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Dr. Sam Sommers, Tufts University – Context and Moral Behavior

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Sam Sommers of Tufts University demonstrates how our behavior is often influenced by the context of our daily lives.

Sam Sommers is an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University where he directs the Diversity and Intergroup Relations Lab. As an experimental social psychologist, he is interested in issues related to stereotyping, prejudice, and group diversity. His work has appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals and in 2011 he published, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World.

About Dr. Sommers

Dr. Sam Sommers – Context and Moral Behavior

Context matters.  This may not sound like a profound conclusion, but behavioral science reveals that it’s one we often overlook in pondering human nature.  We hear the news about the latest fraud case or the crowd that stood idly by with an emergency going on right in front of it, and we chalk up the events to bad apples—simply people with poor personalities behaving poorly.

But this worldview oversimplifies.  How do we most accurately predict whether individuals will rise to the occasion in an emergency?  By examining the specifics of the situation.  In a famous study at Princeton, seminary students had to walk across campus to give a talk on an assigned topic.  Researchers arranged for students to pass by a shabbily dressed actor stooped over and coughing in a doorway.  Fewer than half stopped to help, in some instances literally stepping over a man in apparent need on their way to discuss the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Personality differences weren’t the best predictors of their behavior.  Rather, the simple matter of whether or not they were running late was most influential.  

This hidden power of situations has far-reaching implications.  We’re more influenced by the actions of those around us than we’d like to believe.  Even our private sense of identity is highly context-dependent.  Or consider research in my lab on the observable effects of a group’s diversity on its performance.  How does diversity influence groups?  It depends.  Create a situation in which people are primarily focused on making a good impression and their anxiety tends to undermine communication and social skills.  Tell them instead to focus on maximizing task performance and not only does performance improve, but people also wind up getting along better.  In short, human nature is far more malleable and context-dependent than we assume it is.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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