There is not a single version of “you” and “me,” writes Adam Alter in his recent article (shared below) in the New York Times (Where We Are Shapes Who We Are, 6.14.13). Though we’re all anchored to our own distinct personalities, contextual cues sometimes drag us so far from those anchors that it’s difficult to know who we really are — or at least what we’re likely to do in a given circumstance. Drawing upon several research studies, he demonstrates how we behave differently, given circumstance, context, and environmental cues.
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Most people, in fact, think of themselves as generous. In self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly and honest, too. We imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But in truth, we’re more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings.
In the early 1970s, a team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped, addressed letters near college dorms along the East Coast and recorded how many lost letters found their way to a mailbox. The researchers counted each posted letter as a small act of charity and discovered that students in some of the dorms were more generous than others.
Nearly all of the letters dropped near uncrowded dorms — residences where comparatively few students lived on each floor — reached their intended recipients. In contrast, only about 6 in 10 of the letters dropped near crowded dorms completed the journey.
Apparently, the students in high-density housing, where everyone was packed close together, felt less connected to their college mates and this apparently dampened their generosity.
Later, when the researchers asked a different collection of students to imagine how they might have responded had they come across a lost letter, 95 percent of them said they would have posted it regardless of where they were living.
Consider another experiment, conducted in 2000 in Glasgow, Scotland, in which a series of blue lights in prominent locations citywide, designed to make unsightly districts of the city more attractive, contributed to a decline in crime. The theory was that the lights, mimicking those atop police cars, seemed to imply that the police were watching. When the Nara Prefecture police in Japan installed blue lights at crime hot spots, they got similar results; the overall crime rate fell.
Other studies show that people behave more honestly in locations that give them the sense they’re being watched. A group of psychologists at Newcastle University in northeast England found that university workers were far more likely to pay for tea and coffee in a small kitchen when the honor-system collection box sat directly below a price list featuring an image of a pair of eyes, versus one with flowers. Mirrors have the same effect and are arguably even more powerful, because they compel us to peer, metaphorically, into our own souls.
Other environmental cues shape our actions because they subtly license us to behave badly. According to the heavily debated broken windows theory, people who are otherwise well behaved are more likely to commit crimes in neighborhoods with broken windows, which suggests that the area’s residents don’t care enough to maintain their property.
The theory’s authors, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, hypothesized in a 1982 article for The Atlantic Monthly that if the broken windows in a building were not repaired, people were more likely to break additional windows in the structure. And that, in turn, would only encourage more vandalism.
The same goes for a sidewalk with litter. The more litter there is, the more accumulates. Eventually, people start discarding bags of trash from takeout restaurants there, and this soon leads to more crime in the neglected area.
Since 1982, when Professors Wilson and Kelling proposed their theory, the littering example has received plenty of experimental support. In one study, social psychologists placed paper fliers on 139 cars in a large hospital parking lot and watched to see what the car owners would do with them.
Again, the environment appeared to shape the response. When drivers emerged from the hospital to find a parking lot littered with scattered fliers, candy wrappers and coffee cups (arranged by the researchers, of course), nearly half of them removed the fliers from their cars and left them on the ground. In contrast, when the researchers swept the parking lot clean before the drivers returned, only 1 in 10 dropped the flier.
Unwittingly, the drivers adopted the behavior that seemed most appropriate given their understanding of the area’s prevailing norms.
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These studies tell us something profound, and perhaps a bit disturbing, about what makes us who we are: there isn’t a single version of “you” and “me.” Though we’re all anchored to our own distinct personalities, contextual cues sometimes drag us so far from those anchors that it’s difficult to know who we really are — or at least what we’re likely to do in a given circumstance.
It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us.
But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be.
Simcha’s addition: And with whom.
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Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.
See also: Fixing Our Broken Windows