Something worth sharing…
June 24, 2010 § Leave a comment
Why write something you want to say when it has already been written?
Nisbett and Ross’s “The Person and the Situation” shows that most people attribute behavior to personality. However, in reality behavior is driven by much more often by the specifics of a situation, rather than the personality of the actor. For example, you walk down the hall and see your good friend. You shoot a smile and say hi — she ignores you. Most people are apt to say she’s upset with you, whereas in reality she was just very rushed at the moment.
Most people forget that there is high variability in the specifics of the situation. As an exercise, take something that just happened to me.
I just sent a secretary in an organization a note asking whether she had mailed me an packet of paperwork yet. She replies saying she made sure to put the packet on the mail cart that just came by, and it was sent out via overnight mail so I should get it immediately.
Here’s a leading interpretation of the situation, an interpretation that the average person would have. The secretary seems to be very prompt in responding to emails. She gets the job done right away, is very responsible, and go above and beyond the call of duty in accomplishing a task. Nisbett and Ross’s point is that the average person would seize upon this small event and infer large personality traits from it.
But here’s another possible interpretation. The paperwork is a set of documents to me that I have requested two weeks ago. The secretary then may have felt regret on receiving the email, and rushed out the package on a Friday afternoon. While promptness doesn’t matter much for me, the contents are very important and it may be that at her organization, overnight packages are treated with special care and integrity. If this had been the situation, then the secretary’s actions suddenly seem a lot less above the call of duty.*
Or another alternative. What if my email had triggered her to email her boss, who was responsible for sending the paperwork. On realizing that he still hasn’t sent the paperwork yet, he just gave a quick order to get it back to me as soon as possible. She simply followed instructions — all costs are billed to the organization anyway, and then updated me on the progress.*
Or yet another alternative: what if her boss had not given her the paperwork yet. But since she checks her boss’s email, she realizes that the packet is very very important to me. She goes beyond the standard procedures and interrupts her boss briefly to retrieve the packet. Knowing that her organization doesn’t pay for mail yet I seem to be antsy about needing it, she takes her own cash from her pocket and sends the mail over.*
The key point is this: in situations without full information, it’s very hard to infer a person’s disposition by her actions. Behavior is very situational.
* All speculation of course. I am in the end very grateful that the packet was sent out to me and reached me very quickly.