The Good News of Situationist Psychology

Part of the se­quence: The Science of Win­ning at Life

In 1961, Stan­ley Mil­gram be­gan his fa­mous obe­di­ence ex­per­i­ments. He found that or­di­nary peo­ple would de­liver (what they be­lieved to be) ex­cru­ci­at­ingly painful elec­tric shocks to an­other per­son if in­structed to do so by an au­thor­ity figure. Mil­gram claimed these re­sults showed that in cer­tain cases, peo­ple are more heav­ily in­fluenced by their situ­a­tion than by their in­ter­nal char­ac­ter.

Fifty years and hun­dreds of stud­ies later, this kind of situ­a­tion­ism is widely ac­cepted for broad do­mains of hu­man ac­tion. Peo­ple can in­flict in­cred­ible cru­elties upon each other in a prison simu­la­tion.b Hur­ried passersby step over a stricken per­son in their path, while un­hur­ried passersby stop to help.a Willing­ness to help varies with the num­ber of by­stan­ders, and with prox­im­ity to a fra­grant bak­ery or cofee shop.c The list goes on and on.d

Our in­abil­ity to re­al­ize how pow­er­ful the effect situ­a­tion has on hu­man ac­tion is so well-known that it has a name. Our ten­dency to over-value trait-based ex­pla­na­tions of oth­ers’ be­hav­ior and un­der-value situ­a­tion-based ex­pla­na­tions of their be­hav­ior is called the fun­da­men­tal at­tri­bu­tion er­ror (aka cor­re­spon­dence bias).

Re­cently, some have wor­ried that this un­der­stand­ing un­der­mines the tra­di­tional pic­ture we have of our­selves as sta­ble per­sons with ro­bust char­ac­ter­is­tics. How can we trust oth­ers if their un­pre­dictable situ­a­tion may have so pow­er­ful an effect that it over­whelms the effect of their vir­tu­ous char­ac­ter traits?

But as I see it, situ­a­tion­ist psy­chol­ogy is won­der­ful news, for it means we can change!

If situ­a­tion has a pow­er­ful effect on be­hav­ior, then we have sig­nifi­cant pow­ers to im­prove our own be­hav­ior. It would be much worse to dis­cover that our be­hav­ior was al­most en­tirely de­ter­mined by traits we were born with and can­not con­trol.

For ex­am­ple, drug ad­dicts can be more suc­cess­ful in beat­ing ad­dic­tion if they change their peer group—if they stop spend­ing recre­ational time with other ad­dicts, and spend time with drug-free peo­ple in­stead, or in a treat­ment en­vi­ron­ment.e

Im­prov­ing rationality

What about im­prov­ing your ra­tio­nal­ity? Si­tu­a­tion­ist psy­chol­ogy sug­gests it may be wise to sur­round your­self with fel­low ra­tio­nal­ists. Hav­ing now been a vis­it­ing fel­low with the Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute for only two days, I can already tell that al­most ev­ery­one I’ve met who is with the Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute or has been through its vis­it­ing fel­lows pro­gram is a level or two above me—not just in knowl­edge about Friendly AI and simu­la­tion ar­gu­ments and so on, but in day-to-day ra­tio­nal­ity skills.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to take part in a con­ver­sa­tion with re­ally trained ra­tio­nal­ists. It might go some­thing like this:

Per­son One: “I sus­pect that P, though I know that cog­ni­tive bias A and B and C are prob­a­bly in­fluenc­ing me here. How­ever, I think that ev­i­dence X and Y offer fairly strong sup­port for P.”

Per­son Two: “But what about Z? This pro­vides ev­i­dence against P be­cause blah blah blah...”

Per­son One: “Huh. I hadn’t thought that. Well, I’m go­ing to down­shift my prob­a­bil­ity that P.”

Per­son Three: “But what about W? The way Sch­mid­hu­ber ar­gues is this: blah blah blah.”

Per­son One: “No, that doesn’t work be­cause blah blah blah.”

Per­son Three: “Hmmm. Well, I have a lot of con­fu­sion and un­cer­tainty about that.”

This kind of thing can go on for hours, and not just on ab­stract sub­jects like simu­la­tion ar­gu­ments, but also on more per­sonal is­sues like fears and dreams and dat­ing.

I’ve had sev­eral of these many-hours-long group con­ver­sa­tions already—peo­ple ar­gu­ing vi­gor­ously, of­ten ‘trash­ing’ oth­ers’ views (with logic and ev­i­dence), but with ev­ery­body ap­par­ently will­ing to up­date their be­liefs, no­body get­ting mad or hurt, and peo­ple even mak­ing de­ci­sions to change some­thing in their life in re­sponse to a Bayesian up­date about some­thing.

The com­mu­nity norms re­in­force this be­hav­ior, and it has had an ob­vi­ous effect. All these peo­ple have spent time liv­ing with at least two other ra­tio­nal­ists for many months—most of them, for longer than that. I haven’t done an ex­per­i­ment that al­lows causal in­fer­ence, but… com­mu­nity seems to be work­ing splen­didly for im­prov­ing ra­tio­nal­ity. And situ­a­tion­ist psy­chol­ogy ex­plains why.


Want to change your be­hav­ior, your self? In many cases, one of the most effec­tive things you can do is to change your situ­a­tion.

Live with ra­tio­nal­ists. Stop hang­ing out with down­ward-spiral, drug-abus­ing friends. Move to an­other state or province or na­tion. Get a differ­ent job. Spend more time at the park, less time at home. Or less time at the park, and more at home. Con­sider what you want to achieve, and how a change of situ­a­tion might help you do that. Then change your situ­a­tion, and change your­self.

Next post: The Power of Reinforcement

Pre­vi­ous post: How to Be Happy


a Dar­ley & Bat­son (1973).

b Zim­bardo et al. (1973).

c Baron (1997).

d Much of the liter­a­ture is helpfully re­viewed in Doris (2005).

e Ve­lasquez et al. (2001); Con­nors et al. (2004, ch. 6.); Galan­ter (2010).


Baron (1997). The sweet smell of… helping: Effects of pleas­ant am­bi­ent fra­grance on proso­cial be­hav­ior in shop­ping malls. Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy Bul­letin, 23: 498-503.

Con­nors, Dono­van, & DiCle­mente (2004). Sub­stance abuse treat­ment and stages of change: Select­ing and plan­ning in­ter­ven­tions. Guilford.

Dar­ley & Bat­son (1973). From Jerusalem to Jer­i­cho: a study of situ­a­tional and dis­po­si­tional vari­ables in helping be­hav­ior. Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy, 27: 100-108.

Doris (2005). Lack of Char­ac­ter. Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press.

Galan­ter (2010). Net­work ther­apy. In Marc Galan­ter and Her­bert Kle­ber (eds.), Psy­chother­apy for the treat­ment of sub­stance abuse (pp. 249-276). Amer­i­can Psy­chi­a­tric.

Ve­lasquez, Mau­rer, Crouch, & DiCle­mente (2001). Group Treat­ment for Sub­stance Abuse: A Stages-of-Change Ther­apy Man­ual. Guilford.

Zim­bardo, Banks, Haney, & Jaf­fee (1973). The mind is a formidable jailer: a piran­del­lian prison. New York Times Magaz­ine, April 8, 1973, pp. 38-60.