Malcolm Gladwell: The Power Of Context

6 June 2016

In the passage from The Power Of Context, Gladwell explores the behaviors of people and links them together to form a rather controversial argument about whether it is the surroundings of a person that causes him or her to do wrong or whether it is the person’s moulding of their mind that causes them to do so.

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However, I have come to loggerheads with many aspects of Gladwells’s discussion and examples written on in the passage as I, for one, do not feel like the experiments or the specimens that are illustrated in the Power Of Context are sufficient in terms of content and relevance in order for him to think that he’s figured out the main reason behind the thought-process of criminals or even what these ‘tipping points’ that can apparently change the entire anatomy of a person’s thoughts and intentions.

I think that a human being’s mind holds much more complexity and can’t easily be defined using two relatively simple experiments and the example of Goetz in the train station.

The three examples provided in The Power Of Context-apart from being extraneous- are also rather different circumstances for the reader to be able to relate to them and understand what Gladwell is going on about. The degree of the ‘tipping point’ or the circumstance that people find themselves in when Gladwell examines them are not consistent with the point he is trying to make.

These ‘tipping points’ are different in each example and even the people used in each example have different backgrounds; not letting the reader assess for themselves what they really think about Gladwell’s argument about whether Social Context is more important than the way a person was brought up and what values have been instilled into this person. If the backgrounds of the people used in the experiments were relatively similar, it would make Gladwell’s point much easier to understand.

Gladwell openly states that Goetz did have a troubled upbringing being ‘the focus of his father’s rage’ (Gladwell, pg.158). On the other hand, the subjects used for the Stanford experiment came from ‘good schools and happy families and good neighborhoods.’(Zimbardo, pg162).

If the same ‘type’ of people were used in all three experiments displayed, it would make it easier to understand Gladwell’s point, as the reader would be able to see the different reactions in each different situation using a common personality.

We would have truly been able to see whether it is the situation a person is in that causes him/her to act a certain way or is it the person themselves who reaches this particular ‘tipping point’ that overrides everything they have been taught to do or not to do.

I also feel that the degree of severity in each example varies tremendously, making the experiments less credible. By the degree of severity, I mean that the level of ‘change’ or the ‘tipping point’ that the subjects are put into compared to their daily lives varies tremendously. Certain social contexts like being trapped in a jail cell would make a human being show much different and extreme reactions than the other ‘tipping points’ like being in the presence of broken windows and graffiti.

For the sake of understanding, if we took the same person who doesn’t have any emotional imbalance and has lead a ‘normal’ life, and we put him in all of three situations that Gladwell uses, we would see different results that displayed how different the changes between the contexts are.

We would expect the person to get a bit hysteric when being put in a jail cell for a couple of days, we would expect the person to stop for the injured man on street if he wasn’t late and vice versa, but we most certainly would not expect the same person to shoot 4 men who try to pull off a casual robbery.

The circumstances in each case are way too different to be counted as valid reasoning for Gladwell’s argument a human being would react differently in each of those situations.

I personally feel that it further complicates Gladwell’s argument about whether social context affects a person more than the upbringing of the person themselves.

This is because we did not get the results we expected in the Goetz experiment and if an experiment in which the relatable tipping points were used, we would have been able to understand the argument further. In the NYC Subway example with Goetz, Gladwell contradicts his main point by giving us a background of Goetz’s life.

The background doesn’t justify the shooting of the muggers on the train but what it does is invalidates Gladwell’s ‘Broken Window’ theory(James Q. Wilson, pg155). Even though the ‘Broken Windows’ theory was vital in reducing the Subway crime rate, giving an example like one of Goetz was irrelevant as it potrays someone who is quite literally a ticking time bomb waiting to explode reacting to the circumstances.

Yes, the broken windows and graffiti had a lot to do with the crime in the Subway but I do feel that Gladwell could’ve used a much more effective example to keep his main idea alive in the reader’s minds. The Social Context is definitely comprehendible and makes a valid point, but the story of Goetz does not.

It suggests that it was the troubled childhood that Goetz had that caused the shooting and not the social context which in this case was the robbery. The concept of being put in a jail cell is numbing. Certainly numbing enough to cause a person to change his mindset.

Even though it was a mock prison and all the prisoners knew that they were getting out eventually, the concept of prison was enough to cause the prisoners to start to lose the plot and cause the prison guards to do things that they probably haven’t done before. This experiment did support Gladwell’s claim completely and really helped me understand what Gladwell was going on about.

The surroundings of the prison was enough to change the behavior of the ‘prisoners’ and the ‘guards’ to such a great extent that they would show behavior that they have never shown before. This spoke volumes of how if the situation is extreme enough, it can change even the most ‘normal’ people who were chosen for the experiment.

The average person is not used to being locked up in a 4×4 cell with guards that order to do some awful things, so I feel that more than the surroundings that were causing the change in behavior it was the change in surrounding from their normal, comfortable life that caused the extreme reactions. We’re talking about people with the normal levels of emotion and compassion.

People with families who give and take love. Thus the huge change in their behaviors compared to what we were expecting. From their normal lives where they are constantly in a mode to excel and succeed at everything they do, they were put in a place where all they needed to do was survive.

And a person’s survival instincts can bring out emotions and reactions that one has never seen before. If Gladwell had written about more experiments where the result of the experiment superseded what we were expecting, he could have been able to make his point about social context being more important than a person’s inbred behavior.

I did not feel that in the Good Samaritan experiment, the seminarians could be judged on their level of compassion just by them having to give the reason of why they wished to study theology as personalities or the level of ‘good’ in a person can never be classified into different sections or be graded. The reason why a person chooses to study a particular interest does not have to be related at all to whether that person is helpful or is giving or not.

Thus, even though the only thing that mattered was whether the student was late or not did not speak much about Social Context affecting our behavious. It just said who prioritized being late for the lecture over helping someone in need. If a person really is helpful and really did want to help the man in need, he would. No matter how late he is for the lecture, he would still help.

Yes, some people helped out only because they had time and had just enough amount of compassion in order to help the man out, but there would also have been the few who helped out regardless of whether they were late.

And they are the few who are undeterred by their surrounding and do what they want to do because of the way they were brought up and because of the way their minds were moulded and most certainly not because they had a extra couple of minutes where they thought they’d do a good deed.

I feel thatGladwell could have been able to unravel something truly astounding if he had been able to shine light upon examples that had much better context. I feel that his main idea – about how the smallest of things can cause big results – does certainly have substance behind it but Gladwell wasn’t able to back up his claim according to me.

The Broken Windows theory wasn’t just a fluke; it was very well thought about and even though there were other major ramifications made to solve the crime problem, the Broken Windows theory was vital in doing so.

All in all, we did learn that the different levels of severity cause people to do some amazing things, but I feel that this is at-the-end-of-the-day is how a normal human being would react because everyone does have a ‘tipping point.’ It’s just the matter of how extreme the circumstances need to get for them to ‘tip’ over. Works Cited-

Gladwell, M. “The Power Of Context: Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime.’’ The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.,2000. 133-68.

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