What we think we understand about how people and their behavior operate is actually the opposite from the truth. Seems like a rather powerful statement right off the gate, right? Well, it’s important realize that the way people behave/act is less dependent on their “personality” or their “disposition”, but rather on the environment and context in which they are place in.
Let me explain.
Criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling created a theory called the Broken Windows theory. They “argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.” This excerpt is of course from Page 141 of The Tipping Point (The Power of Context (Part One)). This groundbreaking theory perfectly explains why crime could sometimes be “contagious”; it is a series of behaviors and poor decisions that can somehow be passed on through the minds of people and encourage others to partake in illegal activities. The chapter also talks about how the 1980s New York City crime epidemic was solved through a rather counter-intuitive plan. First, a man named David Gunn decided to stop one seemingly unimportant problem: graffiti. He thought that graffiti was an incentive for bad behavior, just like how a broken window can send a message of anarchy to an entire neighborhood. Gunn proceeded to set up a system which ensured that all trains in the New York Transit were completely “reclaimed”. He made sure that if any delinquents sprayed graffiti on the trains, “we’d walk over with rollers and paint it over. The kids would be in tears, but we’d just be going up and down, up and down. It was a message to them. If you want to spend three nights of your time vandalizing a train, fine. But it’s never going to see the light of day.” Why did Gunn do this? ‘Shouldn’t he be focusing on more serious crimes like murder or rape?’ you ask. But the truth is, graffiti basically sends as signal, a small expression of disorder that “allows” others to do even more serious crimes. The next step was to crack down on fare-beating, which means to not pay for using the subway system. Just like graffiti, fare-beating sends a signal to everyone else that “everything goes, no one will stop you”. Another man named William Bratton, who headed the transit police, “put as many as ten policemen in plainclothes at the turnstiles…The idea was to signal, as publicly as possible, that the transit police were now serious about cracking down on fare-beaters.” Cracking down on these small problems ended up turning around everything; the crime rate for New York City dropped tremendously. Thanks to the Broken Window Theory and the Power of Context, we can all feel safe in the New York subway knowing that someone won’t try to mug us.
But how does this apply to us? What does this tell us about how we can live our lives? According to the Power of Context, our behavior is not affected by “who we are”, but rather “where we are”. For example, anyone, even a murderer, can be kind when everyone is treating him/her in a genial way, but anyone, even a saint, can get pissed off in a long line or in a traffic jam. So why do we characterize people despite the obvious conditions that they are put through? “In one experiment, for instance, a group of people are told to watch two sets of similarly talented basketball players, the first of whom are shooting baskets in a well-lighted gym and the second of whom are shooting baskets in a badly lighted gym (and obviously missing a lot of shots). Then they are asked to judge how good the players were. The players in the well-lighted gym were considered superior…There is something in all of us that makes us instinctively want to explain the world around us in terms of people’s essential attributes: he’s a better basketball player, that person is smarter than I am…The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information. Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)…human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of the situation and context. We will always reach for a “dispositional” explanation for events, as opposed to a contextual explanation.” Malcolm Gladwell states that character “…isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context.” He also talks about himself, saying that “I have a lot of fun at dinner parties. As a result, I throw a lot of dinner parties and my friends see me there and think that I’m fun. But I couldn’t have lots of dinner parties, if my friends instead tended to see me in lots of different situations over which I had little or no control – like, say, faced with four hostile youths in a filthy, broken-down subway – they probably wouldn’t think of me as fun anymore.”
What do I want us all to take away from all this? My main point is that character is not some “essential” trait that we’re all born with and can never change, rather, it is developed through habits and tendencies and can be easily manipulated through the context and situation you are in. So next time you want to judge someone as “mean”, “stupid”, or “weird”, try to imagine yourself in their situation, and you’ll learn to understand.
I want to leave you with one lasting impression which is almost guaranteed to convince you of the Power of Context. “In the early 1970s, a group of social scientists at Stanford University, led by Philip Zimbardo, decided to create a mock prison in the basement of the university’s psychology building…Seventy-five applied, and from those Zimbardo and his colleagues picked the 21 who appeared the most normal and healthy on psychological tests. Half of the group were chosen, at random, to be guards…the other half were told that they were to be prisoners…The purpose of the experiment was to try to find out why prisons are such nasty places. Was it because prisons are full of nasty people, or was it because prisons are such nasty environments that they make people nasty?…The guards, some of whom had previously identified themselves as pacifists, fell quickly into the role of hard-bitten disciplinarians…The guards…stripping them, spraying them with fire extinguishers…’There were times when we were pretty abusive, getting in their faces and yelling at them…It was part of the whole atmosphere of terror.’ …’It was completely the opposite from the way I conduct myself now…I think I was positively creative in terms of my mental cruelty.’ After 36 hours, one prisoner began to get hysterical, and had to be released. Four more then had to be released because of ‘extreme emotional depression, crying, rage, and acute anxiety.’ Zimbardo had originally intended to have the experiment run for two weeks. He called it off after six days….’I began to feel that I was losing my identity…I was 416. I was really my number and 416 was really going to have to decide what to do.’…Zimbardo’s conclusion was that there are specific situations so powerful that they can overwhelm our inherent predispositions. The key word here is situation. Zimbardo isn’t talking about environment, about the major external influences on all of our lives. He’s not denying that how we are raised by our parents affects who we are, or that the kind of schools we went to, the friends we have, or the neighborhoods we live in affect our behavior. All of these things are undoubtedly important…His point is simply that there are certain times and places and conditions when much of that can be swept away, that there are instances where you can take normal people from good schools and happy families and good neighborhoods and powerfully affect their behavior merely by changing the immediate details of their situation.”