by Niall Doherty

Let’s start by describing two ways of looking at the world:

Dispositionism: The view that people make decisions by the exercise of free will based on relatively stable dispositions or preferences.

Situationism: The view that it is the totality of our internalized and external situation that determines our choices and beliefs. 1

We tend to alternate between these two views of the world. Mostly, we save dispositionism for our judgements of others:

  1. Look at him yelling at his kid. What a terrible father.
  2. I can’t believe he cheated on his girlfriend. What a sorry excuse for a man.
  3. All he cares about is money. He’s such a selfish asshole.

Meanwhile, we tend to flip to situationism when it comes time to justify our own actions:

  1. I know I shouldn’t have yelled at my kid, but I had a bad headache and he was bouncing off the walls all day. I asked him to quiet down numerous times but he just wasn’t listening.
  2. I’m sorry I cheated on her, but I really felt like we were on the rocks anyway, our sex life had become non-existent, and this other girl came on so strong.
  3. I have to focus on making money right now, even if that means spending less time with friends and family. I just really need some financial abundance in my life instead of feeling like a broke loser all the time.

Which of these world-views is more accurate? Well, here’s some food for thought…

Would you offer help to a stranger in distress?

In 1973 two social psychologists performed an experiment at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Forty students took part in the experiment, which they believed to be a study on religious education and vocations.

The students were first asked to complete a questionnaire about their religion, then sent across campus for an interview. En route, they encountered a man (actually an actor) slumped in a doorway. This man groaned and coughed in apparent distress.

The experimenters took note of how the students reacted to this man. Did they ask if he was okay? Did they stop and offer assistance? Did they alert security? Or did they just ignore him?

Of course, the reactions varied. But here’s the interesting bit: before sending the subjects across campus, the experimenters told them one of three things:

  • “You’d better hurry up, you’re late for your interview.”
  • “You’d better hurry up, your interview starts in a few minutes.”
  • “Well you might as well head on over. Your interview doesn’t start for a while, but we’re done here.”

Overall, forty percent of the participants offered some help to the victim. But check the breakdown:

  • 10% of the first group (those in the high-hurry condition) offered help.
  • 45% of the second group (those in the medium-hurry condition) offered help.
  • 63% of the third group (those in the low-hurry condition) offered help. 2 3

Would you deliver potentially fatal electric shocks to a stranger?

A Yale psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram carried out some (in)famous experiments in the 1960’s. Milgram was interested to see if ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities, like so many Germans apparently had during World War II.

So Milgram recruited dozens of ordinary men to participate in his “learning” experiments. He would match each participant up with an actor. The participant would assume the rule of teacher and sit at a control panel in one room, while the actor would take on the role of student and be seated in an electric chair in another room.

A second actor dressed in a lab coat would then instruct the teacher to quiz the student and deliver electric shocks via the control panel for every incorrect answer. The severity of the shocks would increase the more answers the student got wrong. The switches on the teacher’s control panel were labeled like so:

– slight shock
– moderate shock
– danger: severe shock
– XXX

Of course, there were no real shocks delivered, but the student/actor would increasingly scream and beg for mercy as the experiment progressed. At a certain point he would bang on the wall and demand to be released. On hearing the sounds of distress coming from the other room, the teacher would often hesitate and ask the actor in the lab coat whether to should continue applying the shocks. They were always told to proceed, even when the noises suddenly and ominously ceased.

When all was said and done, 65% of the participants followed their instructions and proceeded to apply the maximum shocks to the student in the other room. 4 5 6

Would you shoot and kill civilians with a sniper rifle?

On August 1st, 1966, a former US Marine named Charles Whitman murdered his mother and wife before embarking on a shopping spree for guns and ammunition. At around noon he climbed to the observation deck of the main tower of the University of Texas at Austin and began firing on civilians.

It was almost two hours before police managed to reach Whitman and kill him. He’d shot and killed sixteen people from the tower, and wounded thirty-two others.

Whitman left a suicide note. In it he complained of having “many unusual and irrational thoughts” and severe headaches in the days and weeks leading up to the murders. Knowing what he was about to do and that he would soon be dead, he asked in his note that an autopsy be performed on his body to determine if there was something wrong with his brain.

The autopsy revealed a tumor the size of a pecan near Whitman’s amygdala. Neurologists have since speculated that this was the cause of Whitman’s headaches, irrational thoughts, and murderous impulses. 7 8 9

Would a simple gift influence your generosity?

In 1971 a professor at Cornell University by the name of Dennis Regan performed an experiment on reciprocity. Under cover of rating paintings for a study on art appreciation, subjects were paired up with an actor (let’s call him Morpheus).

The experiment was repeated with 81 subjects, divided into three groups. During a rest period, Morpheus left the room for two minutes. With Group A, he returned with two bottles of Coca-Cola and offered one to the subject. With Group B, he returned empty-handed. And with Group C, the experimenter entered the room during the rest period and offered the subject a Coca-Cola.

Later on, after all the paintings had been rated and the experimenter was absent, Morpheus asked the subject to do him a favor. Morpheus was selling raffle tickets, see, and the more he sold, the better chance he had of winning a prize.

How many tickets did the subject buy?

