The Tipping Point | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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The Tipping Point | Chapter 4 : The Power of Context (Part One): Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • This chapter discusses the importance of environmental and social cues in human behavior.
  • Gladwell opens with the famous and controversial story of Bernhard (Bernie) Goetz, a white man who shot four black youths on a New York City subway in 1984.
  • It was the height of the city's crime epidemic, and the public praised Goetz for stopping what he believed to be a potential mugging.
  • Goetz's story illustrates the stark difference between the crime-ridden New York City of the 1980s and the much different New York City of the 1990s, after the crime rate plummeted more quickly than it did anywhere else in the country.
  • Gladwell attributes the crime drop to the environmental context. Humans, he says, are "exquisitely sensitive" to changes in circumstance. So are epidemics.
  • In the mid-1980s city consultants changed a single feature of the environment by painting over the graffiti in city subway cars. Police also cracked down on the petty crime of "fare-beating" or going through the subway entrance without paying.
  • Graffiti and fare-beating were "small expression[s] of disorder that invited much more serious crimes." When minor laws were enforced, major violent crimes dropped.
  • A criminal's environment can determine their mindset and behavior. For most people "our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances."
  • The 1970s Stanford Prison Experiment assigned college students to the roles of prisoners and guards in an artificial prison. The students playing guards became so cruel they surprised even themselves. Philip Zimbardo, the experiment's leader, concluded certain intense situations can make people behave in ways they otherwise never would.
  • In the 1920s researchers Hugh Hartshorne and M.A. May measured schoolchildren's honesty in testing situations. The researchers discovered children would cheat in some circumstances but not others. To Gladwell this experiment further proves character traits are flexible and dependent on context.
  • A Princeton University experiment revealed seminary students were less likely to help someone in trouble if the students were in a rush; this was true even of students who claimed to be motivated by compassion. Context trumped convictions, thoughts, and beliefs.
  • After showing how small contextual changes cause large-scale actions, Gladwell argues minor environmental alterations can help prevent crime.
  • Gladwell also believes Goetz might have reacted differently if he had been in a different environment.
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