This is a very controversial issue in the world of psychology, and I’m going to tell you that right up front. There are psychologists who believe it is personality that determines a person’s behavior more than anything else, and there are psychologists who believe it is circumstances that influence behavior more than anything else – more than character and/or personality.
If a choice must be made, circumstances get my vote, and here is why. The Stanley Milgram Experiment (among others) showed that what are considered normal, ordinary, stable, dependable, decent people, who were not known to be violent or radical in their behaviors, could and did under certain conditions do unspeakable things.
The Milgram Experiment was created and carried out in order to determine if German people were more inclined to be obedient to authority than most people in the world. During the World War II Nuremburg War Crimes Trials many of the accused gave the reason for their unthinkable behavior as obedience to authority. They said they were just following orders. Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist and professor, set out to determine just how much influence authority really played in the behavior of people in general.
Milgram’s Experiment initially resulted in 65% of participants from all walks of life, complying with the orders of authority figures. The experiment was repeated hundreds of times after that with a result of 62-67% of research subjects complying with the orders of authority figures.
The authority figures requested that the research subjects do a terrible thing – administer electric shocks to people they did not know and who had never harmed them in any way. On average, 65% of the research subjects from all walks of life complied, mostly without protest or question.
To get a good background in what this Experiment was about and how it was conducted, if you are not already informed about it, click here. It will just take you a few minutes to read a summary of that experiment, and then you will better understand what I am talking about.
It is because the research participants who administered the shocks were from all walks of life, with many different characters and personalities, that I side with the psychologists who believe circumstances more than character or personality influence a person’s behavior. The Milgram Experiment is only one of many different experiments that have been conducted and that have achieved the same results every time on this subject of how authority affects human behavior.
Milgram did repeat his experiment several times making small changes to the way he conducted the experiment. For example, he changed the location of the authority figure and that did make a difference to many of the participants administering the shocks.
However, it was the location of the authority figure that changed, not the participant’s personality or character that changed. By changing the circumstances of the situation and keeping the participants the same, Milgram proved that circumstances rather than personal traits make the difference in a person’s behavior. What Milgram proved was that changing the circumstances changed the outcome. In other words, the circumstances determined the change, personality and/or character of the participant did not.
Here is an example that may help you to better understand what I am trying to say.
John usually goes straight home from work. One night he decides to stop in to a neighborhood bar where several of his coworkers like to relax after work. There is a very attractive woman he has never seen before in the bar on the night he stops in. The woman flirts with John and after a few drinks, he flirts back. Eventually John and the woman have a conversation and she lets him know she is attracted to him. John is married, but he finds this woman very tempting. He doesn’t tell her he is married because he enjoys the attention she is giving him and fears she might change her mind about him if she knew he was married.
Normally John would be a model husband, but this night he is away from his wife and family and has had a few drinks that lower his inhibitions, like alcohol usually does with most people. He likes the attention this strange woman is giving him and it brings back memories of before he was married. The woman in the bar makes him feel attractive and desirable in a way his wife does not. After a few drinks and a couple of hours later, John goes home alone to his family, but he was sorely tempted to accept the woman’s invitation to stop by her apartment for a night cap.
Basically, John behaved out of character because he was under the influence of alcohol and he was in a different atmosphere than usual. What if he had been away from home in another city and state at a convention? What if the woman he met at the convention was from a different state hundreds of miles from where John lives? Might John have given in because he felt more confident he would not be found out? Might he have stayed in the bar longer and drank more, thus causing the alcohol to lower his inhibitions even more?
Hopefully you can see how as each of these factors of the circumstances change, so might John’s behavior, but his personality and character remain the same. These same circumstances might very well apply to a woman who is married and away from her family for a few hours and drinking alcohol, or at a convention many miles from home.
The point I am making is that often people behave the way they do more because of the circumstances they find themselves in, external factors, than because of their personality type or their character.
Some psychologists will say, but people choose their circumstances and they choose particular circumstances because of their personality. To some degree that is true. John chose to stop at the bar on the way home and should have known there might be an attractive woman there that he had never met before. John definitely should have known that when he drinks alcohol his inhibitions are lowered.
Even so, I think we have all found ourselves in circumstances not of our choosing from time to time. Circumstances totally unexpected and not necessarily appreciated. How often do we find ourselves doing things we would not have imagined we would do when that happens? Even under normal circumstances, how often do we find ourselves going along with a friend or a group of friends in certain behaviors that normally we would never engage in?
Let me remind you that there are always exceptions. On average, 65% of the participants in the Milgram experiment complied with orders that under normal conditions they very probably never would have gone through with. 65% is not 100%. It is a very high percentage, but there were still 35% who behaved differently. Maybe you are one of the exceptions — or maybe if you were to participate in a similar experiment to Milgram’s, you would surprise yourself by being in the majority.
