Summary of The Power of Context by Malcolm Gladwell
In “The Power of Context” by Malcolm Gladwell, the author proposes a theory to explain the phenomenon that occurred when the sudden period of intense cleaning and maintenance of crime-infested New York City was able to slash crime
rates to astonishing new lows. During his vacation in Africa, Gladwell witnessed the AIDS epidemic firsthand, when the HIV virus was initially contained within a small group of homosexuals, but passed the “Tipping Point” – a critical point that when exceeded, the rate at which a process proceeds significantly increases – and rapidly infected a large portion of the population. Gladwell applies this concept in his essay “The Power of Context,” suggesting that when the crime in New York City passed and went below the Tipping Point, a chain reaction began that led the crime rate to decrease exponentially. He provides an account of the steps leading to the recovery of the city, supporting his general theory that the environment exerts greater influence over a person’s mentality and actions than previously realized, as it behaves as a mechanism that triggers abnormal emotions and personalities. Gladwell’s arguments can be traced to the ongoing debate in the psychological field over Nature versus nurture, as he cites numerous examples of people being affected and manipulated by their surroundings, such as the story of Bernie Goetz and the four youths and the Good Samaritan study; however, he fails to provide and refute counterexamples to his theory. While Gladwell is correct in the sense that the environment can considerably influence many, the majority of these impressionable people are weak-willed, and it can be observed that those with strong mentalities can resist any controlling forces that the environment may exert.
Gladwell paints a vivid picture of New York City in the 1980s, when its crime rate was “in the grip of one of the worst crime epidemics in its history” (288). The most frightening scene of all, Gladwell describes, was the subway, a site plagued by countless problems ranging from robbery to murder. Muggings and other violent crimes were daily occurrences on the trains, as “New York City averaged well over 2,000 murders and 600,000 serious felonies a year” (287). However, the focus of Gladwell’s tale of the New York City subway system directs attention to the more obvious but less serious surroundings, for example, graffiti, panhandlers and fare beaters. Gladwell thoroughly details such “Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes,” (292) because he believes these events are Tipping Points of violent crime, as theorized by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in their Broken Windows theory, suggesting crime is contagious. Gladwell goes deep into the details about the incident involving Bernie Goetz, declaring the environment is in control of everyone in the train. However, Gladwell downplays the characters of the witnesses riding in the same train; while Goetz and the four youths were under the spell of the graffiti, the other passengers were sitting, not committing violent crimes. Though the crime rate on the subway did increase dramatically during the eighties, a period of rampant graffiti, Gladwell’s statement claiming “Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependant, at certain times, on circumstance and context,” (297) is not justified by the story. The passengers riding along with Goetz did not submit to the writing on the train walls and commit violent crimes, which disproves Gladwell’s theory that all humans are slaves to their environment.
Gladwell also points out the concept known as the Fundamental Attribution Error, a theory that suggests people tend to undermine the importance of situation, and overestimate the impact of personal character. Gladwell includes the Good Samaritan study to prove the theory correct, which shows seminarians being rushed to a speech had a ten percent chance of helping a downtrodden person whereas students with time to spare helped the man sixty-three percent of the time. Gladwell maintains that the time constraint made “Someone who was ordinarily compassionate into someone who was indifferent to suffering – of turning someone, in that particular moment, into a different person,” (299). While the study is very convincing of Gladwell’s proclamation, ten percent of the students in a rush were able to break out of the situation’s submission hold and help the broken man, further supporting the idea that the majority of people tend to succumb to the power of context and the rare heroic type is unable to be bound by anything other than his or her own will, as well as refuting Gladwell’s conjecture.