Rocks, hard places, etc.

Rocks in a rapid river

When we see water flowing between rocks, we don’t think – wow, that water sure is clever to go between the rocks! Or, why doesn’t that dumb water just go over the rocks instead of between? We understand that the rocks naturally constrain the water’s flow – that the behavior of the water has more to do with the contours of its environment than with some innate quality of the water.

But we do this to people without hesitation. It’s called the fundamental attribution error. We fail to sufficiently appreciate how powerful context is in determining behavior, especially when it comes to our judgments about the actions of others. We tend to be far more lenient with our self-judgments.

This error operates in part because of our minds’ craving for consistency and predictability, which we have discussed in recent posts. We ignore or discount evidence that goes against our beliefs and over-emphasize what fits them. It feels safer to believe that we live in a world where we can have confidence in our predictions for the future. We want to have a good sense of how we and others will act across time and contexts. But just wanting something doesn’t make it so – it turns out there is actually little evidence that personality is stable across time and situations.

There is a reason, however, that people do in fact appear to behave  consistently: our situations tend to be consistent, which elicits consistent responses from us. And our situations tend to be consistent in part because we select them to suit us. But change the situation considerably, and you may be shocked by how behavior changes (see Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram‘s obedience to authority experiment for unnerving examples).

Earlier this week I came across this NPR piece that includes an interview with a renown personality psychologist Walter Mischel. You may be familiar with his famous marshmallow experiment, which suggests that children’s ability to delay gratification at a young age is correlated with future life success. But from Mischel’s perspective, the most remarkable finding was that self-control could be attained by suggesting to the child that they “just pretend the marshmallow isn’t really there.” In other words, you can change behavior by shifting perception – that it is how we perceive the situation that constrains behavior.

What can we do with this information? What might it mean if we accept that people – ourselves included – are less fixed than it may seem? What does it suggest that the situations we find ourselves in have far more power over us than we like to admit? That what seems “real” and “objective” about our situations is also more fungible than we credit? How can we use this insight to be more effective and happy in work and life?

  • Degrees of freedom. We do not exist in a box. We all have the freedom (and responsibility) to change and grow. It may be unsettling to think that personality isn’t fixed, but it is also freeing and thrilling. Understanding how powerfully situations affect us gives us power to change our behavior, habits, and perceptions to be more effective.
  • Concern yourself with culture. Culture includes the beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and principles of an organization. In other words, it is the sum of the invisible pressures of the situation in a workplace. In the same way that we need to take into account the fundamental attribution error when making social judgments, we need to appreciate the role of culture at the social group level.
  • Choose wisely. If our behavior is strongly influenced by the situation, we need to be careful what situations we choose to join. Pick your friends and pick your places with awareness that they will affect your behavior more than you realize. Who do you aspire to be? Seek out people and places that bring out the best in you.
  • Compassion for others. If the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments show anything, it’s that the potential for being absolutely beastly might be lying dormant in any of us, waiting for the right situation to draw it forth. To accept the power of the situation should kindle compassion for those who behave in ways we dislike. It demands that we think more critically about why people act the way they do and how to bring out the best in everyone.

We’re like water. We are fluid, not fixed. We possess a singular essence which can manifest in a myriad of ways. Water may get frothy and wild when running through narrow, rough patches, but it can also pass placidly and peacefully through wide, deep, easy runs. Water can find the efficient way through, but water is also powerful enough to wear down rock across time. But we have something going for us that water doesn’t: we can use our awareness to consciously make choices that serve us and direct our own flow.