Think about the following situations:
1. You are left alone in a fairly large store where you know there are no security cameras. The only clerk in the store went to the backroom to take a phone call and forgot to close the cash register where you can see there is a stack of twenty-dollar bills among other denominations of bills. There are several other customers in the store, but none of them are near where you are. No one would see you take a handful of the money and leave, and you could walk out of the store and someone else there might be suspected of the theft instead of you. There’s a good chance you would get away with it. Would you reach over and take some money and leave?
2. You are a thousand miles from home doing some research in the register of deeds office of the county where your hometown is located. You have been away from your hometown for 10 years. It just happens that a former classmate works in the register of deeds office and she is more attractive than she was when you were both back in high school. You had a crush on her back then. She is still unmarried, hotter than ever, and signaling you that she finds you attractive too. What would you do?
3. You leave the register of deeds office alone and decide to get a room for the night in the only motel in town, since it is already late afternoon. Later, when you are about to turn in for the night, there is a knock on your door. When you answer it is your former classmate from the register of deeds office and she has brought you copies of documents you made while at her office and then you forgot to take them with you. In fact, you had only just realized you had forgotten them and would have to pick them up the next day when unexpectedly she knocked on your door. What will happen next?
4. You are in the office of the head of human resources at the company where you work. That person has stepped out of the office and the file cabinet where all employee records are kept has been left unlocked. You know you have at least 10 minutes before the head of human resources will return. Will you snoop in your own, or someone else’s file, to see what is in there?
5. You are having lunch with your best friend when she excuses herself to go to the restroom. After she leaves you see her cell phone lying on the table next to her plate. Knowing your friend, she will be away for at least 10 or 15 minutes. Will you snoop in her cell phone to see whose numbers she has or if she has saved any messages? What if you were in this same situation with your boyfriend or husband? Would you snoop then?
Everyone gets into unusual circumstances from time to time. What usually determines your behavior at such a time? It is not necessary to share your thoughts with anyone else, but be honest with yourself. What would you do in circumstances like the ones described here?
Some people will do what most of us would consider to be the right thing when confronting these situations. However, some people will take advantage of the situation to do what most of us would consider the wrong thing.
How often do we hear about parents or spouses who are literally shocked because they discover their child or their husband or wife has done something totally out of character and completely unexpected?
Everyone wants to make sure other people take responsibility for their behaviors, and ultimately a person does make their own decision to do something or not to do it. Yet Milgram’s Experiment shows over and over again, that sometimes people act out of character. Milgram’s Experiment shows that the reason people most often act out of character is because of circumstances they find themselves in.
When people feel coerced by someone they believe is more powerful (an authority figure is just one example), when people think they might get away with something, sometimes even when they want badly to fit in or to be liked, and perhaps there are other reasons, people will act out of character and do things that under normal circumstances they would not do.
What has been described as mob mentality is another example of people acting out of character. What are normally decent law-abiding responsible people sometimes get caught up in a group think situation and participate in unspeakable behaviors and actions because of the circumstances they find themselves in.
How often have you heard of children going along with a friend, or group of friends, who did something that surely they knew was unacceptable? Maybe the children were at a party where drugs were being circulated and that situation will persuade them to go along with what everyone else is doing. They do not want to be the only person at the party who is not going along with what most other partygoers are doing. They do not want to draw attention to themselves by saying no.
The Solomon Asch Experiments, which will be the focus of one of my future hubs, show that most people want to fit in more than they want to do the right thing, even if doing the wrong thing will hurt them. I will share those experiments with you in another hub, but they also point to circumstances having more influence on behavior than personality or character.
Many people disagree that circumstances play such a big roll in human behavior, but most of them will readily admit it is because they are afraid people will not be held accountable if it becomes widely accepted that it was the circumstances rather than the individual’s decision and judgment that caused the problem. Sort of like people not wanting to accept that sometimes people really are insane when they commit certain crimes, and they really were not responsible for what they did because their brain was not functioning normally. I will discuss this in a future hub also.
Think about this. If you are a chocolate lover and there was a decadent delicious brownie, renowned for its superior quality from an exclusive restaurant, just one brownie of that sort, sitting in your pantry, would you eat it? Let’s say you brought it home from a luncheon at that exclusive restaurant with friends ostensibly for your roommate who loves chocolate, but she is at work and does not know you have a brownie for her. You plan to surprise her with it when she gets home. She will never know if you eat the brownie . . .
unless one of the friends you had lunch with tells her and asks her if she enjoyed it. It’s those little details that people often overlook that get them into trouble.