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Review: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

 

One day when I was feeling sick but couldn’t sleep anymore, I was looking for some light fiction to while away the time. Instead, I picked up The Tipping Point which turned out to be more absorbing than any work of fiction.

Little things can make a big difference, bigger than you ever imagined.  In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell analyses the factors that can turn something small into something as huge as an epidemic.  Those of us who want to create change in our world do well to look at his suggestions.

Gathering his data from Hush Puppy and Airwalk shoes, smoking teens, crime in New York, medical epidemics, and Hutterite colonies, Gladwell believes that social epidemics, like medical ones, grow explosively due to three factors

  1. The people who transmit the epidemic, whatever it is,
  2. The infectious agent itself, and how powerful or irresistible it is,
  3. The environment of the infectious agent.

At a certain point, tiny changes in any of these three factors can determine when something suddenly grows wildly or reaches the ‘tipping point’.

The people:  Gladwell discusses the people who are crucial for a social tipping phenomenon:  the connectors who seem wired to connect with people, the mavens who thrive on sharing data, and the salesmen who can influence others without even really trying.  Never before had I thought of people in these terms, but most of us know some who fit perfectly into these categories as described by Gladwell.  It was one of those proverbial ‘aha’ moments for me. 

The infectious agent itself:  There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible.  As he tries to understand what makes something irresistible or ‘infectious’, Gladwell spends a lot of time discussing the background to Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues.  Both the research about preschool learning, and the unexpected changes in scientific theories about preschoolers, are illuminating.  Moms were right all along when they pointed out kids love stories and can pay attention while playing.

The environment: Gladwell’s final point, the power of context, is almost unbelievable.  People are not static; their characters change with their surroundings, and even small changes can have dramatic effects.  Under certain circumstances, context determines behavior more than convictions and thoughts, even in stable, conscientious people.  And people behave much differently in a crowd than as individuals.  Even the size of the crowd, the amount of lighting, and the cleanliness of the surroundings can dramatically affect how people behave.

Throughout the book, Gladwell illuminates his points with case studies, research, and speculations.  Some of the points he raises are interesting or disturbing in their own right: 

The idea that parental influence on children is minimal compared to peer influence.  My question about this idea:  were any of the subjects of this study in a ‘normal’ setting, in historical terms, or were all in the contemporary North American peer structure?  If you study kids who focus their lives on peers, not on family and traditional community, then you will, obviously, conclude that kids are influenced by peers, not parents.  The Bible, especially Proverbs, seems to suggest that in a historically normal family setting, parents do have great influence, although peers are also influential. 

The idea that character is not fixed and that how we act can depend strongly on external cues that we might not even recognize ourselves.  This is downright frightening.  No wonder we are warned against pride and the devil, and are told to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  No wonder some teens go wild when they grow up and enter new environments; no wonder they then get confused about who they are—because in the new environment they do act like someone else.  Mindsight (link to my review) suggested that integration of various aspects of personality is a crucial task of adolescence; according to Gladwell’s ideas, various aspects of personality change may be related to different environments as much as to hormones.  And that is a potent concept.

The idea that community structure breaks down when the total number in the community exceeds 150.  This seems to be a crucial number throughout history and throughout the world.  What implications that has for growing churches!  No wonder a lot of people feel either lost or else unhappily (or happily) invisible in mega-churches.  Should Christians try to keep congregations at 150 members or less?  That goal hardly seems fiscally responsible, but perhaps the body of Christ would function more appropriately if we did.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, gives a fascinating analysis of the spread of ideas, fashions, crime, and medical epidemics.  It’s also full of thought-provoking ideas.  Those of us who want to create change in our world do well to look at Gladwell’s suggestions.  Probably we would learn to use our limited resources much more effectively. 

However, we know that God is in control of tipping points Therefore, prayer is still the most appropriate strategy for Christians as they seek to influence the world.   We can learn a lot from Gladwell; we can learn even more from God’s Word.  As we process Gladwell’s ideas in light of Scripture, we can go back to our daily lives, praying and working to God’s glory with renewed insight and enthusiasm.   

I highly recommend The Tipping Point to anyone who would like some meaty and irresistible reading this summer.  It will change the way you look at your world.  I promise.

This is yet one more book in the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, and is linked to Saturday Reviews. For more inspiration, see No Ordinary Blog Hop, Encourage One Another Wednesday, and Women Living Well Wednesdays.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Tipping Point from the library and received no compensation for this review.

2 Comments

  1. Jenn4him says:

    I totally agree that small changes add up. Have you also read, Principal of the Path? I don’t remember if I’ve seen a review here. It’s a short book, but good.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Yes, small changes do add up, but in the case of a tipping point it’s more that they multiply up rather than add up.

      I’m going to look up the book you mentioned. Thanks!

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