Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Character or Context - Why do we do what we do?

Are people evil or good?  Are there really people who are always honest, and people who always lie?
Does one’s character mean you can predict their behavior in most situations?

In the 1980’s and 90’s – Crime in New York City plummeted.  The authors of Freakonomics would tell you this is because there were less low income teenagers on the streets because abortion had been legalized about 15 years prior.
Malcolm Gladwell would say it’s because the environment changed. 

In 1984 Bernhard Goetz boarded the Subway like he did most mornings.  He was white, and sat down next to four young black men, with most other people sitting at the other end of the subway car.  The four young men were being rowdy, and soon asked Mr. Goetz for $5.  Then they demanded it.  Then one of them pointed at the suspicious bulge in his jacket pocket and smiled.  Mr. Goetz reached into his own pocket, pulled out his .38, and shot all four young men. 
He turned himself into police a week later, and was acquitted of all charges other than carrying a concealed weapon.  Some called him a hero, others called him a monster.  Was he a criminal?  Was he a vigilante?  Was he a murderer?  He had no criminal background while all four of the young men had criminal backgrounds.

So why did he do it?  Some say it was because he had been bullied as a kid, and mugged a few months earlier.  Some say it’s because he was a concerned citizen and someone had to stand up against the thugs.  After all -NYC had 2,000 murders and over 600,000 felonies in the past year.  The subways were a prime location for crime.  They weren’t respected, or patrolled, they weren’t even clean.  The subways were covered in graffiti, the token machines were broken and the tracks were cracked so the subway could only go 15 mph in some spots.
So – was it the character of this man and the four young men, who made this incident occur?  If they had been getting on a bus on a city street at 2 p.m. - would the same thing have happened?

The New York Transit Authority decided they were going to reduce crime by first cleaning up all the graffiti on the subway cars, and in the stations.  If things looked better, people would treat the Sunway better.  Graffiti was covered up, and crime dropped.  They decided to arrest anyone who didn’t pay a subway token. They did, and crime dropped.  They decided to arrest anyone who was drunk in public, who urinated on the street or broke a window, etc.  They did, and crime dropped.  Not only did those crime rates drop, but felonies and murders dropped too.  All crime decreased.
The environment changed.  Sure you could say people changed, more criminals were being arrested so there were less on the street – but not by much.  The rate in crime dropped FAR MORE than the number of criminals being locked up.  SO WHAT HAPPENED? 

The people who were committing crimes instead did other things.  The environment had changed, so they changed.

The same is true of people doing good. 
Princeton University conducted a “Good Samaritan” experiment.

Give the Seminary students a task, then on their way have them run into a man slumped over in the alleyway, coughing and groaning – and see if they stop to help him.
It wasn’t just about seeing who would stop and who wouldn’t, but if they could make people react differently if the situation changed.

They asked students from the Seminary to prepare a short sermon, and then walk to a nearby building and present it.  Some were given the topic of “The Good Samaritan” while other s prepared sermons on other biblical themes.  They also asked each student why they chose to go into Theology. Was it for prestige, to help people, for money, for God’s glory, etc?
Then right before they went to give their sermon, they told them one of two things. 

1.   “Oh, you’re late.  They were expecting you a few minutes ago.  You’d better get moving.”

2.   “It’ll be a few minutes before their ready for you, but you might as well head over now.”
You can guess the result.  Who stopped and who didn’t?  It didn’t matter why they went to school, or what their sermon was on – what mattered was whether or not they were in a hurry.

Of those in a rush – 10% stopped to help.  Of those who thought they had a few minutes – 63% stopped.
They all had the same convictions in their hearts.  They knew what was “right” and that they should help those in need.  They all had helped many people before, and will likely help many more.  But it isn’t always about the character of the person, it’s about the context.  It isn’t the person, but the place.

If I grew up with the same parents, in the same religion, but in South Central Los Angeles instead of the West side of Idaho Falls, Idaho – would I have a criminal record?  Would I have gone to college?  Would I have tried drugs?  I’d like to say “I’d be essentially the same person I am today, regardless.” – but I doubt it.
In my church there is a famous quote by a church leader that states:

The devil knows how to destroy our young girls and boys. He may not be able to tempt a person to murder or to commit adultery immediately, but he knows that if he can get a boy and a girl to sit in the car late enough after the dance, or to park long enough in the dark at the end of the lane, the best boy and the best girl will finally succumb and fall. He knows that all have a limit to their resistance”
This year in church we are focused on the phrase “Stand ye in Holy places, and be not moved.”

I have been taught my whole life to be honest, ALWAYS.  The goal is to be perfectly honest in all situations, live your standards no matter what.
I am coming to see that this doesn’t just mean developing strong moral fiber, standing for truth and right, reading scriptures, praying, helping your fellowman, etc.

It’s about being in the right places, building the right environments.  Giving yourself time.  Not being in a hurry.

What if instead of working harder to find criminals and lock them up, we tired harder to build environments where crime was less likely?  A place where people were more likely to help, to be honest, etc.
It isn’t just about “being a good person.”  It’s about being in the right place, and making your environment the “right place.”

Context is just as important as character.  Stand Ye in Holy Places - and maybe it’s just as important to make where ever you are, a holy place.


Brian Wilcox said...


Sage said...

Thought provoking. I agree. I love when people take control of their environments and improve the world for everyone.