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Psycasm

Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

The following video relates to the bystander effect. You know the kind of thing - some actor lies down in the street and you watch, dismayed, as a dozens of people walk by apparently without concern. It's not imperative to this post that you watch it and make some judgements about it - but it will help me make some (hopefully) interesting points later on (and watching it later will give away the punchline). 

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 And now on the post proper...

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If you were asked to describe yourself, how would you do it? Would you try to describe the person you think you are, in a character-based sort of way?

"...I'm a fun kind of guy, outgoing and a bit of a perfectionist..."

Or would you describe the things you're interested in...

"...I enjoy fantasy novels, sport and cinema..."

Do you see the difference between the two? In many ways it's subtle and most descriptions will liberally mix the two different kinds.

The difference is between trait-based descriptions - 'I'm a perfectionist' - and more transient or environmental descriptions - 'I enjoy fantasy novels'. We all know a perfectionist, and when someone describes themselves as such we implicitly extend that description to all areas of their lives. They're probably work hard towards their goals, have a clean room, an organized DVD collection, and pay their bills on time. However if someone says they enjoy fantasy novels we don't automatically assume that's to the exclusion of other genres, or that they love all fantasy uncritically. 

Think about that for just a moment. Both seem reasonable, but how likely is it that a 'perfectionist' is a 'universal perfectionist', someone who strives for excellence and extreme satisfaction in all domains. Not really any more likely than the exclusive, noncritical fantasy fan. Sure, these people do exist, but they do not occur nearly as frequently as moderate perfectionists and moderate fantasy fans. 

This attribution we make, an attribution that behaviour is knowable through trait-based inferences, is flawed. So flawed, and so predictable, in fact, that psychologist have described it as fundamental. It is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). Here's the wiki article on the topic. Here's part of the intro from wiki:

"...The FAE describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others..."

The cool part is we don't do this to ourselves. If I'm buying groceries and I'm rude or short with the checkout-chick I'm likely to explain it away (probably legitimately) with some kind of rationalization - I was thinking about something else, or in a bad mood because I just got a parking ticket, or impatient because the elderly customer took 15 minutes unloading beans onto the conveyor belt. I'm not rude, just these other things happened to me... 

The checkout-chick is probably just going to think What a rude prick... and move onto the next customer without a second thought. 

Who is right? I was undeniably rude at the time, but does that make me a rude person? How likely is it that the observation you make about me in this situation likely to predict how rude I'll be if the cops pull me over, or if I'm on a date, or if I'm at a party? 

The answer is not very. Yet we persist in believing that people can be reliably described with trait-explanations. Try to describe your partner - would you use a word like caring, or loving? Can you think of a time when they didn't show great love or great concern toward you or someone else. What we mean (and the only useful way to think about these things) is My partner is usually loving/caring toward me, most of the time (yup, not particularly romantic, is it?)

I've really been struggling with this idea for the last few weeks. So some guy cuts me off on the highway my first reaction is You're a reckless bastard, keep your freaken' eyes open. I'd probably flip him off, too. Chances are, however, he's not reckless and not a bastard, but that something momentarily distracted him, or I missed noticing something on the road that necessitated his apparently reckless manoeuvrer (a suddenly breaking vehicle, or debris on the road, for instance). 

Now think about the video on the Bystander Effect at the top of the post. It's impossible to watch that, to watch people notice the sick man and walk on unaffected. You can't help but think "You're a selfish bastard" or something to that effect; furthermore, you can't avoid thinking "If I was you, I would totally help". Are these people really likely to be selfish all the time? How many of these people would think, and will continue to think, that they are helpful people? Just read the comment thread of the youtube video - everyone makes trait-based judgements.

My point is these people are not selfish, just busy, or conforming to a group standard, or geniunely didn't notice, or distracted, or... a hundred things. You're probably not as 'caring' as you think, you, like so many others, would probably just walk by too - concerned, but without the will or impetus to act.

The guy who cut you off - not a prick. The guy in the checkout - not rude. The girl who rejects your advances - not a bitch. Hell, even the guy who drops change in a charity tin may not be a 'charitable person' but experiencing momentary guilt for some reason, or with change he knows not what to do with, or trying to impress someone nearby, or 100 other things. 

The FAE is pretty pervasive, and it's a real difficult thing to overcome and avoid labelling people. In the last few weeks I've been working on it, and while it doesn't really help in too many explicit ways, it does provide a better  context and understanding for everyone else around you. 

 

 

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Scales photo via Shutterstock


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Blog Comments
Liesel Zink

Guest Comment

i find the bystander effect so fascinating and as an artist take quite an active role in experimenting with similar ideas in the city. [you can check out some of our rehearsals here: http://vimeo.com/30310559] It is amazing how little people want to interract with the unknown or unfamiliar... even if it is something that poses no threat at all (in my particular instance a dancer performing a dance in Queen St Mall or something).

I have always been so disheartened by the blank and expressionless faces in the city, however after researching body language and proxemic theories realise that it is more often than not just individuals reacting to the unavoidable intrusion of strangers into their intimate personal zone (15cm radius around the body). I'll draw from old Allan Pease's list of 'unwritten rules' that Westurn cultures follow when faced with a crowded situation like a bus or packed elevator:

' 1. You are not permitted to speak to anyone, including the person you know. 2. You must avoid eye contact with others at all times. 3. You are to maintain a ‘poker face’ – no emotion is permitted to be displayed. 4. If you have a book or newspaper, you must appear to be deeply engrossed in it. 5. The bigger the crowd, the less the body movement you are permitted to make. 6. In elevators, you are compelled to watch the floor numbers above your head.’

...are the commuters in public space really as despodent or 'miserable' as they look? Or are these misjudgements on our behalf and all that we are actually seeing is a group of people adhering to the rules applied to the unavoidable invasion of their intimate zone in a crowded public space?

hhhmmm... and a small aside from this... it is fun to break rules in public space! :) ... smile at a stranger, have a little dance to the music on your ipod... or at the VERY least if you see someone lying on the stairs in pain do ask them if they are ok!! :)

Hope

Guest Comment

This post brought to my mind one of Plato's quotes, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

 

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Guest Comment

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