Based on his in-depth research spanning a number of different fields, industries, and scholarly disciplines, Gladwell identifies three key factors that each play in role in determining whether a particular trend will “tip” into wide-scale popularity. Gladwell’s discussion and illustration of the concepts of the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context comprise the majority of The Tipping Point.
What’s the tipping point?
The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.
Gladwell identifies three rules of epidemics: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context
1. The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen
The attainment of the tipping point that transforms a phenomenon into an influential trend usually requires the intervention of a number of influential types of people. In the disease epidemic model, he demonstrated that many outbreaks could be traced back to a small group of infectors. Likewise, on the path toward the tipping point, many trends are ushered into popularity by small groups of individuals that can be classified as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.
Connectors are individuals who have ties in many different realms and act as conduits between them, helping to engender connections, relationships, and “cross-fertilization” that otherwise might not have ever occurred. Mavens are people who have a strong compulsion to help other consumers by helping them make informed decisions. Salesmen are people whose unusual charisma allows them to be extremely persuasive in inducing others’ buying decisions and behaviors. Gladwell identifies a number of examples of past trends and events that hinged on the influence and involvement of Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen at key moments in their development.
2. Stickiness Factor: Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues, and the Educational Virus
This refers to a unique quality that compels the phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of the public and influence their future behavior.
An interesting element of stickiness, as defined by Gladwell, is the fact that it is often counterintuitive, or contradictory to the prevailing conventional wisdom. To illustrate this point, Gladwell undertakes an in-depth discussion of the evolution of children’s television between the 1960s and the 2000s.
The PBS show Sesame Street represented a vast improvement in the “stickiness” of children’s television, in large part because it turned many of the long-established assumptions about children’s cognitive abilities and television-watching behaviors on their heads. These changes, based in large part on extensive research, resulted in a show that actually helped toddlers and preschoolers develop literacy.
Years later, the television show Blue’s Clues applied many of these same techniques to Sesame Street itself, resulting in the development of a program that research has shown can generate significant improvements in children’s logic and reasoning abilities. The attribute of stickiness, Gladwell argues, often represents a dramatic divergence from the conventional wisdom of the era.
3. The Power of Context: Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York
Another crucial aspect of the complex processes and mechanisms that cause trends to “tip” into mass popularity is what Gladwell terms the Power of Context. If the environment or historical moment in which a trend is introduced is not right, it is not as likely that the tipping point will be attained. To illustrate the power of context, Gladwell takes on the strangely rapid decline in violent crime rates that occurred in the 1990s in New York City.
Although Gladwell acknowledges that a wide variety of complex factors and variables likely played a role in sparking the decline, he argues convincingly that it was a few small but influential changes in the environment of the city that allowed these factors to tip into a major reduction in crime. He cites the fact that a number of New York City agencies began to make decisions based on the Broken Windows theory, which held that minor, unchecked signs of deterioration in a neighborhood or community could, over time, result in major declines in the quality of living.
To reverse these trends, city authorities started focusing on seemingly small goals like painting over graffiti, cracking down on subway toll skippers, and dissuading public acts of degeneracy. Gladwell contends that these changes in the environment allowed the other factors, like the decline in crack cocaine use and the aging of the population, to gradually tip into a major decline in the crime rate in the city.
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