The Tipping Point

Behavior is contagious; little changes can have disproportionate effects; and, sometimes, there is no proportion between cause and consequence. These are all characteristics of social epidemics.

Social epidemics show us that ideas spread as viruses do. For some reason messages, movements, products, and other behaviors, suddenly, become very popular.

Yet this phenomenon doesn’t happen gradually, but in fact, many changes in society are so sudden that they almost seem to happen overnight. This critical moment is what we call the Tipping Point.

Usually, when it tips, it is because something happens in some of these three agents of change:

  • The law of the few — the people who cause them and the fact that some matter more than others.
  • The stickiness factor — the content of the epidemic i.e. the thing being spread: Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.
  • The power of context — the environment in which the epidemic takes place i.e. culture, weather, even how many witnesses are watching an event.

Law of the few

Word of mouth remains the most important form of human communication. And a handful of people wield a disproportionate amount of power. Hence the success of a social epidemic is dependent on the involvement of people with a rare set of social gifts.

  • Connectors: people with a special gift to bring the world together. The six degrees of separation don’t mean that we are equally linked, but that a few people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through these special few.

The Small-world experiment demonstrated that half of the letters were given to the stockbroker by just three people.

Yet it is not only that they know a lot of people, but the kind of people they know. Connectors span across different subcultures and manage to occupy many niches in society. They’ve possessed a mix of curiosity, sociability, and energy that will bring people together.

When it comes to discovering new information, weak ties matter more than your close friends — since the latter will probably share most of your tastes and interests. We rely on connectors to find opportunities in worlds we don’t belong.

  • Mavens: however, for a message to spread, it needs to be discovered first. Here’s where Mavens enter the picture: if Connectors are people specialists, Mavens are information specialists.

A Maven is someone who accumulates knowledge and has information on a wide array of products. They are more than experts, though, because they are socially motivated and ultimately care about helping people make the right decisions.

They like to be helpers in the marketplace. Then it is not about what they know, but how they know it and how they pass it along — because they want to help. Their honest disinterest is what makes their message spread.

  • Salesmen: one thing a Maven is not, is a persuader. But for a social epidemic to start, a lot of undecided people will need to be persuaded. Here’s where salesmen enter the picture: persons with a special ability to understand social and cultural micro-rhythms.

William S. Condon discovered that conversations go beyond words and span into a physical dimension through a deeper layer called conversational synchrony. When two people talk, the tone, speech rate, latency, and other patterns harmonize.

Salesmen, public speakers, or musicians, with higher persuasive powers, can bring people to sync with their rhythms — they know when the crowd is with them.

The stickiness factor

Messages need to be memorable. For a message to spread, it has to have the right people carrying it. But the message itself must also be “sticky”. People must like the message, be able to remember it, and lead to action.

Stickiness however often has very little to do with cleverness, inventiveness, or even logically convincing information. While people might like to believe that they remember the most interesting ideas, they’re often likely to remember the simplest and stickiest.

Appealing to the emotional, irrational self can be more persuasive than a logically sound argument. Whatever people might think about themselves, in reality, it’s often the simplest, cheesiest, least original content that becomes the most popular.

The power of context

The Broken Windows Theory and the Power of Context are two versions of the same argument: small environmental details — such as graffiti in the subway — can have major effects on public behavior. In other words, it suggests that people’s environments are more influential in determining their actions than people’s personalities or innate psychologies.

An even more infamous example that the physical environment can have an almost overpowering influence on behavior can be found on the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Maybe the root cause for context — despite not explicitly mentioned in the book — can be traced back to Fundamental Attribution Error and the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are.

Adding to the power of context, Gladwell argues that you’d be better off in a nice neighborhood, but within a troubled family, than the other way around.

💡 Fun fact I didn’t know: the idea of “network effect” — despite being popularized by Robert Metcalfe — was later used by Kevin Kelly to predict the evolution of the fax machine.

First published on February 04, 2021