The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a study of fads. Fads, he claims, are not fads at all. They are part of what he calls the “tipping point,” a term that he defines as the “one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once” (Gladwell 9). Gladwell extends the idea of the tipping point from natural to social phenomena – from epidemics to fads – insisting that one can discover the principles that govern both.
Gladwell calls the first such principle the Law of the Few (i.e., some people matter more than others). There are the connectors, people who have a wide-ranging group of acquaintances. There are the mavens, people who have such detailed knowledge of a product that others turn to them for advice. Then there are the salesmen, those whose enthusiasm for a product can send its sales spiraling upward.
But before he gets to this, Gladwell grounds his readers in the material by turning a misconception on its head. He writes: “To appreciate the power of epidemics, we have to abandon the expectation of proportionality” (Gladwell 11). He tells his readers that what they thought they knew is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counter-intuitive discovery. Little things really can make a big difference. Gladwell notes:
What was interesting about Gau a textbook salesman is the extent
to which he seemed to be persuasive. . . . He seems to have some
kind of indefinable trait. . . . It’s energy. It’s enthusiasm.
This passage is a good example of Gladwell’s approach to studying so-called “social epidemics.” He often begins with a specific example and then uses it to generalize a law or a rule. He
focuses less on conveying facts and more on using stories to convey information that readers might
otherwise disregard. (Actual quote: “Gau is good-looking, without being pretty. . . . He’d make an excellent cowboy.”)
Some of the stories Gladwell gives fit into the long tradition of crowd behavior: out-of-fashion Hush Puppies resurged into popularity in 1994 and 1995. Some are a bit more unusual, including the
decline in crime in New York City. Yet all of them can be taken as good examples of how unpredictable people can be when they find themselves in the throes of doing what everyone else is doing at the same time.
Gladwell, who made his career in journalism, has a knack for explaining psychological experiments clearly. But his premise, no matter how it is asserted, fails to persuade. Some of his ideas – for example, that a mystical force (as opposed to increased police presence and a vibrant economy) helped drop the New York crime rate – are just fanciful. And one does not need to know how a virus spreads to know that networking is important, that good salesmen are “energetic.”
Calling patterns of behavior “laws” is a way of signaling that they apply with (near) universality. To say that the Law of the Few is a law is to say that it can be used to predict, in advance, what will happen in a situation. It says this is a truth one can believe in, and act on to one’s benefit. “The . . . rules of the Tipping Point. . . . provide us with a direction for how to go about reaching a Tipping Point” (29), Gladwell writes.
What Gladwell seems to ignore is that there are other factors that prepare a fad for its tipping point. Mathematically, the “tipping point” is the knee of a curve, when an exponential function begins to increase at the rate one would expect from exponential growth (“How To Identify The Tipping Point In Any System”). For the “Few” to have an effect, there must be a critical mass within a population already, such that it is ready to tip.