The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

What a good idea and better research can lead to. Better yet, what great research and an open mind can lead to. Stopping teens from becoming addicted to cigarettes.


  1. I'm going to try and do in a blog post, what Gladwell did in a couple chapters.

    Smoking is a problem in this country. It is an epidemic that kills hundreds of thousands of people per year. The vast majority of smokers start as a teenager, become addicted and then die a few decades later.

    The past and current attempts at getting teenagers not to smoke have failed. Making it illegal and educating teens on the health risks have not stopped thousands of teenagers from picking up their first cigarette. When polled, teenagers actually overstated the number of years smoking would cut off their lives. (They thought 10 years, but it's closer to 7 years). Teens accurately understand the health risks associated with smoking, yet decide to light up anyways.

    The common misconception is that teenagers start smoking because they want to be cool, yet this is not quite right. The late teen years are when individuals find themselves. When they determine how they will establish themselves apart from their parents, their household and the rest of their environment. "Rebellious" is the most common and accurate term to describe this period, but not in the sense that they want to break the law, rather that they want to test their boundaries, go against the established practices they have followed for years and specifically do not want to conform to those in authority simply because they have been told to do so. Teens don't smoke because they want to be cool. Teens that smoke, do so because they are already cool. Smoking is just one of many symptoms of their rebelliousness. Additionally, teens see the cool kids smoking and interpret smoking as an indicator of coolness. They are particularly susceptible to peer influence. A book worm doesn't pick up smoking to fit in with the cool kids. The rebellious teenager picks up a cigarette to express their coolness. The more you educate and tell them no to smoke, the more they will go right on smoking. In a perverse way, the only way to get non-conforming teenagers to not want to smoke is for it to become acceptable in society, which is impractical and will never happen.

    The key to teenagers rebelliousness is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of teen try smoking. They may even do it for several months to a few years, but not all of them continue to smoke throughout adulthood. The key is that they try smoking to be rebellious, even if they don't necessarily like it or want to continue smoking. The key is to get all those teens who light up, to decide to quit before they become addicted for life.

    For years, the executives of tobacco companies have looked like idiots, proclaiming on national TV, in front of Congress, that smoking, and specifically nicotine, is not addictive. On the other hand, their opponents have looked just as ridiculous proclaiming that nicotine is the most addictive substance on earth. That nicotine is as addictive and dangerous as heroin and cocaine, when common sense indicates that these substances are just not the same. I was surprised to learn that the majority of smokers smoke less than 5 cigarettes a day, fewer than 4 days a week. The majority of smokers aren't addicted the way addiction is portrayed through contemporary media and fiction. Gladwell argues that 5 cigarettes is the tipping point of addiction. Once you smoke more than 5 cigarettes a day you are getting enough nicotine in your body to become addicted.

    Gladwell concludes that by reducing the nicotine levels in a single cigarette to a fifth of their current level, they will still provide the chemical high sought by smokers, while dramatically reducing the addictiveness to casual smokers. You will still have teenagers smoking, but you will see significantly larger percentages give up smoking before they become addicted.

  2. I assume that the one-fifth nicotine level thing was backed up by a bunch of research? What is the projected drop in smokers who remain addicted to cigarettes?

    Also, since you say this is about great research, I am very curious about what other methods have been researched. For instance what is the primary cause of cancer/deaths from cigarettes? Is their research about ways to reduce those causes, so the consequences to smokers can be limited?

  3. 1) Yes, he provided specific #'s, I just couldn't remember them. Something like, cigarettes currently have 30mg of nicotine per stick, and he is recommending dropping to 5-6mg.

    2) Most of the anecdotes in The Tipping Point, specifically show how there are many epidemics that don't follow a linear, or even rational, path. They start off slow and progress slowly, but at some point, they "tip" and simply explode. In the early stages, there is no way to measure the success of a strategy or even no that it will succeed. Most of the time, ideas start slow and fade away into failure.

    3) I believe most tobacco deaths are heart disease and cancer related.

    4) I want to say that this is mostly independent from our other health care discussions. Most writers and ideas try to follow a logical, rational path, to a desired conclusion. This way, you can get people to believe in you from the beginning. Gladwell's emphasis is that the success of some really good ideas in today's society are harder to project than the stock market. It reminds me of Dogma, taking a good idea and building a belief system out of it. How about we just start with a good idea and move forward from there.

  4. I would be really interested to hear you say a few more lines about #4 there. For example, what would be some good ideas we could use as starting points (in any area of society), in your opinion?

  5. That's the REALLY hard part. Gladwell finishes his book talking about a nurse in a bad area trying to educate women about the importance of mammograms by having hairstylists talk about it at hair salons. In today's culture, it is more likely to be seen as a band-aid approach, and it hasn't been around long enough to know if it successful in getting more women to get mammograms.

    The night of Paul Revere's ride, there were two people who went out to let them know the redcoats were coming. Paul Revere and William Dawes. Gladwell explains why Revere was successful in getting a large number of people armed and ready to fight and Dawes couldn't get anyone out of bed.

    My far-reaching goal is to educate on EVERYTHING. Reading, writing, rithmetic. History, art, music, health, sex ed, physical education in a classroom, gun safety, construction and basic house maintenance, auto repair, baking, cooking, child care, pet care, how credit cards and checking accounts work. More life lessons, fewer teachers teaching to the standardized test.

