This Study Reveals the Tipping Point in Behavior Change (And How You Can Use It)


In 1965, a social psychologist called Howard Levanthal wanted to see if he could persuade a group of university students at Yale University to get a tetanus jab. [1]

He divided them up into several groups, and gave all of them a seven-page booklet explaining the dangers of tetanus, the importance of inoculation, and the fact that the university was offering free tetanus jabs at the campus health centre to anyone interested. [2]

The booklets came in several versions. Some of the students were given a “high fear” version, which described tetanus in graphic terms and included colour photographs of a child having a tetanus seizure. In the “low fear” version, the language describing the risks of tetanus was toned down, and the photographs were omitted.

Levanthal wanted to know what impact the different booklets had on the subjects’ attitudes toward tetanus and their likelihood of getting a jab.

The results, as you can imagine, were quite predictable. When they were given a questionnaire later, all the students appeared to be clued up about the dangers of tetanus.

But those who were given the high-fear booklet, were more convinced of the importance of jabs and were more likely to say they were going to get inoculated.

Sadly, when Levanthal looked at how many of the subjects actually went and got the jab, all of these differences vanished.

One month after the experiment, almost none of the students had actually gone to the health centre: only a mere 3 percent had got inoculated.

For some reason, the subjects had forgotten everything they had learnt about the dangers of tetanus, and the lessons they had been taught had not been applied.

The experiment didn’t inspire change in the students. So, what happened?

Why Information Doesn’t Lead To Action

Sir Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power”, but as studies like the aforementioned show, seldom is knowledge enough to overcome the inertia of starting. The reality is, knowledge is only as powerful as its application.

If you’re a regular reader, you’re probably interested in behaviour change and habit formation, and how you can create widespread changes in your life. The problem is, as much as we’re advocates for change, we fear it.

On an intellectual and emotional level, we know change is inevitable, and to cope with that reality, we may even choose to embrace it (be it consciously or unconsciously).

This is evident in the new romantic partners we date, the careers we change and the new countries we relocate to: we believe change will lead to growth and we will be better off for it.

The problem is, as much as we understand that, even perceptibly insignificant changes in our daily routine, like eating a healthier meal, replying to an important email – or going to a health centre for a tetanus jab – can be enough to dissuade us.

In order to schedule new behaviours into your routine, it’s not enough to know you have to do them: you have to simplify and reduce the scope of new behaviours as much as possible. In other words, give yourself a guide map to follow . . .

The Tipping Point

When Levanthal redid the experiment, he made one small change and one that was enough to tip the vaccination rate up to 28 percent.

The Tipping Point? He simply included a map of the campus, with the university health building circled and the times the jabs were available.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Of the 28 percent who got inoculated, an equal number were from the high-fear and low-fear group. The students knew, without seeing explicit pictures, what the dangers of tetanus were, and what they ought to be doing.

And, most interestingly, it’s doubtful any of them would have even used the map! As seniors, many would have already familiarised themselves with the health centre’s location, and dozens more would have dropped in previously with health concerns of their own.

In his bestselling book: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell explains:

What the tetanus intervention needed in order to tip was not an avalanche of new or additional information. What it needed was a subtle but significant change in presentation. [3]

The difference that made a difference, was the students needed to know how to fit the tetanus jab into their lives. As Gladwell continues:

The addition of the map and the times when the shots were available shifted the booklet from an abstract lesson in medical risk to a practical and personal piece of medical advice.

Once the advice become practical and personal, it become memorable and therefore, easier to apply.

Finding Your Tipping Point

Gladwell defines a Tipping Point as:

A place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is – contrary to all our expectations – a certainty.

As we learnt from studying Choice Architecture, marginal changes in context greatly influence our behaviours. And, as Gladwell concludes, even changes in how new behaviours are presented to us can be enough to inspire us to start.

Those re-presentations, are often our Tipping Points: those moments where everything changes for the better.

If you’re currently encountering obstacles to change, your challenge may not be the obstacles themselves, but how you’re framing the solutions to those obstacles.

Dieting? Don’t leave meals to chance. Plan ahead. Systemise your meals if need be. It may sound boring to begin with, but focus on simplicity and consistency before introducing variety.

Professor B.J. Fogg of the Persuasion Tech Lab invites dieters to forget about abstract instructions and to instead, focus on concrete ones. “Lose 14 pounds” isn’t practical and personal, but “Take the stairs instead of the elevator”, is. [4]

If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur and your new business is underperforming, ask yourself: “Is it my business that’s the problem or the strategy I’m using?” In other words, are your services as accessible to prospects as they could be? If not, what could you do differently? A revision of what you’re currently doing – and more importantly, not doing – can often work wonders.

You don’t need to attend another seminar, enrol on another course or read another book to boost your self-esteem. You need to use the resources that are already available to you and change your perspective. Be of service to someone other than yourself. Perform a random act of kindness. Practice gratitude. Do something that is at the cause, rather than the effect of the behaviour you want to change.

These – and countless other examples – have one lesson in common: when you make behaviours you want as accessible as possible – both for yourself and others – your Tipping Point becomes an inevitable by-product.

Gladwell is right: little things do make a big difference, so take care of them – and your Tipping Point will take care of itself.


[1] Leventhal, H. (1965) ‘Effects of Fear and Specificity of Recommendation upon Attitudes and Behavior’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2(1), pp. 20-29.

[2], [3] Gladwell, M. (2000) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, London: Little Brown.

[4] Fogg, B.J. (2010) Top 10 Mistakes in Behaviour Change . . . And Some Ways You Can Fix Them(Accessed: 6th November 2014).