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Underestimating Context (But Selectively)

Imagine that for some reason you were lifted out of your usual place in society and dropped into somebody else’s spot — the place of someone whose behavior you have never understood. For example, you are an anarchist who suddenly becomes a top cabinet member. Or you are an environmentalist who is critical of big business who suddenly finds yourself responsible for developing environmental policy for ExxonMobil or BP.

As systems thinker Donella Meadows points out in her book Thinking in Systems, in any given position, "you experience the information flows, the incentives and disincentives, the goals and discrepancies, the pressure […] that goes with that position." It’s possible, but highly unlikely, that you might remember how things looked from where you were before. If you become a manager, you’ll probably see labor less as a deserving partner, and more as a cost to be minimized. If you become a labor leader, every questionable business decision will start to seem like a deliberate attack on your members.

How do we know?

The best psychological experiments ask questions about human nature. What makes a person strong? Or evil? Are good and evil dispositional hardwired traits, permanent once unleashed? Or is there something about the situations in which people find themselves that influences their behavior?

Researcher Phillip Zimbardo set out to answer similar questions. The idea behind his well-known Stanford Prison Experiment was simple: How would ordinary people behave if they were randomly assigned to predefined roles; in this case, prisoners and guards? A prison was simulated at a Stanford University building and the experiment started. In a very short time, participants took on the attitudes and behaviors of real prison "guards" and "inmates." After a few days of realistic role-playing, participants reported that it felt as though their old identities had been erased. Young men who were previously pacifists seemed, in their roles as guards, to enjoy humiliating and physically abusing their "prisoners". The "prisoners" quickly began to show signs of emotional breakdown— five had to leave the "prison" before the experiment was prematurely terminated.

The explanation for the participants’ behavior is that they began to adopt the social norms attached to the roles that had been assigned to them: Guards are authoritarian and can abuse prisoners; prisoners are servile and resentful, but resigned to taking their punishment.

Related to the question of whether it is we or our circumstances that govern our behavior, correspondence bias and fundamental attribution error come into play. These theories explain that individuals have a tendency to favor dispositional explanations for the behavior of others, while underestimating situational variables. In other words, we tend to explain our own behavior as a result of our situation (especially if it’s poor behavior), while explaining the behavior of others as a result of their character traits. Such discrepancy is called the actor-observer bias. Researchers Jones and Nisbett (1971) hypothesized that "actors tend to attribute the causes of their behavior to stimuli inherent in the situation, while observers tend to attribute behavior to stable dispositions of the actor."

This finding suggests that a person who works hard for something, such as a physics exam, is likely to explain her/his own work in reference to the upcoming exam, whereas an observer is likely to explain such work by referring to the person as being hardworking. This is important because the former interprets behaviors and outcomes as being situational and malleable, while the latter can lead to a more essentialist and unchanging view of people —i.e., you either have what it takes or you don’t; you’re either a prison guard or a pacifist. Put differently, we have a way of viewing ourselves that is more flexible and forgiving; our views of others are more definite and judgmental.

Why am I telling you this?

I found myself thinking about this research in the case of three recent newsworthy events in the education world. The first was the behavior of so-called enrollment counselors working at for-profit colleges, whose job was to put the screws to young people who were wavering over whether to enroll in the school. The second was the behavior of the Atlanta principals and teachers who were caught altering students’ test scores. And the third was a news story about Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy, who was reported to have pressured a parent to remove a struggling student from the school. Do any of these instances tell us about the character of the actors? Perhaps not. Although these three stories are completely different they share something in common: much of what happened was structurally and systemically "encouraged."

These are not just a few isolated cases of bad behavior which can be chalked up solely to the actors’ flawed dispositions. Rather, these individuals are embedded and operate in a specific organizational context and culture, with rules and incentive structures that pressure them to behave in a certain (sometimes unethical) manner. To be clear, understanding these dynamics does nothing to justify the unethical or illegal behaviors, which the relevant authorities have the responsibility to act upon. But only if we improve our understanding of why such behavior arises in the first place can we take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again.

When a system is operating dysfunctionally, the people within it tend to behave dysfunctionally. Just blaming and replacing the individuals who misbehave—while satisfying—is unlikely, in and of itself, to lead to more desirable long-term outcomes. Systemic problems require systemic solutions – see here.

This discussion attempts to show a side of the story that is often forgotten. Thinking systemically and recognizing the role of social structure and norms in influencing behavior does not mean individuals can´t act independently and make their own choices. It just means that this capacity is often more limited than we are willing to admit. We should remember this, especially when it comes to interpreting and understanding the behavior of others.

- Esther Quintero


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