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Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1996. He is the author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw. Prior to joining The New Yorker, he was a reporter at the Washington Post. Gladwell was born in England and grew up in rural Ontario. He now lives in New York

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"A wonderful page-turner about a fascinating idea that should affect the way every thinking person thinks about the world around him.”

– Michael Lewis

"Genuinely fascinating and frequently startling ... The kind of book from which you'll be regaling your friends with intriguing snippets for weeks to come."

– Scotland Sunday

"A wonderfully offbeat study of that little-understood phenomenon, the social epidemic.”

– Daily Telegraph

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The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

An Invisible Threshold that Can Ignite an Otherwise Unforeseen Epidemic

01/13/14

My whole life, I’ve had this kind of crazy intuition that I was meant to change the world for the better somehow. It would happen much farther into the future, but not so far that I would already be dead. To this day, I still can’t quite explain the nature of this conviction myself, other than that I’ve felt it deeply within me for as long as I can remember.

Let me clarify. What I mean is that, yes, I really do want to change the world around me, and I’ve always wanted to. In my perfect world, everyone would be kind to each other, everybody would follow the rules, everybody would care just a bit more about each other’s well being. No one would be prejudiced, no one would suffer at another’s hands, no one would talk about another behind his or her back. Also, the general population would stop littering. That includes anything to do with cigarettes. Everyone would just behave and then get a little gold star for it at the end of the day. Or another color, if gold isn’t your thing.

My friends tell me that I am idealistic, and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. I’ve heard stories of people who have done terrible things in the name of who they love or what they stand for, and with all my heart, I always just pray that I do not end up one of them. All I am saying is that as captivating as our world is, there is room for so much more improvement. Am I naïve for thinking that such a future is possible?

When I picked up a copy of The Tipping Point, I was given hope that perhaps I am not. The Tipping Point was actually a book my little sister was assigned to read over the summer for her upcoming Language and Composition class. I was interested when she began sharing these statistics and facts with me from this very book: “Hey, Sam, did you know that 80% of nearly all group work is done by only 20% of the group?” or “Wow, Sam, read this passage on conversational body language!” I was definitely interested. Once it was finally my turn to read it through, I was ready to learn just what this “Tipping Point” business was all about.

The “Tipping Point”, as it turns out, is an invisible threshold that, when broken, can ignite an otherwise unforeseen epidemic of immense magnitude that spreads almost instantaneously. Gladwell writes about this phenomenon:

We are all, at heart, gradualists, our expectations set by the steady passage of time. But the world of The Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is – contrary to all our expectations – a certainty.

Doesn’t that sound fascinating?

Gladwell argues in The Tipping Point that it is not the mass-scale actions that set the fiercest or most rampant trends into motion, but the small. “We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events,” Gladwell writes, “and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly.” The Tipping Point leads us through numerous real-world examples of the phenomenon and then dismantles completely the inner workings of how and why a certain social epidemics came to be. His argument appears paradoxical on the surface, but his prose makes understanding his argument relatively easy. Gladwell’s writing remains transparent and polished all throughout, and manages to craft an argument that is consistently convincing and conceivable. Furthermore, Gladwell supports his claims with numerous astounding facts and statistics from the most compelling and surprising of studies; it is evident that he is an experienced and nuanced researcher. Take, for example, this passage detailing the results of Zimbardo’s prison experiment:

In the early 1970s, a group of social scientists at Stanford University, led by Philip Zimbardo, decided to create a mock prison in the basement of the university’s psychology building…Zimbardo and his colleagues picked the 21 who appeared the most normal and healthy on psychological tests. Half of the group were chosen, at random, to be guards…The other half were told that they were to be prisoners…The purpose of the experiment was to try to find out why prisons are such nasty places.

So what became of the experiment?

What Zimbardo found out shocked him. The guards, some of whom had previously identified themselves as pacifists, fell quickly into the role of hard-bitten disciplinarians. The first night they woke up the prisoners at two in the morning and made them do pushups, line up against the wall, and perform other arbitrary tasks. On the morning of the second day, the prisoners rebelled. They ripped off their numbers and barricaded themselves in their cells. The guards responded by stripping them, spraying them with fire extinguishers, and throwing the leader of the rebellion into solitary confinement.

From this revolutionary experiment on the dynamics of people’s immediate environment, Zimbardo was able to conclude that “there are specific situations so powerful that they can overwhelm our inherent predispositions.” Thus, it is not fair to claim that prison is as horrible as it is primarily because of the people in it; the situation wields at least just as much significance.

Gladwell discusses this famous experiment to ultimately explain the sharp decline of a viciously rampant New York City crime epidemic in the late 1980s, which Gladwell attributes to one principle of the Tipping Point, the Power of Context, which states that humans are highly sensitive to their surroundings and will act in accordance with what their specific surroundings allow and encourage. The Power of Context is actually one of three major concepts that determine whether an epidemic will spark; the other two are the Law of the Few, which states that trends can begin in the hands of only several key types of people, and the Stickiness Factor, which asserts that the content and presentation of a message or product are critical, as well.

In addition, Gladwell explains plenty of other perplexing Tipping Point phenomena that have occurred throughout history. He explains, for example, what certain production values allowed the popular children’s shows Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues to become so successful, what particular traits of Paul Revere himself made his message so memorable on his “midnight ride” to Lexington, and what happens when a group’s population expands past 150. Particularly meaningful to me were his case study on why teenage smoking is so prevalent in Western society and his quest for the “unsticky” cigarette. Gladwell explores the impact of the really small factors that no one would suspect actually play a monumental role. Turns out, it’s a science.

Gladwell’s exploration of why big trends happen really did change my view of the world. I hadn’t thought of this before, but there are trends everywhere, from the latest political craze to the new hip iProduct. Why, exactly, are these messages or ideas or products so popular now? What do these obsessions hint about our intrinsic values? What do they say about us as humans?

Gladwell, as it turns out, had a second purpose for writing this book. Gladwell believes that if we can investigate specifically why social epidemics happen, surely we can harness the potential to ignite benevolent epidemics of our own. On one hand, the world of the Tipping Point is mysterious and unpredictable and very real, yet on the other, it has massive potential to do great good. Think about it. What if somebody, careful and intelligent in his or her actions, managed to start a major movement for health awareness or education reform, for example? The idea that such change is possible in the world gives me so much hope that my heart aches from it. Very few non-fiction works have made me feel this way.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is such a magnificent read. I recommend that all my fellow idealists give this bad boy a swing. It lent me such a different perspective on how the world works, contrary to almost everything I have believed before. I am a strong believer that what goes in must equal what comes out, that what goes around is sure to equal what comes around, but The Tipping Point has revealed to me that such does not have to be a case. In fact, Gladwell has convinced me that the only way to cultivate these major changes is to make the small moves. He writes, “That’s why social change is so volatile and so often inexplicable, because it is the nature of all of us to be volatile and inexplicable.”

Don’t be ashamed to think that the world can be a better place. It can, and The Tipping Point will prove that transforming your vision into a reality is indeed possible. With just one small, smart move, everything can change drastically in a matter of days, hours, minutes, seconds. It will be beautiful, bigger than anything you could ever imagine. The world is in your hands. But there’s just one question.

Are you ready for it?

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