In 1984, a man named Bernhard Goetz was walking to the subway in New York City. On the subway, a group of four young black men approached Goetz and asked him for five dollars. In response, Goetz revealed his gun and shot the four black men, killing three of them and paralyzing the fourth. In the aftermath of the shooting, Goetz became something of a hero: at a time when crime rates in New York City were skyrocketing, Goetz was perceived as a brave man who “stood up” to dangerous criminals.
As with his earlier chapters, Gladwell begins with a specific example—here, the life of Bernhard Goetz—then doubles back to explain the relevant sociological principles, and finally returns to apply these principles to his original example.
Goetz’s shooting (for which he was ultimately exonerated) occurred in the 1980s, when New York City had a tremendous problem with crime. Yet after 1990, the crime rate went down in New York at a surprising rate. In 1996, Goetz went to trial in civil court. By then, many had forgotten how dangerous New York once was—Goetz had once been a symbol for vigilante heroism, but now, people “seemed to remember precisely what it was that Goetz had once symbolized.” Goetz was widely considered a murderer and a racist.
That Goetz could, at different points in the 80s and 90s, be celebrated as a hero and demonized as a racist murderer is an excellent, if disturbing, example of the importance of context, especially historical context. (Gladwell was criticized for his analysis of the Goetz affair—his lack of political editorializing has been interpreted as tacit support or sympathy for Goetz’s actions.)
It’s hard to pinpoint what, precisely caused the decline in crime in New York between the 80s and the 90s. Gladwell proposes that we can understand the decline in crime by citing the Power of Context: the importance of environmental factors in determining the Tipping Point.
The third rule of social epidemics is environmental in nature: while specific people and products can cause major trends, no trend can “flourish” without the right context.
One reason why the decline in New York City crime is such a mystery is that is happened so quickly. At a time when crime in the U.S. as a whole was declining slowly and steadily, crime in New York declined rapidly and decisively. Some sociologists have attributed the decline in crime to new policing techniques, based in a theory called the “Broken Window Hypothesis”—the idea that major crimes (murder, rape, robbery) are encouraged by seemingly trivial crimes (graffiti, public urination, and broken windows), meaning that cities can reduce serious crimes by clamping down in minor crimes. In the mid-1990s, two important New York City leaders, Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor, and William Bratton, the head of the New York City Police Department, worked together to apply the Broken Window Hypothesis to their city. They clamped down on minor crimes like graffiti, turnstile-jumping, and public urination. Within a few years, crime in New York City—including serious crimes like rape and murder—had plummeted.
The Broken Window Hypothesis is one of the most influential theories in the history of criminology, and it’s been enacted in many different cities, not just New York City. Some have argued that the Broken Window Hypothesis was a runaway success because it “cleaned up” urban decay and paved the way for lower crime rates. Others have argued that the Broken Window Hypothesis was an excuse to excessively persecute black and Latino people under the guise of “cleaning up the city,” and that Giuliani’s policies were only “successful” because tens of thousands of people were being incarcerated for possessing small quantities of cocaine and marijuana. (For further reference, the argument that the Broken Window policies unfairly target minorities and the poor is sometimes called the “sleeping under a bridge” theory.)
The Broken Window Hypothesis and the Power of Context are two versions of the same argument: small environmental details can have major effects on public behavior. In the 80s, Goetz had a reputation among his friends as a short-tempered, often explicitly racist man: he would say that the city needed to “get rid of the spics and niggers.” Three months before he murdered the men on the subway, Goetz had been mugged by three black youths. So in retrospect, it seems easy to “predict” that Goetz would have shot the four black men on the subway. And yet, according to the Broken Window theory, it wasn’t just Goetz’s psychology that led him to shoot; it was the environment he was in at the time. The graffiti on the subway and the general decay of the train put Goetz on edge and made him more likely to “snap” by shooting. This idea, Gladwell argues, is actually politically Liberal (since it presents human beings as the product of their environment), not Conservative, as it’s often said to be.
The Power of Context is a radical idea because it posits that people’s environments are more influential in determining their actions than people’s personalities or innate psychologies. While it’s true that Goetz was a racist and a moody, angry man, it was (Gladwell argues) Goetz’s environment that finally triggered him to shoot at the fatal moment. Gladwell acknowledges that the Broken Window Hypothesis has faced some harsh criticisms (though he doesn’t address the possibility that it unfairly persecutes minorities and the poor), but argues that the hypothesis was ultimately “Liberal.” In interviews, Gladwell has expanded on this point: a “liberal” view of crime, as Gladwell sees it, is that people are products of their environment; in other words, people commit crimes because their environments compel them to do so, not because they’re innately bad people. Therefore, the Broken Window Hypothesis could be said to take a sympathetic view of crime and criminals: rather than implying that criminals are just “bad guys,” it suggests that bad guys do bad things because of external factors.
As we saw in the discussion of “word-of-mouth,” small, almost imperceptible actions and gestures can have a strong influence on people’s behaviors. The same is true of environment: small, almost unnoticeable stimuli can lead to major effects. During the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of the 1970s, volunteers were divided into prisoners and guards in a mock-prison. Disturbingly quickly, the fake “guards” began to treat their fake prisoners cruelly, seemingly forgetting that the experiment was an experiment at all. The experiment became so violent and sadistic that it had to be called off after only six days, though it was originally supposed to go on for two weeks. One of the major conclusions of the experiment was that physical environment can have an almost overpowering influence on human behavior—the prison environment changed the subjects’ behavior very quickly.
