Sunday, April 15, 2007

Character and Context

In The Tipping Point, in the chapter about 'the power of context', Gladwell writes about the relationship between character, context and behavior. He writes:
The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of 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 the situation and context. We will always reach for a "dispositional" explanation for events, as opposed to a contextual explanation.
He then continues:
Character, then, isn't what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn't a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment. I have a lot of fun at dinner parties. As a result, I throw a lot of dinner parties and my friends see me there and think that I'm fun. But if I couldn't have lots of dinner parties, if my friends instead tended to see me in lots of different situations of which I had little or no control - like, say, faced with four hostile youths in a filthy, broken-down subway - they probably wouldn't think of me as fun anymore.
Gladwell also sites this study about a test of seminary students studying the story of the Good Samaritan and which ones will stop to help someone. [You guys and gals at Grace have heard this story before.]
"What this study is suggesting, in other words, is that the convictions of your heart and the actual contexts of your thoughts are less important, in the end, in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior.... we need to remember that small changes in context can be just as important in tipping epidemics, even though that fact appears to violate some of our most deeply held assumptions about human nature."
I read this chapter over and over for about a week, trying to wrap my head around the idea that character doesn't matter. Is that really what Gladwell is saying, and if so, the leadership paradigm I have used for my whole life has been wrong.

Instead, I think his point is *not* that character or belief systems or convictions don't matter. Rather, his point is that context, culture and environment matter *a lot more* than we give them credit for. And one of the mantras of SPACE has been that context and culture are significant.

If Gladwell is right, it should make us think about:
- Teaching students about engaging culture on a deep level, both their own and ones they travel to, is important.
- How much of the way we currently *do* spiritual formation relies on teaching and molding character versus understanding context?
- Since the Gospel was meant to be moving from culture to culture, how are environments more significant for us [and that would be you too by the way] who have been blessed with it in order to bless others? [And the idea that contextualization is a Biblical principle.]

But at it's essence for SPACE, *everything* about the environment, context and opportunities we create for students communicates that the precious students we have been privileged to share time with - we must communicate that *they* CAN and MUST can change the world.

[Related - most of you have probably heard about the Washington Post article, "Pearls Before Breakfast." Also brings up the idea of context.]

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