What is a Tipping Point?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A tipping point is the moment at which something becomes irreversible and unstoppable. Tipping points occur because momentum builds up, often slowly and quietly, until a point when it is impossible to go back to a previous state. The concept of the tipping point has been discussed in numerous disciplines, including sociology, economics, and epidemiology, and a number of theories have been posited about tipping points and how they work.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

The "tipping point" in the sense of social trends became a topic of intense interest after the publication of a book by Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist who borrowed the concept from epidemiology to illustrate his theories. Gladwell looks at a tipping point as a moment of "critical mass," when a trend, idea, or concept becomes a juggernaut, and he has some very specific theories about how a tipping point is created.

According to Gladwell, a small event can create a ripple effect, assuming that the event influences the right person. His tipping point theory suggests that certain people are decidedly more influential in society, and that when these individuals adopt a new style or trend, they can quickly trigger a tipping point event. For example, if a few trendsetters in Paris start wearing a particular brand of coat, the style will be picked up by astute followers of fashion, and eventually by the general public, leading to an explosion in sales for that product.

Tipping points aren't just about fashion. They can involve economic trends, sociological events, or even the environment. Learning to identify tipping points is critical in the marketing world, where people want to stay on top of emerging trends and ideas so that they can target the right market at the right time with particular products. It can also be important to governments, as the ability to identify the point of no return would allow a government to stop a serious situation before it becomes irreversible.

Radical social movements are often driven by a tipping point which unites the majority of the populace in an effort to create change, as for instance in numerous revolutionary struggles throughout history. Devastating environmental trends also involve tipping points, which may revolve around environmental policy, standard practices in particular industries, and public perception of the environment. Humans tend to move and think collectively when enough humans have embraced a concept, making the achievement of a tipping point critical for everything from addressing racism to preventing an economic collapse.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


absolutely the term I'm looking for to describe relationships that cannot be repaired, irreversibly damaged, that separation is inevitable. Hit the tipping point.


There is a very interesting book with the title, "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. He writes of several tipping points. We may be coming close to a tipping point with our fiscal policies (or lack of them).

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