Predicting human behavior is difficult. Researchers interested in personality often focus on how certain traits and character differences affect the way individuals behave, while those in the social realm hone in on the role of situational factors—based on one’s environment.
Both perspectives make sense: Say a driver gets cut off of the road by someone else. She might think that other person was rude and call him inappropriate names—attacking his personality.
Later that day, the woman gets a flat tire. Hoping that someone will eventually help, she notices the same ill-behaved guy pass by and quickly judges that he definitely won’t stop. Surprisingly, the gentleman does!
As It turns out, he was just running late beforehand and rushing to pick up his beloved cat from day care. This example illustrates the power that situational factors have over assessments of personality.
Using the seminal experimental techniques of Darley and Batson, this video demonstrates the impact of situational factors when individuals are placed in a setting where another person needs help.
In this study, participants are recruited from a profession where empathy is expected, such as the seminary, and asked to deliver a speech across campus. Both the type of speech and the amount of time in which they have to arrive are varied.
In the first manipulation, speech type, half of the participants are told to lecture about their career aspirations, whereas the others are given a copy of the Good Samaritan passage and asked to speak about this parable.
For the second manipulation, amount of rush, participants are assigned to one of three conditions—low-, medium-, and high-hurry—and given different instructions.
The third in the low-hurry group are told that they will likely have to wait to deliver their speech once they arrive. Those in medium hurry are told that upon arrival, they will be speaking right away. The last third—high-hurry—are told that they are already late and should rush over immediately.
While participants are en route to the second location, a confederate—feigning pain and in need of help—is trained to observe and record each participant’s behavior as they pass by.
Here, the dependent variable is the degree to which participants help out on a scale of 1 (failed to even notice the individual) to 6 (stopped and refused to leave until help arrived).
If the situation affects behavior, those with more time on their hands—in the low-hurry group—are expected to be more helpful than participants in a real rush, demonstrating that situational factors have an impact on helping behavior.
Prior to the experiment, conduct a power analysis to recruit a sufficient number of adult seminary students. Also, check the weather to ensure that there will be consistent outdoor conditions during testing.
Upon the participant’s arrival, escort them into a testing room. Ask each one to complete six questionnaires to control for individual differences in religiosity.
Next, inform the participant that they will be giving a brief 3-5 min speech. Depending on the assigned condition, vary the type of speech they should give: either on career aspirations or the Good Samaritan parable.
For the second manipulation, tell participants that they must travel across campus to deliver the speech, and vary arrival times in one of three amounts. "You are already late for the speech and should hurry over."
When the participant encounters the confederate pretending to be in pain, note that the actor should secretly observe the quality of their interaction. Once the participant is out of sight, have them record a score between 1 and 6.
Continue to act out in pain until all participants have passed by. Make sure to record the last score before leaving.
To conclude the experiment, meet participants where they were supposedly giving their speech and fully debrief them by describing the nature of the study, including the deception involved and reasons behind it.
To visualize the data, create a graph of the mean quantified scores of helping behavior. Then, plot the values as a function of the amount of hurry the participant was in and the speech type.
Notice that as the amount of hurry increased, the participants became less helpful to the person in need. Furthermore, the situation was a stronger predictor than the speech type. There were also no differences in religiosity as determined by the pre-experimental questionnaire.
Thus, despite the common belief that individual differences and personality heavily impact behavior, these findings show that situational factors can be far more influential.
Now that you are familiar with a classical design to examine the power of situational factors—like the social environment—when analyzing human behavior, let’s look at other complex circumstances where our interpretations are not always accurate.
Based on the attribution theory, people have a tendency to associate negative actions performed by others, like foreclosing on a home mortgage, to their personality—inferring that they are ignorant and lazy—thus undermining situational factors that more likely explain their condition. This is an example of making a fundamental attribution error.
Interestingly, if the same negative event occurred to oneself, the person is quick to blame the present situation and not their character. In part, this reversal is due to an inherent self-serving bias, which favors the self in a positive manner to avoid explanations that could threaten their own disposition.
In addition, imagine several people in a crowded store, where one individual observes an elderly man stealing an item. This person is quick to judge others for not helping out when they themselves did nothing. In this case, they assumed someone else would manage the incident—an example of the bystander effect.
Furthermore, some societies have gone as far as to enact laws that require a duty to rescue. For instance, if in another aisle a person was struggling to breathe and needed physical assistance, passersby could be found guilty of a federal crime since there was no apparent danger for them providing help.
You’ve just watched JoVE’s video on the impact of situational factors on helping behavior. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design, conduct, and analyze an experiment to study how social settings can influence an individual’s behavior, regardless of personality.
Thanks for watching!