Monday, December 20, 2010

Demystification Monday: Person vs. Situation

All you writers of the dystopian genre might have particular interest in this one, but anyone who's putting a character in an extreme situation might want to pay attention as well.

Here is a relatively common misconception (when we're judging other people's behavior):

No matter the situation, your behavior depends entirely on what kind of person you are.

Well ... that's not such a crazy idea. Put 100 people in the same situation and they won't all act the same. For example, say a bunch of people are taken hostage. Some will cower and cry. Others will plot escape nonstop. A few will try to get friendly with the captors, even if it means tattling on the other hostages. Others will be utterly hostile and completely uncooperative. And some will do whatever it takes to get others out, even at the risk of their own lives. So what would you do? Do you know for sure?

How about this one: you're given a job. You're supposed to administer an electric shock to another person as part of a learning experiment. When the person makes a mistake, you must shock them. If they keep making mistakes, you must shock them more. If you hesitate, the boss will come in and stand over you, telling you that you have to do it. You're a good person, right? Would you push the shock button?


Are you sure?

If you were observing this experiment from the outside, you'd probably be thinking, "What kind of sick, heartless, weak person could do something like that?"

If you were the person with that button beneath your sweaty fingers, you'd probably be thinking, "Why are they making me do this??" Zap.

This is what humans do. When we see someone do something, or when we see something happen to someone (especially something bad), we usually decide that the event occurred because of the person. His/her personality. Genetics. Soul. Whatever. Something inside of that person. You know, that person was lazy. Careless. Stupid. Evil. We go for the "dispositional" explanation rather than the "situational" one. This is so common that it has a name: Fundamental Attribution Error.

But situations have incredible power over us. You've probably heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment? Male college students were randomly assigned to play the roles of guard or prisoner for two weeks in a simulated prison. Except ... the experiment had to be ended after only 6 days.

All the boys in the experiment were chosen because they were normal. Healthy. And within a day or two, they seemed to turn into different people. Some of the things they did--both "guards" and "prisoners"--were quite extreme. Even the lead psychologist on the study, Philip Zimbardo, got into his role as "prison superintendent". Seriously. Even the guy who designed the study was susceptible.

All because of the situation.

If you want a fascinating read on this topic, I suggest The Lucifer Effect.

As you're writing and thinking about character consistency and character development, etc., think about the power of the situation. It's really easy to believe good deeds come from good people and evil deeds come from evil ones, but it's a lot more complicated than that. And isn't that awesome (and a little scary)? It puts villains and heroes in a whole new light and gives you more to play with. Is your villain evil simply because he/she is evil? Is your hero always heroic, never wavering from the good, no matter the situation? For contemporary writers, what kinds of situations can bring out the worst in your characters? What can make them act "uncharacteristically" jerky? Mean? Crazy? Careless? Brash?

So go. Play. Have fun. But your characters have asked me to say this to you: Don't let the power go to your head. You never know what it will make you do ...


  1. Oooh! Great post. I like to think of myself as the 'plot escape nonstop' person. In fact, I have stopped a robbery before, but that's a story for another day :)

    I love how this relates to my novel. My hero has his weaknesses, and what people might perceive to be weaknesses in my heroine, I actually think of as strengths. At the same time, my villain turned into the villain over time. Initially, it was a bad circumstance that put him/her in that position. It's what he/she took from that position that made them who they are in my novel.

    I kind of love the fact that in this world, nothing and no one are as they seem on the outside. Makes for interesting life fodder :)

  2. Great post as always, Sarah. What a great idea for adding suspense and unexpected twists to a story. :D

  3. excellent! this is something we should all remember- not only for creating genuine characters, but before we pass judgement on other people. :)

  4. Intriguing post. *zap*

    I think I go through the Lucifer Effect when I'm in revisions. ;)

    Happy Holidays,

  5. I love this observation! And it's the best point ever for making characters behave consistently... Good stuff~ :o) Merry Christmas!

  6. Wow, great post. Much to think about and consider here.:)

  7. Thanks, everyone! I've always found these studies so interesting--in recent years, I think there's been more research devoted to the psychology of resistance. In other words, what is it about those few people who stand up and say, "I won't go along with this!" That's the stuff of heroes. I'll probably post on it in the future!

  8. Great post! I've read about both those experiments, I really think they reveal aspects of the human character that should definitely be applied to writing.

  9. Cool post! Those experiments are fascinating, but horrifying too. Thanks goodness when it comes to my writing, it's all fiction. I do some pretty mean things to my characters!

  10. The zapping thing made me think of the part in the original Ghostbusters movie. Do you remember it? The one dude was asking two college students (one a total dork and one a good-looking blonde) to guess (it was a pyschic thing) what picture was on the card he was holding. The boy got shocked--A LOT and he was guessing right. The girl never got it right, but he never shocked her! LoL. Love that movie.

    Now I think I'll go make character do something out-of character. ;-)


  11. Great post. I'm sorry I missed this one yesterday. I think the prison experiment is the one thing that really stuck with me from high school psychology. I've read about it several times, but I've never heard of the Lucifer Effect. I'm off to read about that one now...

  12. True, but I think a lot of this has to do with how self-aware you are, too. If you are able to look beyond the situation, you see things differently, and you're often able to react a lot differently than someone who's not self-aware. There were people who refused to participate in the zapping experiment, for example.

    And a lot also has to do with how we perceive authority figures (and a chance to suddenly play one). We're taught from birth that you do not disobey authority, whether your parents, teachers, bosses, police, government officials, etc. That's hard to overcome, even when it's clear what the person is asking you to do is wrong--especially when it comes with consequences.

  13. Anonymous--yes, of course, nothing is ever as simple as you make it sound in a <1k word blog post! There are many factors involved, including personality factors, cultural factors, and contextual factors that influence a person's response in any given situation. Think Bandura's model of triadic reciprocity--person/behavior/environment.

    In Milgram's obedience study, 26/40 people shocked the confederate, right? It was earth-shattering at the time because he was trying to prove that there was no way good Americans could be as evil as the Nazis. Yeah.

    I think it's a wonderful point about individual factors that determine compliance, but always important (to avoid committing the fundamental attribution error) to take the situation into account when judging another person's behavior.