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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Situation Not Personality

A modern test of an ancient bible story demonstrates the power of situations to
trump personality in determining behavior.
A fundamental mistake we often make when judging other people is assuming that
their behavior mainly reflects their personality. Unfortunately this ignores
another major influence on how people behave staring us right in the face: the

Our personalities certainly have an influence on what situations we get into and
how we deal with them, but situational factors — even relatively subtle ones —
can completely obliterate the effects of personality.

Don't take my word for it, though, consider a modern take on an ancient bible
story. Prominent social psychologists Darley & Batson (1973) were interested in
what influences people's helping behaviors and decided to test the parable of
the Good Samaritan. The parable is about a Jewish man traveling to Jericho who
has been attacked by bandits and lies half dead at the side of the road. A
priest and temple assistant pass him by before finally a Samaritan (who
stereotypically hated Jews) stops to offer his assistance.

The moral of the story is clear enough but, wondered Darley and Batson, have we
judged the priest and the temple assistant too quickly, perhaps they were just
in a hurry?

A good Samaritan
In their classic social psychology study the experimenters recruited 67 students
from the Princeton Theological Seminary and told them it was a study about
religious education and vocations. They were asked to fill in some personality
questionnaires and told they were going to give a brief talk in a nearby room.
Some were asked to give a short talk about the types of jobs that seminary
graduates would be suited for, while the others were asked to talk about the
parable of the 'Good Samaritan'.

Unknown to the study's participants, they were to experience their very own
'Good Samaritan' test. For after filling out their questionnaires and while
making their way to the other office to give their talk, they would encounter an
experimental confederate lying in a doorway, doubled over, eyes closed and
coughing. Participants would have to pass the apparently highly distressed man,
but would they stop to help?

The experimenters thought it would depend on how much participants were hurried,
so they manipulated this by giving them a map and one of the following three

"Oh, you're late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. We'd better get
"The assistant is ready for you, so please go right over."
"...It'll be a few minutes before they're ready for you, but you might as well
head on over..."
This created three conditions: high, medium and low hurry. So some students left
the office thinking they needed to go quickly, others less so, while some were
relaxed. Each of these conditions was also split into two: half about to deliver
a talk on the Good Samaritan, the other half on job prospects for seminary
graduates. This meant that the experimenters could assess both the effect of
hurry as well as the talk they were giving on the students' helping behaviors.
Would having a relevant parable uppermost in their minds nudge participants into

Before I give you the results try to predict them for yourself. How many future
priests do you think would stop to see if the man was OK? Would you stop? What
will be the effects of the situation compared with the individual personalities
of the seminarians?

In a hurry, can't stop
Here's what happened. On average just 40% of the seminary students offered help
(with a few stepping over the apparently injured man) but crucially the amount
of hurry they were in had a large influence on behaviour. Here is the percentage
of participants who offered help by condition:

Low hurry: 63%
Medium hurry: 45%
High hurry: 10%
The type of talk they were giving also had an effect on whether they offered
help. Of those asked to talk about careers for seminarians, just 29% offered
help, while of those asked to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan,
fully 53% gave assistance.

What these figures show is the large effect that subtle aspects of the situation
have on the way people behave. Recall that the experimenters also measured
personality variables, specifically the 'religiosity' of the seminarians. When
the effect of personality was compared with situation, i.e. how much of a hurry
they happened to be in or whether they were thinking about a relevant parable,
the effect of religiosity was almost insignificant. In this context, then,
situation is easily trumping personality.

Judge on context
Before I asked you to imagine what the results might be, were you close? Perhaps
you were surprised by how little effect personality had on whether the
seminarians stopped? That is what catches most people out because of what
psychologists call the 'fundamental attribution error'. This is the
aforementioned tendency to assume that other people's behaviour reflects on
their personality rather than on the situation they are in. Contrary to our
instincts, however, studies such as this one demonstrate that it is frequently
the situation that controls our actions more strongly than personality.

If you saw the trainee priest stepping over the moaning man, what would you
think? Perhaps time for them to switch to a career in investment banking? Maybe,
but in the light of this experiment that's probably unfair on the priest (and
the investment bankers) because we all of us have situational pressures on us
that can easily drown out the influence of our personalities (see also the
bystander effect). 'Bad' actions don't necessarily mean 'bad' people just as
'good' actions don't issue forth solely from 'good' people.

The old adage that a person can be judged on their actions isn't the whole
truth. Often people's behavior, and our own, may say very little about our
personalities and much more about the complexities of the situation in which we
find ourselves.\

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