The Tipping Point: Summary & Review

the tipping point

The Tipping Point (2000) analyzes how trends go viral and how localized hotbeds can join together and snowball into big movements.

Bullet Summary

  • A trend becomes a snowball depending on the type of people sharing it, the stickiness of the product, and the overall context
  • The people spreading a trend are well-connected, love helping others, or are good at selling
  • The overall context or historical period must help the trend spread


About The Author:
Malcolm Gladwell is a journalist for The New Yorker, a public speaker, and the author of several pop psychology books.
Among his other bestsellers are: Blink, Outliers, David and Goliath.


The Tipping Point starts as most captivating stories begin: with an open loop.

Gladwell introduces the seemingly inexplicable rebirth of a brand that seemed on the verge of disappearing: Hush Puppies.
In the 1990s the Hush Puppies shoes went from being popular in the Soho district of NY among the hipsters to spreading to the whole country.

How did that happen?

Gladwell will explain how that happens in the course of the book.

Chapter 1: The Three Rules of Epidemics

Gladwell says that most social trends spread following the same rules.

Whether it’s the spread of a disease like syphilis or the Hush Puppies shoes, they all have a moment the author calls a “tipping point” that unifies many isolated enclaves into a unified trend.

For Gladwell, the factors that make a trend reach the tipping point are three:

  1. Law of the Few
  2. Stickiness Factor
  3. Power of Context

Chapter 2: The Law of the Few

Gladwell notes that a few “super infectors” are responsible for most of the spread of the virus.

These super infectors spread the virus to dozens or hundreds of other people.

These are what Gladwell calls the “connectors”, part of the three major types of individuals that help a trend reach a tipping point:

  • Connectors

Connectors are people who know everyone and who help spread the word -or the virus- on a bigger scale.
They often have varied interests spanning different realms, so they also help bring the trend to different industries and different personalities.

  • Mavens

Mavens instead of knowing everyone seem to know everything.

They read more than the average person and love to gather information, and they love using that information to help other people.

Mavens are enthusiastic about introducing new ideas and concepts, and their passion is contagious and helps spread the trend with natural charm.

  • Salespeople

Salespeople are able to influence others in changing their behavior or directing their buying decisions.

Salespeople have great interpersonal skills and use the power of body language (check The Definitive Book of Body Language).

Gladwell also goes into how salespeople influence conversations.
He says that everyone has a different speaking rhythm, such as the words per minute or the moments he pauses or speaks.

When two people meet, they will have to reach a common ground.
But the one who draws the other into his own rhythm will be most powerful, and influential and dictates the terms of the interaction.

Chapter 3: The Stickiness Factor

Gladwell calls the “stickiness factor” a special quality or trait that “sticks” easily in people’s minds.

There’s a way to package your information or product that, under the right circumstances, will make it irresistible.

Gladwell doesn’t provide a clear way to make your product or message sticky.
But in that regard, I recommend you check Contagious and Made to Stick.

Chapter 4: The Power of Context (Part One)

The power of context refers to the bigger environment around the product or trend itself.

The environment can stifle or give impetus to the budding trend.

Malcolm Gladwell uses the example of the welcome and yet the strange and unexpected sudden decline of crime rates in New York in the 1990s.

He says there were a few small but influential changes that helped by changing the context and he introduces the Broken Windows theory.

The authorities in New York, for example, focused on ridding the subway system of graffiti and cracking down on subway fare dodgers.

My Note:
The Broken Windows Effect has received much criticism.
Read the National Bureau of Economic Research article on what helped make NY safer besides the contextual efforts.
As a heads up, the paper says that the police measure that most consistently reduces crime is the arrest rate of those involved in crime.

Chapter 5: The Power of Context (Part Two)

Albeit major trends reach big numbers spanning different demographics often it’s one specific demographic that fuels that expansion.

This concept reminded me of the 1.000 screaming fans Tim Ferris talks about and the Diffusion Curve that Start With WHY also mentions.

The author also talks about group properties as related to the size of the groups.
Up to 150 people the group members can get to know each other and that allows for strong interpersonal relationships to blossom.
That intimacy effect and the efficiency that ensues are usually lost in groups of more than 150 members.

Chapter 6: Case Study

In chapter 6 of Tipping Point Gladwell introduces the case study of the Airwalk shoes.

Airwalk’s initial consumers were skaters, but the brand wanted to expand beyond.

How to sell to people who never skated in their lives?

The ad agency targeted many typical emblems of “coolness” spanning from gang culture to hipster fashionistas

To manage to appeal both to the masses and the more selective hip fashion movers, the company selected models for boutique stores and mass-produced models for department stores.

Chapter 7: Case Study – Suicide, Smoking

Malcolm Gladwell addresses the potential rise of disturbing trends.

For example, we sometimes witness sudden increases among teenagers in mass shootings, cigarette smoking, or suicides.

He says teenagers are most likely, perhaps genetically predisposed, to imitate others and “try new things”.
And those who champion those “new things” are also most likely to become the easily romanticized cool guys the teenagers want to imitate.

I particularly liked how the author differentiates “benign experiments” from abuse and suggests not to become hysterical at a teenager trying cigarettes or a drug for example.

Chapter 8: Conclusion

In the last chapter, Gladwell brings a few more examples of how some movements or brands used the tipping point rules he listed.

Lexus, for example, spent an inordinate amount of money pampering its customers when it had to recall a few autos.

Why did they invest so much?

Because the very first buyers were more likely mavens, people who care about cars and talk about cars.
Those are the guys who would influence all the rest.

the tipping point

Practical Applications

  • Conversation Rhythm & Social Power Moves

A website like The Power Moves had to pick up on the little hidden social gem and power cue of the book.
People have different speaking patterns such as speech rates and pauses. When they meet, the one who has the other adapt to his pattern is usually the one with the upper hand.

  • Use Mavens and Connectors

When you spread your idea or product try to get mavens and connectors first to love it and they will help you spread it further.


Overall, there has been much criticism of the concept espoused by Gladwell in “The Tipping Point”.

For example, Andy Sernovitz, author of a book on word-of-mouth marketing, says it’s plain average and normal people who drive word of mouth and not particularly “thought leaders”.

Indeed, among the major drawbacks for me is this one:

  • Lots of Stories but Light Evidence

The stories all sound interesting and plausible, but there is no strong data here.

Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow explains how plausible stories are often a smokescreen to reality.

Indeed, I found the evidence behind those stories lacking.

  • Simplistic Recipes End Up Being Tautological

Gladwell often explains the success of this or that campaign for “targeting mavens and cool people”.

But that explains nothing and is no proof of anything.

Furthermore, that’s exactly what every brand is trying to do. Why that one was specifically successful? Could it be it was just chance? Those were the questions I was left with.

Also read: Fooled by Randomness.


The Tipping Point is an interesting and easy read.
And albeit the concept of “tipping points” is valid and a relatively common dynamic in natural and human phenomena, Gladwell still does not provide a holistic view of the phenomenon.
So I would still warn readers to be careful in over-generalizing or over-extrapolating its concepts.

Ultimately, Gladwell writes books that are designed to be pleasant and interesting to read, and not to provide readers with the best possible information, or to equip them with the best possible tools to affect any real-world change.

Once you keep that in mind, The Tipping Point is a well-written book with lots of wisdom to offer.

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