," a member noted.

The reader is walked through the ongoing war on teenage smoking from a tipping point perspective. We were struck, and chagrined, by how very powerful the peer group influence is, how relatively unimportant family influence is during adolescence, and by the obvious flaws and failures in this battle.

With real enthusiasm we attempted to apply these principles to a pertinent issue: underage and binge drinking. Sorry, we had no success. We thought that the problem of post-prom partying might be more manageable. Our own prom trials and tribulations are an annual topic triggered somehow by whatever the June Book-'Em selection might be. Who might the connector be among the student population? What should the message be to make an impact? Alas, another failed exercise. Finally, an astute member ventured that these principles are easier to see in hindsight than they are useful for manipulation or prediction.

Could we start something ourselves? We do suspect there will be a future epidemic of Color Catchers sent off with college bound offspring as a laundry aide, depending on how effective; at least there will be a run on them tomorrow by our small group. Gladwell does say that epidemics are a function of a few individuals and that "little things can make a big difference," so our attempts may not have been in vain after all. Perhaps your group will be more successful at predicting the next major Tipping Point than we were. At the very least, we predict you will have as much fun trying as Book-'Em did.

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