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Book Club Kits: The Tipping Point

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Book Summary

The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell looks at why major changes in our society so often happen suddenly & unexpectedly. Ideas, behavior, messages, & products, he argues, often spread like outbreaks of infectious disease. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a few fare-beaters & graffiti artists fuel a subway crime wave, or a satisfied customer fill the empty tables of a new restaurant. These are social epidemics, & the moment they take off, they reach their critical mass, or, the Tipping Point. Gladwell introduces us to the particular personality types who are natural pollinators of new ideas & trends, the people who create the phenomenon of word of mouth, & he analyzes fashion trends, smoking, childrens television, direct mail, & the early days of the American Revolution for clues about making ideas infectious. He also visits a religious commune, a successful high-tech company, & one of the worlds greatest salesmen to show how to start & sustain social epidemics.

Read an excerpt.

Discussion Questions

1. The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. At what point does it become obvious that something has reached a boiling point and is about to tip?

2. The possibility of sudden change is at the center of the idea of the "Tipping Point"—big changes occurring as a result of small events. If we agree that we are all, at heart, gradualists, our expectations set by the steady passage of time, is it reassuring to think that we can predict radical change by pinning their tipping points? Can we really ensure that the unexpected becomes the expected?

3. The 80/20 Principle states that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the 'work' will be done by 20 percent of the participants. This idea is central to the Law of the Few theory where a tiny percentage of people do the majority of work. But say you took those 20 people who do all the "work" away, would changes or epidemics never occur or would the next 20 people step into that role and assume the position of "workers"? Is one born an exceptional person, a 'one of the few,' or could someone eventually learn how to become a member of this exceptional group?

4. Stickiness means that a message makes an impact and doesn't go in one ear and out the other. Take a simple, every day example of this. Think about a song that you couldn't get out of your head or that television commercial you still remember from when you were a kid. Could you pinpoint what it is you think makes them "sticky?"

5. Would you rather see a film, eat at a restaurant or shop at a store on hearing from a friend that it's good or do you prefer to go in 'blind' with no expectations? Is the word-of-mouth phenomenon a strictly organic process or can it be manipulated? By this, I mean, do products circulate via word-of-mouth solely based on their merit and impact on the consumer or is it possible for marketers to create buzz from people paid to do so? Would this work or would this fail as soon as the 'word' got beyond the 'fixed' transmitters?

6. Connectors—the kinds of people who know everyone and possess special gifts for bringing the world together. What kind of careers and job titles would you expect Connectors to have? Connectors are defined by having many acquaintances, a sign of social power, but do you think a Connector privileges quantity over quality? How do Connectors embody the maxim "it's not what you know but who you know?"

7. Maven—means one who accumulates knowledge and who has information on a lot of different products or prices or places. Could anyone be a maven if they just have the diligence and desire to learn a specific craft or area of knowledge?

8. Salesmen—are the select group of people with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing. Discuss what you think makes a good salesman? Think about the last time you were in a store and what you liked or didn't like about the retail person assisting you? Have you ever felt suckered into buying something or recognized the only reason you bought an item (or even one in ever color) was because of the person selling it to you?

9. What would you describe yourself as—a connecter, maven or salesman? Think of the people you know and who out of them best exemplifies these categories and why?

10. What makes a message memorable? What about the commercial we dislike and we only recall because it irritated us so intensely? Haven't the advertisers fulfilled their purpose by the sheer fact you remember their commercial? Does this mean that the cliché "even bad publicity is good publicity" is right? If something gets noticed and sticks in the viewer's mind then does the nature of the message not matter?

11. We have become, in our society, overwhelmed by people clamoring for our attention. This information age has created a stickiness problem. Has the excessive amount of choice proved counter-productive for American consumerism? For instance, walking down the cereal aisle at the supermarket do you...

  • Buy way more than you need after spotting 3 new attractive, discounted products? 
  • Head straight to your regular brand, walking out with the same cereal you have had since you were a kid?
  • Become paralyzed with indecision and leave after 2 hours with a loaf of bread?

12. What are some of the desperate measures taken by advertisers, publicists and celebrities to get noticed and stay in the limelight? How has the level of shock tactics used to grab public attention escalated and changed over time? Do we risk become totally desensitized as a culture, immune to the eyebrow-raising, attention-grabbing ploys of marketers?

13. The Rule of 150 suggests that the size of the group is another one of those subtle contextual factors that can make a big difference. Groups under the size of 150 are more effective as they can exploit the bonds of memory and peer pressure. Is there a particular group or organization that you consider successful and if so, what do you think makes them so effective?

14. Do you believe that it was essentially the 'cool' marketing campaign that tipped the Airwalk trend? Can you think of other more current products that have exploded onto the market with an equally impressive advertising assault? Would Apple computers and the iPod phenomenon, for example, be as popular if it didn't have it's signature marketing campaign?

15. How do weird, idiosyncratic things that really cool kids do end up in the mainstream? They are translated from a highly specialized world into a language the rest of us can understand. So, when we judge things as being weird and idiosyncratic are we really saying that we just don't understand it? It's not the product but our interpretation of it that is limited? Could everything, if 'sugarcoated' in a way we recognize, ultimately, become palatable and even enjoyable?

16. The epidemics of suicide and smoking are complex and largely unconscious contagions with far more subtle undercurrents at work. One explanation beyond rationale is that as humans we get permission to act by seeing others engage in deviant acts. When we engage in dangerous or reckless behavior of any kind, how much of our decision to do so is conscious versus unintentional?

17. Are you a smoker or have you ever been? What do you think makes some people pick up the habit while others steer clear of it their whole lives?

18. What are your opinions on the nature vs. nurture debate? Do you agree that environment plays a bigger role in shaping and influence children than genetics and personality?

19. What underlies successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus. Can leopards really change their spots and do you agree that it only takes the smallest infractions to cause the greatest changes? With the slightest push in the right place, can the world around us be tipped?

Author Bio

• Birth—September 3, 1963

• Where—Fareham, Hampshire, England, U.K.

• Raised—Elmira, Ontario, Canada

• Education—B.A., University of Toronto

• Currently—New York, New York, USA

Malcolm T. Gladwell is an English-Canadian journalist, bestselling author, and speaker. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He has written five books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009), and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). The first four books were on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Gladwell's books and articles often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in the areas of sociology, psychology, and social psychology. Gladwell was appointed to the Order of Canada 1n 2011.