Friday, March 4, 2011

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point is about how ideas take root and trends start small and get huge. It's about the forces necessary for ideas to spread and, to an extent, ways to help them spread. It goes through a bunch of really interesting case studies and sort of ties them together in terms of the small factors that cause major change.

I wish I had read this book ten years ago. It was first published in 2000 and is a tiny bit dated. I still feel like it's a relevant and important book, just some concepts don't seem as new as they might have back then. And, a lot issues relevant to the book have changed since 2000. For example, Facebook.

I thought the in-depth case studies were by far the most interesting part of the book. Lots of detailed explanations of important psychological experiments and successfully spread ideas, such as Sesame Street and Hush Puppies shoes. He talks about classic psych experiments like the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment, (which was old news a long time ago I'm pretty sure) and newer (then) research such as on how children learn. I eat this stuff up.

There were several instances in the book where he suggested that X caused Y when it *seemed* to be showing only a correlation. I know he is too smart to mistake correlation for causation in this book, but the context made me wonder. There are points when he seems to leap to conclusions when they really require more proof in the text. For example, he cited a study showing that the number of "high-status" professionals living in a neighborhood is highly related to teen pregnancy rates and high school drop out rates. The way it's written makes it clear he means that the presence of enough high status professionals CAUSES teens to stay in school and not get knocked up. Maybe, but there are certainly several other factors that affect BOTH the number of high status workers and the drop out/pregnancy rates in a neighborhood. Is some third factor (really awesome teachers, for example) causing both? The reader is left unsure from the book. There are a few bits like that in this book. Not necessarily wrong, just in need of further clarification.

One thing in this book that I am pretty sure is incorrect is his description of the murder of Kitty Genovese. She is famous in psychology for supposedly being murdered while several neighbors watched and didn't bother to call the police. He uses the incident to describe how important context is in human behavior. It's certainly been proven that people are less likely to help someone in need if there are lots of other people around. The thing is, the story about Ms. Genovese's neighbors doing nothing while she was murdered has been largely debunked. Superfreakanomics has a much more plausible and well-cited explanation.

Another issue I took with the book was the teen smoking chapter. It talked about teen smoking, and how that trend took root and why teens keep starting smoking. The emphasis was on how it might be possible to get fewer people addicted to cigarettes. OK. The problem I had with the chapter was that it discussed another horrifying "trend" infecting teenagers in some areas: suicide. It went into research on how the idea of suicide is contagious, and news coverage of suicides appears to inspire other similar suicides. He used the lessons learned by researchers in the areas of suicide "trends" and attempted to apply them to teen smoking. This raised red flags for me. I realize teens getting hooked on cigarettes is not ideal, but it seems like a very small issue compared to teens taking their own lives! I wish his emphasis had been on keeping people from killing themselves, not arguably trivializing research on suicide by attempting to apply it to cigarettes.

Despite a flaw or to, and being a teensy bit outdated, I would recommend this book to someone interesting in psychology, economics or marketing. I think it still has a lot of useful things to say, and really interesting case studies. Assuming what is in the book is most correct, I feel like I learned a lot!



  1. According to Wikipedia, American Psychologist published an article about how the Kitty Genovese story is actually inaccurate and was exaggerated by the media, and eventually exaggerated in books. The article was published in 2007, so well after this book. In cases like this, and in the case of Facebook, which didn't launch until 2004, I don't know that it's fair to judge the book for being outdated! Comment on the author not having released a new edition, maybe, but keep it in the context of its times!

  2. I thought the debunking research on the Genovese thing was older than that... I don't even know.


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