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.