Book-A-Month - June 2009

I completely forgot how easy it is to breeze through non-fiction books. There are no characters. No intertwining plot-lines. Just facts and opinions (read: numbers and bs). Were I keeping track, this book's 4-5 hours sure offsets the dozens of hours I spent reading The Confusion over the past four months.

I set my expectations a bit high for this book, for some reason. The jacket text leads off with a flu epidemic example, and so I thought that there would be a decent amount of text devoted to pandemics (e.g. plague, influenza, etc.). Instead, a fleeting reference to the flu gave way to a syphilis outbreak in Baltimore. Not quite as interesting, but poorly-conceived expectations will do that to you. The book reminded me of Psychology 101 and my courses in human factors research. There wasn't a whole lot of new, substantive information. However, the examples and case studies were mostly new to me, so they did their jobs. Gladwell presents Three Rules of Epidemics:

  1. The Law of the Few
  2. The Stickiness Factor
  3. The Power of Context

Each of these has a varying degree of no-brainer-ness to it. The first rule has to do with the type of person carrying information. Gladwell uses the example of why Paul Revere's midnight ride was successful in contrast to the same ride through different Boston suburbs by William Dawes, which had almost no success. The second is about what hooks people, and though it wasn't the author's point, my conclusion is that "someone's lucky guess" is what defines success by this factor. The final rule is basically the Fundamental Attribution Error in practice.

It's one of the examples from the last rule, however, that made me think the most and therefore kept me from being completely negative in my assessment of the book. Gladwell points to a seminary experiment conducted by two Princeton University researchers. The experiment has a simple premise: Put seminarians in the position of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and see how they'll act based on their background and whether or not they were in a hurry. The conclusions support the FAE in that, regardless of background (and even if the seminarians were recently studying the parable of the Good Samaritan), the factor which determined how helpful they'd be to someone in distress was how late they felt.

This kills me. I mean, I understand why it happens that way. Humans are humans and no matter how hard we try to imitate Christ, we're going to behave like humans a good majority of the time no matter how hard we try to be better than our nature. It still bothers me a little. I'd like to think that in that situation, I would be an exception and not the hypothesis-proving rule, but the truth is that I know I react poorly to time-pressure also. I would probably get a 2 or 3 on their helpfulness scale, thinking that my academic success was super important and that I could call 911 or tell someone else that the person needed help. I could rationalizing passing the buck. It's humbling.

Anyway, I also have a sense of humor about it: The only possible conclusion to this post is this VeggieTales clip from Are You My Neighbor, from their take on the Parable of the Good Samaritan because it's just that silly.

Jun 9th, 2009