The Situationist

“Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on August 7, 2007

blue-background-small.jpgA number of social psychologists recently published the following critical response to Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo’s latest book, The Lucifer Effect:

We are concerned by the message that has been conveyed to the general public regarding the power of the situation to “trump individual dispositions” (“The Banality of Evil,” Observer, April 2007). In contrast to Zimbardo, we believe that there is actually little scientific evidence indicating that situations are more important than dispositions for explaining behavior. Indeed, researchers recently summarized over 25,000 studies and found that personality and situations contribute almost equally to various outcomes, and many studies demonstrate the complex ways in which people react differently to similar situations. Our concern is that Zimbardo has misrepresented the scientific evidence in an attempt to offer a purely situational account of the antisocial acts perpetrated at Abu Ghraib. The scientific consensus, based on existing data, is that people vary in their propensity for antisocial behavior and that environments transact with personalities. Some people are more likely to turn out to be bad apples than others, and this is particularly evident in certain situations.

Phil Zimbardo last week posted his response to the criticism, indicating, among other things, that he’d never claimed that situation “trump[s] individual dispositions.” His response speaks eloquently for itself.

As self-identified situationist scholars, we have a stake in this debate and wanted to offer our own response. But we’d like to go further than Professor Zimbardo did (though we suspect he would concur). With some reservations, we are willing to accept the criticism’s premise; our claim is that situation trumps disposition, assuming those terms are properly construed.

As explained in “About Situationism,” “[s]ituationism is premised on the social scientific insight that the naïve psychology—that is, the highly simplified, affirming, and widely held model for understanding human thinking and behavior—on which our laws and institutions are based is largely wrong.” So what is that highly simplified model of the human animal? According to anthropologist Alan Fiske, who has researched that question:

[t]he person is believed to consist of a set of “internal,” “personal” attributes such as . . . personality traits, preferences, subjective feeling states, beliefs and attitudes. . . . Taken together, these attributes define each person as an autonomous, freely choosing, special individual.

From that perspective, it is easy to assume that each individual has control over his or her own destiny and to credit or blame good and bad conduct or outcomes accordingly. Fiske boils down the simple attributional schema to the following elements:

  • Actions are freely chosen.
  • Choices imply a preference.
  • Preferences are stable over time.
  • Preferences implicate the identity of the self.
  • Outcomes are mostly controllable.
  • People are responsible for (and hence the self is implicated in) the choices they make and the resultant outcomes.

Given those elements, it makes sense that people who do bad things should be punished, that people who do good things should be rewarded, and the situation should be ignored. That is the “dispositionism” that we situationists maintain is, pretty much, completely wrong.

Professor Zimbardo’s critics are, as far as we are concerned, knocking down a straw man. The critics build their case around evidence that “people react differently to similar situations.” No offense, but . . . duh. As Zimbardo has already underscored, no one disputes that point.

A perfect example of such differing reactions can be found in the experiment that, as much as any others, revealed the power of situation: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience experiment, in which ordinary people gave seemingly fatal shocks to innocent victims. (For a Situationist post summarizing Milgram’s experiment and those lessons, click here; Milgram’s forty-five minute movie about his experiment is available below.)

The significance of that classic experiment is that it makes clear that people will often behave in ways that contradict how they imagine they would behave based on their own perceived dispositions. It reveals how “good people” could easily be made to engage in “evil conduct” because of hard-to-see situational influences.

Some of our students have responded to the findings of Milgram’s initial trial in a way that resembles the arguments of Zimbardo’s critics. They point out that roughly one-third of the subjects did not shock the “learner” all the way to 450 volts, thus revealing the significance of the role of disposition. “Look,” they remind us, “some people’s disposition overcomes their situation.”

Upon closer examination, however, that argument fails. First of all, virtually all of those subjects shocked the “student” to at least 300 volts. Obviously, people were willing to inflict a good deal of pain on innocent victims.

In any event, there is nothing about the one-third of “disobedient” subjects that suggests that “disposition” overcame or was equal to “situation.” Quite the contrary, the experiment was set up such that there were powerful situational forces pushing the subjects in two directions—one to continue obediently with the experiment and the other to end the experiment in response to the screams, kicks, complaints, demands, and eventual silence of the “student.” They could comply with the white-coated authority, or with the desperate innocent victim. No matter what “choice” the subjects made, they felt considerable situational pressure to make the other choice—and those mixed situational reactions manifested themselves in stress, nervous laughter, and significant discomfort.

The reason the experiment is famous is not because situation trumped disposition forAdam and Eve and Snake some subjects while disposition trumped situation for others, but because seemingly trivial situational forces to inflict great pain on an innocent person overcame the obvious situational forces to do otherwise. It had been presumed by virtually everyone, including Milgram himself, that the latter situational forces would trump the former. But that presumption was wrong for the majority of subjects—and that prediction error makes clear how easily situational forces can lead “good people” to behave more or less like “bad apples.”

Still, some would argue that the difference between the two groups in the original version of the study—the 2/3 who shocked to 450 volts and the 1/3 who stopped shocking at some point before 450 volts—must represent something different about the people themselves, given that the situation was constant. That difference, the argument seems to be, is “dispositonal.”

But there is nothing about differences in individual behavior across seemingly similar situations that demonstrates that disposition is the driving force. That’s true for many reasons, which we will turn to in Part II of this post (available Thursday).

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4 Responses to ““Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I”

  1. [...] With this study in mind, pop over and read a timely post by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann that bears a great deal on this research program: “Situation” Trumps “Disposition”. [...]

  2. [...] “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I [...]

  3. [...] few weeks, including ongoing discussion of Philip Zimbardo’s latest book The Lucifer Effect here and here, and in a post in which Zimbardo replies to his critics in person. Other recent posts [...]

  4. [...] “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II (by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann) [...]

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