Ross, L., and Nisbett, R. E., The Person and the Situation, 1991. Chapters
1 and 2.
One cannot predict without much accuracy how a particular individual
will respond in a given situation by using info about the individual's personality,
disposition, or past behavior. Usually the predictability ceiling correlation
is about 0.3.
This paper agrees that situations have a very strong affect on behavior.
They believe that many researchers have an inflated belief in personality
traits and fail to recognize the importance of subtle situational factors
The put forth three principles:
1. The power and subtlety of situational influences
2. The importance of an individual's subjective interpretation of a situation.
3. Individual psyches and social groups can be generalized as "tension
systems' that can be in equilibrim between impelling and restraining forces.
Principle of Situationism
According to Kurt Lewin, behavior is a function of the person and the situation.
However, his focus was primarily on the power of the situation. He showed
you could easily alter behavior by short-term manipulations of an individual's
Regarding group dynamics, "when trying to change things, group dynamics
can be the biggest barriers and the biggest motivators for change".
The "social context creates forces that produce or constrain behavior".
Lewin also promoted the idea of channel forces, small situational forces
that either increase impelling forces or reduce constraining forces to move
individuals toward a specific behavior. They act as a catalyst toward one
Principle of Construal
Construal is how the person understands the situation. You need to look
inside the minds of the subjects to see the "true stimulus".
Piaget talks about "schema" -- knowledge structures with respect
to certain stimuli and events (based in the past) that guide anticipated
actions for future events. These "tools of construal" also include
scripts, models, and heuristics.
Some mistakes that laypeople make with construal is that:
1. Failure to understand that one's own understanding is an active, constructive
2. Failure to appreciate the inherant variability of situational construal
(everyone sees things differently, and those views change with time and
3. Jumping to a causal conclusion too early (or fail to see the correct
Concept of Tension Systems
Individual psyches should be understood as systems in a state of tension,
a sort of "dynamic field". In fact, studying the restraining
forces can be as useful as analysis of the stimulus itself. This quasi-equilibrium
of forces can either be hard to change, or it may be at a peak where a small
push can cause dramatic change. Either an increase in impelling forces
or a decrease in restraining forces will shift the equilibrium. Big changes
may have small effect on equilibrium, and small changes may have big effects.
Leon Festinger showed that individual attidudes are often in tension with
their belonging groups, which may push people to conform to group norms.
There can also be attitudes in tension within one individual (known as
There is an "illusory consistency" that can be misinterpreted
by laypeople, though people do sometimes feel obliged to act consistently.
One difficulty with research is Relative Effect Size. The effect size
has little to do with statistical significance (though people will sometimes
confuse the two). Cohen proposed using the signal-to-noise ratio as one
way to qualify effect size. The interpretation of effects are often sized
relative to our expectations -- we see them as big if they affirm new hypotheses
or refute old ones, and small if they merely reinforce old theories.
Chapter 2 -- Power of the Situation
There are many researchers and famous studies that show the power of the
Sherif's "Autokinetic Paradigm" showed how gfroup dynamics can
influence group behavior. Subjects watched a moving light, with and without
confederates. He showed that perceptions could be altered permanently through
the use of confederates. Erroeous information reinforced by the group was
internalized by the subjects. The study showed our most basic perceptions
and judgements about the world are socially conditioned and dictated.
Solomon Asch also showed the power of a group. Subjects and confederates
compared a series of lines. The confederates would deliberately and erronesouly
agree with each other about a line length comparison. From 50% to 80% of
subjects would errorneously agreee with the group on at least one triall.
Asch found he needed only 3-4 confederates to achieve a similar effect.
The groups had a strong effect in perception and conformity.
There were also some studies at Bennington College in the 1930's. Conservative
college women would enter school and after 2-4 years would become very liberal.
A survey of voting preferences varied widely among school level, becoming
more and more liberal with each year.
Sherif also conducted studies of intergroup conflict at summer camps with
boys. He showed that between group competition could build hostility between
groups and solidarity within.
Tajfel showed that even the mere classification of people into groups can
elicit partisan group behavior, with favoritism within group and discrimination
outside the group.
John Darley and Bibb Latane conducted some classic Bystander Intervention
studies. They found seminary students would fail to help an injured man
if they were set up to be in hurry when the passed by (even if they were
rushing to make a speech on being a Good Samaritan). They also found
that groups can inhibit helping by diluting the responsibility among the
group. The failure of others to act reinforces or confirms one's own reasons
for inaction. They found people are more likely to help if they are along
than if they are in a group.
Why is the social influenceso powerful? We are used to using information
from others as a guide to our own behavior. The opinion of the group has
a normative or moral force to move people's behavior and attitudes to group
norms. There is a tension system between individual psyches and group norms
-- some forces cause more cognitive dissonance, others move people toward
The concept of "groupthink" is where loyal members suppress doubts
about a decision, which gives the illusion of consensus the discourages
other doubters from speaking up.
Channel factors are stimulus or response pathways that serves to sustan
behavioral intentions with particular intensity or stability. They are
catalysts of behavior.
For example, during WWII selling war bonds required a face-to-face appeal
at the workplace to really get increased sign-up. Persuavive advertising
wasn't enough. At Stanford, housewifes who first did a small favor by signing
a petition were more likely to agree to put up an ugly sign in their fron
The most famous study at showed the power of situational influence and conformity
was conducted by Stanley Milgram. He set up a sitution where a person was
asked to repeatedly adminster an electric shock to a "victim",
continuing even when the person was in extremee agony and even after they
68% of subjects carried out the shocks until the bitter end just by having
a "supervisor" ordering them to do so. It occured because the
subjects acceded responsibility and authority to the supervisor and the
shocks were gradually increased. While most subjects vigorously protested,
they went on anyway. There was an absence of a clear disobedience channel
to stop one's conformist behavior.