Tuesday, November 10, 2009
How changeable is your character?
This is the book I am currently reading. In the book, Gladwell talks about his theory for sociological "tipping points." Basically, there are times when things catch on really fast and inexplicably, or die quickly and inexplicably, and he gives some theories of why these things happen. His examples range from the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies, to the rise and drop of the crime rate in New York City.I'm not sure exactly how I feel about the author's conclusions yet--he's kind of defending himself as he goes; however, I really like learning about some of the research he sites.
For example, there are a couple studies that I have been thinking about a lot lately.
1. The Good Samaritan Experiment.
A bunch of Seminary students were selected and individually asked why they decided to join the seminary. Then they were asked to give a brief lecture on different gospel topics in a nearby building. Some students were even given the topic of the Good Samaritan to speak on. They were then sent off to give their little talks. On the way there they had to pass by a bum (an actor) lying on the ground moaning and coughing in pain. The experiment measured who stopped and who didn't.
There was one other variable added to the mix. Half the students were told, right before they left to give their talks that they were a little late and the audience was already waiting for them. The other half were told they had a few minutes to start, but they might as well head over now.
It turns out that the students who were lecturing about the Good Samaritan were no more likely to stop than those who were not lecturing about the Good Samaritan. The students who joined the Seminary because they wanted to help out their fellow man were no more likely to stop than those who joined for other reasons (the book doesn't state what these other reasons were, I assume it was for filthy lucre or power).
However, out of the group that was told they were late, only 10% stopped to help. The other group that felt they had time had 63% stop to help.
2. The Cheating Test
This was a humongous experiment of eleven thousand students between the ages of 8 and 16. They gave them dozens of tests in dozens of situations to judge their honesty. They had ways to test their cheating which I won't go into here. They gave them tests in math, in English, in science. They gave them take home tests. They gave them tests on different days. Basically, I feel sorry for these kids because they had to take so many tests. Here is what there results were: there is a lot of cheating going on. No surprise.
What was surprising was that it wasn't the same kids all the time. A kid might cheat in math, but not in English. He might cheat on a multiple choice test but not a fill in the blank test. He might cheat at home, but not at school. He might cheat on Thursday but not Friday. There was no one group of "Cheats." Who cheated depended on the situation that day.
Gladwell's conclusion to these and other experiments he includes is that though we think of our character as being very solid, it is actually fluid. People's characters change depending on their situations. We think of people as being honest, or funny, or cheerful, or lazy...but no one is always these things. When we label our characters we actually underestimate their complexities. People in a hurry are less likely to help someone in trouble, no matter if they feel called of God to help all of mankind. People who have cheated do not always cheat.
It both reassures and bothers me that my very character can shift depending on the situation. It reassures me because looking back on a new situation, I am sometimes confused about why I acted the way I did. I have been thinking about how different I act here in Nebraska than in Utah (the drinking, carousing, tattoos etc.). It's nice to know I might just be normal instead of a social chameleon.
It bothers me because, especially morally, I would like to be predictable and solid. Once I know what is wrong and right I would rather not change depending on my company, or the weather. I like to think I am dependable but, honestly, if I was in a hurry I would probably walk right past the bum (maybe kick him too).
Anyway. It's interesting to think about.