How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference

The Tipping Points

Harry Cheslaw
8 min readSep 1, 2019

By Malcom Gladwell

The Three rules of the tipping point are:

  • Law of the few
  • The Stickiness factor
  • The Power of Context

“The law of thew few looked at the kinds of people who are critical in spreading information….in order to be capable of sparking epidemics, ideas have to be memorable and move to action…epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur”.

Law of the Few

The first law of social epidemics is the Law of the Few. In all social epidemics, a small handful of people wield a disproportionate amount of power.

The Law of the Few contends that before widespread popularity can be attained, a few key types of people must champion an idea, concept, or product before it can reach the tipping point. Gladwell describes these key types as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. If individuals representing all three of these groups endorse and advocate a new idea, it is much more likely that it will tip into exponential success.

Gladwell argues that some people matter more than others. He goes on to describe the 80/20 principle with examples such as 20% of criminals commit 80% of crimes. An analysis was performed on an gonorrhoea epidemic in Colorado and it was found that half of all cases came from four neighbourhoods representing 6% of the total geographic area.

Stickiness Factor

For a message to be contagious it must be sticky. Gladwell uses the example of the slog “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”. This slogan became instaneously catchy catapulting the Winston cigarette brand to the forefront.

Power of Context

Gladwell describes how context can have a large effect on humans and does this through the “bystander problem”. This was discovered by Two New York psychologists who through conducting a variety of tests found that one factor above all else predicted how subjects performed with this being the number of witnesses present.

An example experiment put subjects in a room next to another room in which an actor had an epileptic fit. If the subject was alone he/she would run to the actor’s help 85% of the time. But when the subject thought that there were four other people hearing the seizures they went to help only 31% of the time.

“The power of context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem.”

The Law of the Few — A Deeper Look

Small World Problem

The small-world phenomenon — the principle that we are all linked by short chains of acquaintances, or “six degrees of separation” — is a fundamental issue in social networks; it is a basic statement about the abundance of short paths in a graph whose nodes are people, with links joining pairs who know one another — Wikipedia.

Gladwell describes how in the 1960s the psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to find an answer to the small-world problem and discover how an idea or trend spreads through a population.

For his experiment, he got the names of 160 people who lived in Omaha and mailed each of them a packet. In the packet was the name and address of a stockbroker who worked in Boston and lived in Sharon Massachusetts. Each person was instructed to write his/her name on the packet and send it on to a friend of acquittance who he thought would get the packet closer to the stock broker. When the letters reached the broker, Stanley could via the names on the packet see how the letter got to its destination and how many people it went through!

“Milgram found that most of the letters reached the stockbroker in five or six steps. This experiment is where we get the concept of six degrees of separation”.

“How did the packet get to Sharon in just five steps? The answer is that in the six degrees of separation, not all degrees are equal. When Milgram analysed his experiment, for example, he found that many of the chains from Omaha to Sharon followed the same asymmetrical pattern. Twenty-four letters reached the stockbroker at his home in Sharon and of those, sixteen were given to him by the same person (a clothing merchant). The balance of letters came to him at his office and of those the majority came through two other men…In all, half of the responses that came back to the stock-broker were delivered to hum by these same three people.”

“Six degrees of separation does not mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.”

Little Things Can Make A Big Difference + Power of Context

To show the subtleties of persuasion, Gladwell describes a study in which a large group of students were recruited for what they were told was a market research study by a company making high-tech technology.

  • The students were given a headset and told that the company wanted to test how well they worked when in motion.
  • The students listened to music and then heard a radio editorial arguing that tuition at their university would be raised from its present level of $550 to $750.
  • A third of students were told to nod their head up and down.
  • The next third were told to shake their head from side to side.
  • The test group kept their head still.
  • They asked the students various headphone questions and slipped in the question “What do you feel would be an appropriate dollar amount for undergraduate tuition per year?”
  • The students control group average $582, those who shook their heads side to side wanted tuition to fall to $467 a year and the final group wanted tuition to rise to $646.

