The Power of Context


I’m reading “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell because it has come up again and again in the blogosphere.

I’m just at the end of the first chapter “The Three Rules of Epidemics”. They are:

  • The Law of the Few
  • The Stickiness Factor
  • The Power of Context

The are all interesting things, but at the end of the section on the power of context I was blown away by an example he gave. Before I quote it let me tell you a little about why I’m reading this book. What’s going on in my head.

I want to change some things. One of the places I want to change things is in my church. But I don’t know how. There seems to be a great amount of apathy and I’m just as guilty of it as any one else. I’m definitely a 80 percent-er. So then I read this example:

What they found, surprisingly, was that the one factor above all else that predicted helping behavior was how many witnesses there were to the event

They are specificaly talking about the event in NYC where a woman was attacked and killed in the street and there were 38 witnesses that never called the police. Why?

In one experiment, for example, Latane and Darley had a student alone in a room stage an epileptic fit. When there was just one person next door, listening, that person rushed to the student’s aid 85 percent of the time. But when subjects thought that there were four others also overhearing the seizure, they came to the student’s aid only 31 percent of the time. In another experiment, people who saw smoke seeping out from under a doorway would report it 75 percent of the time when they were on their own, but the incident would be reported only 38 percent of the time when they were in a group. When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume because no one else is acting, the apparent problem…isn’t really a problem.


That’s me and I’m sure a lot of people in my church. We think someone else will do it. Preachers often say the laity says the preacher will do it. But I think its just we assume someone else will do it and we don’t want to cause a problem. Or we think since no one is doing anything about the problem, “they” – the leaders, the rest of the church – want it that way.

But it could be that lots of people see the problem. And they are all thinking the same thing you are.

This could be a help to action. Not a call, that was already there. This says its okay to act.

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