Coupling Theory—Surprising Ways Context Alters Your Behavior

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is coupling theory? How do some of our most unconscious behaviors impact others?

Coupling theory is the idea that some behaviors are “coupled”–a behavior is linked to a specific context. A person’s behavior is affected by his personal history and environment.

We’ll cover the coupling theory as it relates to suicide rates and also discuss how context impacts behavior more generally.

Coupling Theory

The third mistake that people often make when dealing with strangers: We fail to recognize coupled behaviors, behaviors that are specifically linked to a particular context. For example, we fail to see how a person’s personal history might affect his behavior in a particular environment. Instead, people tend to operate with an assumption of displaced behaviors, behaviors that do not change from one context to the next. We’re not aware of coupling theory.

Whereas default to truth and assumption of transparency both affect your understanding of a stranger as an individual, failure to recognize coupled behaviors affects your understanding of the context in which a stranger operates

Once you understand coupling theory, that some behaviors are coupled to very specific contexts, you’ll learn to see that a stranger’s behavior is powerfully influenced by where and when your encounter takes place. Then, you’ll be able to recognize the full complexity and ambiguity of the people you come across. 

Coupling Theory: Suicide

Many people jump to conclusions when they hear of a stranger who committed suicide. But suicide is a coupled behavior—it tells us more about the world in which the stranger lived than about the character of the stranger himself. Coupling theory can help us better understand and prevent suicides.

Suicide Coupled With Method

In 1963, Sylvia Plath committed suicide. She had suffered from depression for most of her life and was often haunted by thoughts of death. She wrote about suicide in her poems and talked about it excitedly with her friends and peers. After a particularly cold and depressing winter, Plath put her children to bed, went into her kitchen and sealed the door, laid her head inside the oven, and breathed in carbon monoxide until she died. 

At the time of Plath’s death, British ovens ran on something called “town gas,” a mixture made from coal that had relatively high levels of deadly carbon monoxide gas. In other words, almost everyone had an easy means of killing themselves right inside their kitchen. Not surprisingly, carbon-monoxide poison was responsible for almost half of all suicides in the United Kingdom in 1962. The suicide rate for women in England was the highest it has ever been in history. 

But by 1977, every gas appliance in Britain had been updated to use natural gas, which had no carbon monoxide in it at all. As the amount of town gas used in the United Kingdom went down (as more and more homes were converted to natural gas), the number of carbon-monoxide suicides fell at nearly the exact same rate. But did the number of total suicides change during that time? How did people commit suicide once the number one method became more and more impossible? 

The displacement theory would assume that people who wanted to kill themselves would simply find another way. If suicide could be displaced, it would mean that a suicidal person would be just as likely to commit suicide no matter what methods were readily available to them. The rate of suicides would be relatively steady over time.

The alternative possibility, the coupling theory, would assume that suicide is coupled to a particular context, such as the availability of carbon monoxide. If suicide is a coupled behavior, it would mean that to commit suicide does not only require a depressed person—it requires a depressed person, in a particular mindset, with a particular means of killing themselves readily accessible. The rate of suicides would vary as contexts changed over time. 

So which one proved true? The coupling theory. In the 14 years between Plath’s suicide and the eradication of town gas, suicide rates steadily dropped overall. Thousands of deaths were prevented by switching to natural gas. Women were only half as likely to commit suicide as they had been a decade before. These numbers suggest that suicide is truly a coupled behavior—it is linked to a particular context, such as the availability of carbon monoxide. Coupling theory helps us find ways to change the environment to avert suicides.

Understanding coupling theory and how the context of a method affects the behavior of suicide can help you understand Sylvia Plath’s complex character. She wasn’t just a doomed genius destined to commit suicide. She was a woman who tragically lived in a particular time and place that allowed her to easily commit suicide. 

Suicide Coupled With Location

In 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened in San Francisco. Since then, it has been the site of 1,500 suicides—more than any other place in the world in that period of time. But it took more than eighty years before a suicide barrier was added to the bridge by the municipal authority. Why? Because the municipal authority couldn’t grasp the concept that a behavior like suicide could be coupled to a place. The public, too, denied the idea. In fact, in a national survey, 75% of Americans predicted that preventing suicide on the bridge would not prevent suicide overall. In letters to the municipal authority, citizens said things like:

  • “If a suicide barrier was put in place, it wouldn’t surprise me if people simply started shooting themselves instead.”
  • “The money needed to erect a suicide barrier would be better spent on mental health services for suicidal people because someone who wants to commit suicide will just find another way.”

Psychologist Richard Seiden, however, did not ignore the coupling theory as it applied to the Gold Gate Bridge. He decided to follow up on the 515 people who had failed their attempts to jump off the bridge, for one reason or another. He found that only 25 out of those 515 people had gone on to kill themselves another way. This proves, quite clearly, that suicide is a behavior that can be coupled with the context of a particular place. It also shows that understanding a stranger’s context can help you understand his behavior.

Coupling Theory—Surprising Ways Context Alters Your Behavior

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  • Why we don't understand strangers
  • How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
  • How Hitler deceived so many world leaders

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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