The power of the situation

We tend to be pretty convinced that we have a unique kind of character. When we hear about others’ behavior, we are inclined to think things like “Why doesn’t she act differently?” or “I would never do that.” We are convinced that the observed behavior shows a certain kind of character trait – that we do not share with the person who’s behavior we are (possibly critically) observing. We could never be that angry, that cruel, that lazy, that weak. We would never act that way. Because we are different. Right?

Your character vs the circumstances

One of the most important chicken-or-egg questions in psychotherapy is to differentiate between the character of a person and the situation she is in. Usually, a situational effect is of a temporary nature. But what if we have been in a certain situation for so long that we mistake our behavior for character?
Assume you have three brothers, the oldest of them acting as the leader of the group. Is he acting this way because of his confident character type that makes him predestined to lead his brothers? Or does he rather act this way because, being the oldest one, he simply always had to?

We see character as some fixed state that we have somehow accomplished. That might be true to a certain degree. But the thing that determines our behavior far more than any character trait is the present situation we find ourselves in.

We tend to underestimate the impact situations have on us. In Social Psychology this phenomenon is known as “fundamental attribution error. The truth is: Our behavior varies according to the situation we are in. Yet we are very quick to judge a person by their cover instead of taking a look at the shoes he’s walking in.

Who are you (in a certain situation)?

Our situation determines very much who we are. This is true for a current situation, and this is even more true for a permanent one. And there is no more permanent situation we can find ourselves in than the status we get handed within a social system. The Stanford Prison experiment showed us that when a group of people get divided into an inferior role (in this case the prisoners) and a powerful role (the prison guards) they all start acting according to their role pretty quickly. In this experiment, the prisoners acted helplessly and anxious; the prison guards acted confident and cruel. This famous experiment showed that the situation those people were in was far more powerful than their actual character.

Some people might be confident because they belong to a privileged social class, not because of their strong character. Other people might feel anxious, not because it’s in their nature, but because they never knew any (financial or other) security. Some people probably aren’t as ignorant as we perceive them to be, but simply never had any real access to a good education. Some people might be very well-balanced and happy, because their current situation allows them to.

Misjudging reality is one of our worst habits. So, next time when you are judging someone, also take their situation into account. It might be the strongest parameter for their actions. On the other side, be aware that the character traits you are admiring in a person might very well just stem from some lucky circumstances they found themselves in. And if this is the case with you, be thankful.


Cover image credits: Unsplash

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About Verena Ehrnberger

Verena works as a data privacy legal expert and studies philosophy at the University of Vienna. Always juggling multiple projects, she is seriously addicted to coffee.

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