2001: I am not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Review of “The Tipping Point” from The Lancet.

I actually quite enjoy Gladwell’s articles – a bit solutionist at times but he can tell a story well. Like many other books by New Yorker writers whose New Yorker pieces I quite enjoy, Gladwell’s books tend to disappoint. From The Lancet in Feb 2001, here is a not very flattering article on The Tipping Point.

The Tipping Point clearly has influenced Nudge and a range of other small-things-make-a-big-difference approaches to social issues. As a principle it is not inherently wrong, and the examples Gladwell discusses are pretty interesting…. but the complexity and subtlety of a situation can get missed.

Looking back on this review, I was (am?) prone to some hackneyed phrases (“insightful pieces with quicksilver intelligence” for instance) and the piece doesn’t really hang together – I evidently dislike the book, but why? I seem to only cite literary grounds, finding Gladwell’s style here a bit annoying. Looking back, it is clear the solutionism is pretty rampant here, and I could have reflected more critically on that:

The new New Thing
Seamus Sweeney
Published: 03 February 2001

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(05)71540-3

The tipping point has much to recommend it—certain fascinating ideas and phenomena explained clearly. But it also has much to deplore—tendencies towards pop psychology and writing to match. The book is subtitled “How little things can make a big difference”, and Gladwell uses the sharp fall in crime in New York City in the 1990s and the sudden hipness of Hush Puppies, previously chronically unfashionable, to introduce the book, as examples of sudden, unpredictable trends. He claims to apply the thinking of an epidemiologist to how social and cultural trends spread. “The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”, the tiny, decisive moment where the slightest push makes all the difference.

Gladwell tells us of the “Three Rules of Epidemics.” The first is The Law of the Few—in any epidemic, a small group of people infect a disproportionate amount of people. He uses the examples of Darnell “Boss Man” McGee, who infected at least 30 women with HIV, and Gaetan Dugas, “Patient Zero”, the flight attendant linked to over 40 of the earliest cases of AIDS in New York and San Francisco. The same principle applies to social and cultural epidemics. Gladwell defines who the few are: Connectors, who know a lot of people in different social groupings; Mavens, well-informed people who discover new products, concepts and trends; and Salesmen, who persuade people to try The New Thing. A social epidemic must touch base with representatives of all three groups. The second rule of epidemics is the Stickiness Factor. Gladwell uses the examples of the famous Winston’s cigarettes slogan (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”) and the story of Sesame Street to illustrate the properties of The New Thing that make it memorable. The third law of epidemics is the Power of Context. In 1964, a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in Queens on the street with her 38 neighbours watching, none of whom bothered to call the police. At the time it was cited as evidence of the selfishness induced by urban life. But subsequent psychological work found that in such events, the biggest factor that determines whether someone helps is the number of witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely that an individual will take the responsibility to act; it is diffused among too many people. In other words, the effect of The New Thing depends on the context.

Gladwell invokes the tumble in New York crime statistics, and in particular the concept known as “Broken Windows”; apparently petty crime like graffiti or broken windows acts as a suitable context for violent crime. Thus minor changes such as cleaning up graffiti help spread the social epidemic of not committing crime. The lesson here is that context is crucially important in behaviour. A rather mean-spirited experiment on a group of seminarians is cited as proving this; they were asked to prepare a sermon and cross over to another building. Some were told to sermonise on “The Good Samaritan”, while others were given more general texts. As they headed off, some were told that they were running late while others were told they were early. En route they encountered a man who had collapsed on the ground and was in some distress. It was found that the seminarians who helped the stranger were those who were running early— even those who were about to speak on the Good Samaritan would hurry past if they thought they were late. Thus the physical context (lateness versus punctuality) was more important than the moralistic context (the actual content of the sermon) in determining behaviour.

Gladwell has many more examples than those referred to here; from the epidemic of suicide in Micronesia to the rise and fall of Airwalk sneakers. His universe is a giddy one, one where “with the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped”. As an adventure through a world of ideas, it is highly enjoyable. But as a work of literature, it has an irritating factor of its own.

A critic quoted on the press release for this book compares Gladwell to Edmund Wilson. Another literary figure came to mind: Anthony Robbins, author of Unlimited power and Awaking the giant within. What sounds like a cross between popular science writing and cultural commentary instead occupies a no-man’s-land between books for salesmen and self help books for people who don’t read.

The tipping point marks something of a dumbing down for Gladwell, who writes thought-provoking, insightful pieces with quicksilver intelligence for the New Yorker. One can’t help thinking that Gladwell started writing a very different book, and commercial imperatives took over. Or possibly it is the condescension of the metropolitan New Yorker writer to the little folks out there in Middle America. There is a fascinating book to be written about Gladwell’s basic thesis—that little things not only make a big difference, they make the biggest difference. This is, alas, not it.

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