The power of the situation

I’ve started a number of Coursera courses, but often find myself losing interest part-way through, or not having enough time to keep up with all the work. One course that has kept me interested though is the recent Social Psychology course by Scott Plous, whose great presentation, obvious enthusiasm and love of the subject kept me watching. I still didn’t have time to keep up with the assignments, but I did at least watch all the lectures and do the reading.

The course covered a variety of subjects including group behaviour, conflict, social judgements, prejudice and persuasion, but I think the key thing that ties all these topics together is the huge power that situations have on people’s behaviour. You might think that people’s beliefs and inherent personality characteristics shape their behaviour, but that isn’t always the case. The situation itself exerts a huge influence, and some situations can make people behave in a ways that are at odds with their beliefs.  Some examples of situations that lead to unexpected behaviour are:

  • Trainee priests on their way to give a lecture on the good samaritan didn’t stop to help someone in need, particularly after having been told they’re running late.
  • People disregarded obvious information from their senses, such as which line is longer, in order to agree with a group who all gave an incorrect answer. In this experiment, those who chose to go against the group and give the correct answer became noticeably more stressed as time went on.
  • Experimental subjects willingly volunteered to eat worms after labelling themselves as brave.
  • Subjects explicitly chosen for their normality caused harm to others, such as in the famous Milgram and Stanford prison experiments
  • The creation of groups led very quickly to prejudice and stereotyping, even when those groups were artificially created by the toss of a coin in the lab.

A lot of social psychology experiments require the experimenter to manipulate a situation and see how the subjects behave.  An interesting comment from one of the featured psychologists was about how good an actor you need to be to convince your subjects of the reality of the situation you’d created for the experiment to succeed.

In real life, the situational factors that affect someone’s behaviour might not be immediately obvious, and are probably far more important than you realise. Hence the saying, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes“.

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2 Responses to The power of the situation

  1. I did that course too! I’m glad you enjoyed it, it’s crazy and fun to realise how irrationally and unexpectedly people frequently behave, isn’t it?. One particular comment you made about having good actors in the experiment was especially true. The amount of training I had to put my interns through to get them to not only act believably but in the exact same way every single time was exhausting!

  2. I hadn’t even thought about the need to do everything exactly the same every time, otherwise I guess your results might not be as valid as you think! Definitely an interesting subject that can really change your perspective on how people behave 🙂

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