The Person and the Situation

One way to gain insight into how and why you relate to others is to look at how the people around you and the society you live in influence your behavior. For example, when you're having a terrible day and you're in a nasty mood, how is it that you can find it in yourself to be extremely courteous, pleasant, and kind to your boss, the store clerk, or your coworker? For one, it depends on how much you want them to like you and how much you want to be accepted by them.

The boss provides an obvious reason to be wary — he's not the guy you want giving you the evil eye all day because you were rude to him in the hallway! But, you might be aware that the store clerk and your coworker had nothing to do with your bad mood, so you treat them as you would want to be treated. Others in this situation don't care if their bad mood is misplaced as they take it out on the wrong person; they're not thinking about how much a person likes them at that particular moment. As you'll see, it only takes one person to distract you from your task, interrupt your train of thought, and cause you to behave in ways that don't represent your true form.

The Presence of Another

In 1897, to study how a person works in the presence of another person, psychologist Norman Triplett conducted an experiment to test coaction by monitoring how fast children turned a fishing wheel while they were alone in a room and when another person was present. (Coaction is the term used to describe how individuals interact together. In this experiment, it describes the act of two children performing the same task.)

In this study, Triplett placed two children in the same room and gave them both the task of turning a fishing wheel. He monitored how fast the children worked. He compared these results with how quickly the children worked when alone in the room and given the same task. Triplett's findings showed that children worked faster in coaction than when working alone. Psychologists then followed in Triplett's footsteps and conducted similar experiments that tested how well an individual performed in front of a group of people, or an audience. The same outcomes were witnessed, and together, the ramifications of coaction and audience influence were termed social facilitation.

Additional studies related to social facilitation have been generated in other animals. In the scientific journal Physiological Zoology (1937), S. C. Chen details how ants will dig at a faster rate when they're working in groups than they will when they're working alone.

Monkey See; Monkey Do

While you're affected by the pressure of being driven to work harder and strive for more when another person is performing the same task as you, you're also pushed outward, prompted to help others in need when you see that the help is coming from someone else.

How you interpret situations is the key element in whether or not you're going to contribute your services. For example, it's become so common to see people sleeping on sidewalks and park benches that you just assume the person is homeless and catching a nap wherever and whenever he can. It's a rare occasion when someone stops to see if the person is really sleeping, if he's extremely ill and in need of care, or if he's dead.

Bystander apathy is common within social situations. Remarkably, the size of the group can affect whether a person will take action, often moreso than the typical attitudes or behavior of the person herself. The larger the group, the less likely someone will contribute, because she assumes there are enough people around that surely someone else will act.

But is it “okay” simply to walk by and ignore someone who appears to be sleeping in a public area? The term pluralistic ignorance may help in answering the question. Pluralistic ignorance describes a state of thinking in which individuals in a group take their cues from other individuals in a group. For example, if everyone else is being calm about the person sleeping on the sidewalk, and no one is offering assistance, then the situation must not be an emergency and therefore doesn't require my help.

Diffusion of Responsibility

Since most people tend to look to others as models for how they should behave, diffusion of responsibility may take place. Diffusion of responsibility takes place when a group of people witnesses the same emergency, yet certain people do not offer assistance because other people are present, therefore diffusing their need to act — “someone else will offer help, so I don't need to.”

One of the most frequently cited examples of this diffusion of responsibility was the 1964 murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese. As she returned home from work late one evening, she was brutally attacked and repeatedly stabbed outside of her apartment entrance. Genovese cried out that she had been stabbed and screamed for help. One neighbor yelled out his window to tell the attacker to leave the woman alone, none of the neighbors contacted policed until approximately 30 minutes after the attack began. While the initial report that appeared in the New York Times sensationalized the case, later investigations have revealed that there were other factors about the situation that contributed to the failure of the witnesses to call for help. A 2007 article by Manning, Levine, and Collins that appeared in American Psychologist suggests that many of the witnesses did not realize that Genovese had been stabbed and that the layout of the apartment complex made it difficult for the neighbors to clearly see what was actually happening.

While the Genovese case has often been misrepresented in popular psychology literature, the incident did inspire a wealth of social psychology research on group behavior in crisis situations. Unlike pluralistic ignorance where one observed behavior affects another's behavior, diffusion of responsibility took place because the neighbors were unable to see the reactions of others; however, no one took action because they thought, “Someone else will take care of it.” The need to behave in a socially acceptable manner also plays a role in the failure of witnesses to take action in such situations. In the Genovese incident, many of the witnesses believed that they were simply hearing a domestic dispute and had no idea that the young woman was actually being murdered. When the situation is unclear and the behavior of those involved seems ambiguous, it becomes even less likely that witness will take action.

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