the power of context

Well I’m truly working on reading for pleasure more often. I’m generally seasonal in my reading: I’ll go through weeks of consistent, nightly reading, followed by periods of addictions to Good Eats and Unwrapped (11pm and 11:30pm on Food Network) without reading. Oh well, both are fun, quality decompressors before hittin’ the hay…

That being said, I’ll hopefully post some excerpts from books I’m reading and try to provide some of my original insight if it’s not too weird.

Right now I’m trying to finish up Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which talks about the social epidemics that surround us in our lives (e.g. Blue Clue’s and NYC crime in 1980’s and 1990’s). The book digests the onset of such epidemics into three rules: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. You can read into these more on Gladwell’s own site and/or on Wikipedia which does a decent job of explaining the book.

With respect to The Power of Context, Gladwell says that human behavior is strongly influenced by the situational environment. For the NYC example, crime dropped when graffiti was cleaned off subway cars and fare-cheaters were booked. As the environment was cleaned, so were the behaviors of potential criminals.

In particular, I enjoy Gladwell’s relation of The Power of Context to Walter Mischel’s (Dept of Psych, Columbia / Wikipedia) research on personality psychology. Mischel’s research speaks to how people tend to perceive and define other people in simplified ways, such as aggressive, kind, honest, or patient. However, in reality we are all complex, multifaceted individuals who respond in different ways at different times depending on the dynamic elements of our environment (who we are with, what we are doing, where we are, when we are doing it).

To put this simpler, a person is not independent and mischievous on one day, and warm, honest, and dependent on the next day, but rather he/she is independent, mischievous, warm, honest, and dependent all together – and the impression given, of any of these traits and at any singular moment, is highly dependent upon the situation and the environment, or the context.

Pretty neat stuff – I guess it’s nice to see correlating theories and practical examples rolled up together.

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”
– Joe Ancis