It depended on what group he was in. When the results were analyzed, it was revealed that subjects in Group A (i.e. those that had been gifted a Coca-Cola by Morpheus) bought twice as many tickets as subjects in either of the control groups. 10 11 12

Do you really have a choice?

More recently, a team of researchers in Germany, Singapore and Switzerland performed a series of experiments on decision-making. They hooked their subjects up to an fMRI machine so they could monitor their brain activity, then asked them to choose between a series of letters in the alphabet.

When all was said and done, the researchers found that they could predict with high accuracy what letters the subjects would choose, up to several seconds before a given subject was even conscious of his choice, just by deciphering the fMRI readings. 13

Here’s how Sam Harris interprets the findings of this and similar studies in his book, Free Will:

One fact now seems indisputable: Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next— a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please— your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it.

Are you aware of all factors influencing your decisions?

Imagine you’re at a grocery store, shopping around for a nice bottle in the wine section. You come across a shelf displaying four French and German wines of similar price and dryness.

Which do you choose?

More importantly, what do you think might influence your choice?

British researchers conducted an experiment with just such a display of wines. On alternate days they had French and German music playing in the grocery store. When French music was playing, they found that the French wines far outsold the German wines, and vice versa.

After the shoppers had selected their wines, the researchers had them fill out a questionnaire. About one in every seven shoppers reported back that their choice of wine had been influenced by the music.

Which is interesting, since the measured effect of the music was clearly much stronger than that. 14 15

So what?

Decades of research in social science would seem to suggest that the situationist world view is a fallacy. The idea that you would behave differently than another person if you were in their shoes (i.e. if you had their exact biology and life history) is known as the fundamental attribution error. 16

“Our proclivity is to underestimate the role of situational influences, and to overestimate the influence of the individual dispositions in explaining people’s behavior.” 17

When you keep this in mind, you can’t help but become more empathetic, more curious.

For example, recently I spent a few days with an old friend and found her very distant. It was as if she didn’t care to be around me at all. When we separated after five days of traveling through Costa Rica, she walked away from me like I was a stranger. No hug, no take care, no sign of affection or appreciation for our time together.

As you can imagine, I was pretty put out by this. And so it was very easy to label my friend with words like selfish, weird, cold, and heartless. I was making the fundamental attribution error, assuming it was something about her disposition or personality that was at fault.

Then I realized my mistake, and I began to take the situationist view of her behavior. That led to questions like:

  • I wonder if I did something to upset her?
  • I wonder was there something else going on that I wasn’t aware of, something that was preoccupying her and making her appear distant?

When I saw my friend again, a few days later, I asked her these very questions. So instead of being accusatory, I was curious. I had shifted from wanting to condemn her behavior, to wanting to understand it.

And how did she respond? She apologized and explained that she’d been feeling down and distracted because a job she really wanted had fallen through. I hadn’t done anything wrong. She’d just been trying to deal with some bad news.

Of course, that’s a pretty simple example. It wasn’t too difficult in that case to step back and try empathize, to appreciate that there was probably more to my friend’s behavior than was obvious to me. And, as it turned out, the explanation was fairly straight-forward.

It’s not always like that of course.

Sometimes it’s a real struggle to understand people’s behavior. We don’t always have the luxury of asking them to explain themselves. (And they aren’t always willing to offer an explanation!) We can’t usually analyze their brain activity. We will never know their entire life history and how past influences affect their behavior. We’re not always aware of the frame they’re operating from, or how they may have been primed by their environment.

Most of the time it’s a challenge to understand our own behavior, let alone anyone else’s. Remember that wine experiment in the grocery store? The vast majority of people didn’t even realize that the background music was influencing their behavior, but clearly it was.

Makes you wonder what hidden factors might be influencing your own behavior. And from there you might well move on to the idea that maybe we don’t have as much control over our actions as we like to believe.

Which makes condemning others for their behavior a bit silly, don’t you think?

Show 17 footnotes

  1. Credit for these definitions of dispositionism and situationism go to Charles Eisenstein in his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.
  2. Good Samaritan (sociallypsyched.org)
  3. “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior”
  4. The Milgram Experiment (simplypsychology.org)
  5. Milgram experiment (wikipedia.org)
  6. I’m aware that doubt has since been cast on the results of Milgram’s experiments, as detailed in this article, so the 65% compliance rate may be a bit of a stretch. But even if more realistically the effect is half that figure, it should still give us pause.
  7. Charles Whitman (wikipedia.org)
  8. Amygdala (brainmind.com)
  9. I first heard about Charles Whitman in an interview with Sam Harris on episode #543 of Joe Rogan’s podcast. You can listen to the relevant section of the interview here on YouTube.
  10. Effects of a Favor and Liking on Compliance (PDF)
  11. Reciprocity (social psychology) (wikipedia.org)
  12. I first heard of this reciprocity experiment in Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence.
  13. Predictive brain signals best predict upcoming and not previous choices (journal.frontiersin.org)
  14. The influence of in-store music on wine selections (psycnet.apa.org)
  15. I first heard of the wine experiment in Joseph Hallinan’s book, Why We Make Mistakes.
  16. The Situation: An Introduction To The Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, And Deep Capture (papers.ssrn.com).
  17. Ibid.