    My starting idea. Allow students to opt of standardized tests for a few years. Stop basing tests on percentiles, because that means there's always a bottom 10%. Base tests on actual scores. Allow those who get a 90% to opt out for 3-5 years. Above 80% opts out for 2 years. Actually track those students who need help and make sure their scores are improving. Teachers will be more creative when they are not "teaching to the test." I know many teachers from previous generations and our generation who inform me that their curriculum is basically determined by the standardized test at the end of the year.

    My other education goals...eventually make school year round, and not in the sense that they are in class 3 months then out one month. Kids can handle being in school for 11 months out of the year. Parents will spend less on child care during the summer. Lower income families will not have their kids fall behind during the summer.

    Let teachers teach whatever and however they want.

  6. But my idea doesn't follow what Gladwell is talking about. It's not a small idea...mine is a radical idea. I don't have any small ideas right now.

  7. Damn you, now I want to hear the Paul Revere and William Dawes story.

    I love the basic premise of your teaching idea. On the one hand I don't know if I completely feel "let teachers teach whatever they want" because I do feel there is some value in having a broad base of knowledge from school - I regularly draw on that knowledge in all areas all the time, even though when I was learning it I thought a lot of the stuff was useless.

    Here is the problem though. From a blog on healthcare by Penelope Trunk comes the following quote about letting teachers follow different goals:

    "...the Institute for the Study of Labor says, “When teachers were offered cash rewards for good performance (measured by factors like grades and parental feedback) student scores on national exams significantly declined.” So I don’t think paying more to people with meaningful work actually gets a more meaningful performance from them."

    The big question after your comments and this quote is this - how are we measuring the success of our students? You suggest using test scores, but to determine top students and objectively evaluate progress, where as this study focuses on "grades and parent feedback" as being success indicators. And apparently those don't correlate with scores. I can only imagine what starts happening when we have no tests.

    Add on top of that Gladwell's statements that it could take a long time to have an effect, and we don't really know if this works, and it's a hard sell.

    I think you captured the whole problem in the very opening of this blog. What's required for these creative solutions is "great research and an open mind." I don't get the feeling that too many people have an open mind, especially when it comes to topics like education unfortunately.

    One possible solution to this is starting small, in some test cases. Select charter schools or private schools might have the leeway to give it a try, as a testing bed for other places. Although the worst schools might benefit the most. What do you think?

  8. I scored very highly on standardized tests through my entire time in school. For math specifically, I always scored in the 99th percentile. I am not trying to brag, but I do wonder how necessary all those standardized tests were? Did I have great teachers at every level, or is it more likely the case that I would have scored so high no matter who was teaching me math or how they were doing it. At the same time, I think there are students who score lowly every time around and nothing really changes. I believe that tests scores are uncorrelated with teacher and school performance, but unfortunately governments use test scores because they have no other way to measure educators.

    2) Such a test program already exists. I learned about it from Outliers, another Malcolm Gladwell book. There is a school in a major metropolitan area that admits students by lottery only. They are at school 8-9 hours a day, and have a couple hours of homework every night. These kids are often working from when they get home to when they go to sleep. They do not get a summer vacation in the traditional sense. I think they get a week or two off, and take a slightly easier schedule, but they are at school 11 months out of the year. Gladwell asked the rhetorical question, why do kids need 3 months off in the summer? The traditional answer is that they are kids and can't be expected to maintain the same workload as adults. Gladwell's research determines that before the industrial revolution, kids were needed at home during the summer to help out on the farm. This is where the traditional September-May school year comes from (as opposed to starting in January and finishing in December). Now, it has been shown in other cultures (I believe he refers to China and Japan) that children do just fine being in school all year long. In fact, the summers off is where children from higher class families gain their education advantage. Sometimes its as simple as having books in the house. Children across all socio-economic levels learn roughly the same throughout the school year, but when they come back after summer, well-off children have taken the tiniest step forward and disadvantaged children end up taking a big step back.

    My tipping point idea. Make summer school mandatory and crime in the US drops to the lowest in the world.

  9. Wow - never thought of how losing education differs across different socio-economic sectors, but it makes complete sense now. Those in well off households have the money and resources to go to summer camps (even a non-educational camp leads to development) whereas those from lower "classes" don't have the wherewithal to send their children to camps; thus, they're forced into less productive, and sometimes destructive environments.

    I'm starting to dig the summer school/year round school idea.

  10. What do you think of government funded summer camps? Hire teachers to maintain a casual learning environment designed to foster development and prevent destructive or regressive behavior. You don't even need to go to a lake with special facilities. Just hold camp at the school, with more playtime and no homework. No tests, or mandated curriculum. Just teachers doing whatever they want to encourage learning and mental stimulation.

  11. I almost feel like the camp should be in a place different from the normal school (even a different school than the kids' normal one is okay) - my reasoning is that being in different environments is productive to better learning... I'm vaguely recalling some research about how you're better off studying for a test in multiple different places throughout the week than always in the same spot in the library...

    I do approve of your plan to have a "casual learning" summer school place, although a mandated curriculum isn't even necessary. Why not just have a lot of elective options and kids can choose? Or a loose framework of subjects and each class or teacher can define the experience as they go? It would be creative, educational, and potentially rewarding for both kids and teachers...

    Annoying question - where would the money for this kind of thing come from?

  12. You mean because we're increasing education spending by 20-33%?

    I have no idea...

    In a backwards way, it would come from the money spent on prisons 15 years from now.