Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Tipping Point

I recently finished reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I enjoyed it a good deal more than Outliers, which I also read recently. The sections I marked in this one were about personality and core traits vs. environment. I come from a social work background, a field in which I have often explained using the following: psychology deals with the individual person. Sociology deals with society. Social work addresses person in environment. And, so did these section from The Tipping Point:

"All of us, when it comes to personality, naturally think in terms of absolutes: that a person is a certain way or not a certain way...this is a mistake, that when we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situations, we're deceiving ourselves about the real causes of human behavior..."

"The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a blind spot in the way we process information. Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people's behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context. We will always reach for a 'dispositional' explanation for events, as opposed to a 'contextual' explanation."

What I think is interesting about this is that my observation is in our OWN behavior though, we use the contextual explanation (sometimes excessively so, particularly when the behavior is out of character for how we'd like to be/believe we are). In short, we quickly assume other people have fundamental character flaws, but we have contextual excuses for ourselves!

I was also interested by the Good Samaritan study he referenced (in which seminary students were told to go make a presentation--some were told they had "extra time" and others were told they were late. Some of them were actually speaking about the Good Samaritan and others about something else. Some were in seminary because of a calling and others for other reasons. They each encountered a [fake] sick person collapsed on the street needing help. The defining factor about who stopped to help was whether they thought they had extra time--those with extra time stopped. Those who though they were late, stepped over him, even if they were going to speak about the Good Samaritan!): "What this study is suggesting, in other words, is that the convictions of your heart and the actual contents of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior."

I don't know that I like this idea, but it does seem consistent with reality (for better or worse).

I also noted his conclusion to the book: "Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push--in just the right place--it can be tipped."


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