Fundamental Attribute Error

The Fundamental Attribute Error is “a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behaviour, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the important of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context”

Subjects were told to watch two groups of people playing basketball with one group playing basketball in a badly light gym. When questioned, the players in the well light gym were deemed as superior with the participants not paying attention to the wider context.

“There is something in all of us that makes us instinctually want to explain the world in terms of people’s essential attributes”

Good Samaritan Experiment

Darley and Batson conducted a experiment to see the power of context. They made an experiment at the Princeton Theological Seminary and is a important demonstration of the power of context.

“Darley and Batson met with a group of seminarians, individually, and asked each one to prepare a short, extemporaneous talk on a given biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it. Along the way to the presentation, each student ran into a man slumped in an alley groaning.”

The professors introduced three variables into the experiment:

  • They gave the students a questionnaire about why they had chosen to study theology.
  • Then they varied the subject of the theme the students were asked to talk about. Some were asked to speak on the relevance of the professional clergy to the religious vocation while others were given the parable of the good samaritan.
  • The context was then varied. In some cases, he sent the students on their way, the experimenter would look at his watch and say, “Oh you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We’d better get moving.” In other cases, he would say, “It will be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head over now”.

Results: The first two variables made no difference. The only thing which made any difference was the final variable — context. Of the group that was in a rush only 10% stopped to help. Of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare, 63% stopped.

Channel Capacity

“There is a concept in cognitive psychology called channel capacity, which refers to the amount of space in our brain for certain kinds of information.”

The natural limit shows up again and again in simple tests. This limit is 7.

“There seems to be some limitation built into us either by learning or by the design of our nervous systems, a limit that keeps our channel capacities in this general range” — the psychologist George Miller concluded in his famous essay “The Magic Number Seven”. This is the reason that telephone numbers have seven digits (without area or international codes).

The British anthropologist Robert Dunbar has made the case for a social channel capacity.

“Most of human evolution took place before the advent of agriculture when men lived in small groups, on a face-to-face basis. As a result human biology has evolved as an adaptive mechanism to conditions that have largely ceased to exit. Man evolved to feel strongly about few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time; and these are still dimensions of life that are important to him.”-S.L. Washburn

Primates (monkeys, baboons, humans) are different from other mammals due to the size of the neocortex (deals with rational thought) which is huge by mammal standards. Dunbar argues that this allowed larger group sizes to operate. If you belong to a group of five you need to keep track of ten relationships (you and four others and the six other two way relationships), a group of twenty has 190 relationships to keep track of. Humans are the animals with the largest group sizes as are the only animals with large enough neocortex’s to handle an environment. Dunbar has made an equation in which he plugs in neocortex ratio (% of brain which is neocortex) and returns the maximum group size.

For humans its 150.


Gore Associates is multimillion-dollar high-tech firms based on Newark, Delaware. Gore is the company that makes the Gore-Text fabric.

At Gore there are no titles. Everyone is an associate. People do not have bosses they have sponsors who mentor them. Salaries are determined collectively

Gore discovered the rule of 150 by itself. The late founder of Gore said that “We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty…so 150 employees per plant became the company goal. In the electronics division of the company, that means that no plant was built larger than 50,000 square feet, since there was almost was almost no way to put many more than 150 people in a building that size”. When Gladwell visited Gore they had just split their Gore-Tex apparel business into two in order to keep under the 150 limit.

Adoption Study

What determines your character traits? Studies have shown that character traits are half determined by genes and half determined by our environment. It was often thought that the environment which played the largest role in our lives was home. However, the effect of the home has not been showed in studies.

The most famous is the Colorado Adoption Project. In the mid-1970s, a group of researchers at the University of Colorado led by Robert Plomon recruited 245 pregnant women from the Denver area who were about to give their children up for adoption. They then followed the children into their new homes, giving them a battery of personality and intelligence tests at regular intervals. They then did the same study with children and their biological parents. The results were strange. The adopted children’s scores have nothing whatsoever in common with their adoptive parents and are no more similar to a random stranger.