The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment is a strong example of how environment can change a person’s behavior in surprisingly major ways. It would be easy to conclude, as some have done, that the Stanford Prison Experiment proves that people are innately wicked. But in fact, Gladwell suggests, environment can influence people to behave in any number of different ways.
Another important experiment for understanding the role of environment on behavior is the Hartshorne/May experiment from the 1920s. In this experiment, students were given a difficult test: half the students were graded objectively, while the other half of the students were instructed to grade their own papers (it was assumed that this second group would cheat on the grading). The goal of the experiment was to measure how students cheat. The results of the experiment were surprising: students would cheat under certain circumstances (the presence of an adult in the room, the subject being tested, the size of the classroom), but not others. There were almost no students who were honest all of the time, or who cheated all of the time—whether or not the students cheated depended on environmental factors.
The Hartshorne/May experiment suggests that children don’t cheat because they’re innately honest or dishonest. Instead, children cheat for a variety of different reasons, depending on what subject they’re being tested on, how many other students are cheating, etc. Intuitively, one might think that honesty is a stable, innate character trait. But as this experiment implies, honesty is subject to environmental influences: people will act with varying degrees of honesty in different contexts.
Humans have a bad habit of attributing human behavior to innate causes (i.e., personality, intelligence, free will, etc.). In fact, environment plays an enormous role in human behavior. Similarly, humans tend to think of one another in terms of sweeping categories like “smart,” “honest,” “hardworking,” etc. In reality, there’s no such thing as a person who’s honest at all times, or a person who’s intelligent in all the many possible senses of intelligence. Different environmental stimuli will reveal different aspects of a person’s honesty, intelligence, etc. Psychologists call this mistake the “Fundamental Attribution Error”; the tendency to “overestimate the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context.”
In this section, Gladwell suggests that the concept of personality is nowhere near as stable as it’s often assumed to be. People may be predisposed to behave in certain ways, but this doesn’t mean that they’ll behave a certain way at all times. The Fundamental Attribution Error also has potential implications for Gladwell’s theories about social epidemics. Gladwell’s arguments about Connectors assume that certain kinds of people naturally enjoy spreading information to their friends, but retrospectively, Gladwell’s arguments about the role of environment could suggest that even the most enthusiastic Connectors are subject to contextual changes; there may be certain situations in which a Connector is more likely to pass on information.
There was an experiment conducted at Princeton University in which Princeton theological students were asked to make a brief presentation on a biblical parable. The students were given some time to prepare their presentations, and then a lab assistant escorted them across the campus to a new building. During this walk, the assistant made sure to lead the students past a groaning, coughing man crawling on the ground (in reality, just an actor). One might assume that almost all the theological students stopped to help the man, especially since the situation was based on one of the most famous biblical parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan. But in fact, the students’ behavior changed greatly, depending on how they were escorted to the other building. When the assistant told the students they were pressed for time, the students almost never stopped to help the man; on the other hand, when the assistant mentioned that there was plenty of the time, the students were much more likely help the man. The point of the experiment is that conviction, personality, and other “fundamental” qualities are often less important than environmental factors (i.e., what the assistant told them about how much time was left) in determining behavior. The simple words “Oh, you’re late,” had the effect of changing otherwise compassionate theological students into oblivious, callous-seeming people.
The Princeton theological seminary experiment is a particularly striking example of the role of environment on behavior because it concerns theological students—in other words, people that would seem to have a particularly stable, clear-cut personality-type (honest, loyal, moral, etc.). If even theological students are subject to subtle contextual changes (they ignored people in need because of a simple phrase, “Oh, you’re late”), then perhaps all human beings are subject to such changes. As with the Kitty Genovese incident, it would be easy to conclude from the experiment that human beings are innately cold and callous. But in fact, humans aren’t innately callous or loving; their behavior can be “tipped” in either direction by a handful of small environmental cues.
Gladwell is not saying that personality and psychology are unimportant in determining behavior. However, measures of psychological health and personality measure a person’s inclination to behave a certain way. In the real world, whether or not a person in fact does behave a certain way is subject to environmental stimuli. The distinction between inclination and action is at the heart of the Power of Context, and the Broken Window Hypothesis. Even if criminal psychology cannot be cured, society can reduce crime by controlling the environments and spaces that often encourage crime.
Gladwell adds an important qualifier to his chapter: personality plays a very important role in shaping behavior (if it didn’t, then there wouldn’t be Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen). However, there are times when context can tip human behavior in a certain direction, regardless of personality. So perhaps even Connectors, despite being naturally predisposed to making friends, must live in an environment that encourages them to do so.
To return to Goetz one more time—it’s important to remember how Goetz described his own crime. He said that, in the ugly, graffiti-ridden subway, it was difficult to be sane, and added that he behaved “like a rat.” Gladwell notes, “Of course he did. He was in a rat hole.”
Political activists have criticized Gladwell for his depiction of Bernhard Goetz: even though Gladwell notes Goetz’s racist behavior, he ultimately characterizes Goetz as a product of his “rat hole” environment: an assessment that some have interpreted as overly sympathetic. Gladwell’s theory of tipping points doesn’t fit perfectly with either Liberal or Conservative politics, since it suggests that people’s actions are subject to contextual triggers, and are, in a sense, irrational.