Why We Behave Differently In Different Situations

Article in the Mindscape Section of the June 2018 Issue of Stayfit Magazine by Vinesh Sukumaran

I was recently at a friend’s house for dinner and one of the guests, a rather gregarious woman in her mid-thirties, knocked down this wonderful purple ceramic vase. I’m almost sure she knocked it down by mistake. The vase crashed to the floor and shattered, and what followed was quite interesting. As soon as the vase shattered, the woman’s instant response was to look around to check others’ reactions to it. This is a quality that we’ve carried with us almost from infancy and I’m sure at some point we’ve all noticed children doing exactly the same thing. People inherently have a strong interest in human behaviour and by that; I don’t just mean their own behaviour but also the behaviour of others.

There are several definitions of behaviour that you’ll find in psychology textbooks and on the internet. While some define behaviour as a response to some sort of stimulus, some others define it as the action taken in relation to an environment. You even have definitions that emphasize how behaviour is the way in which a system functions under specified circumstances and so on. To reduce all this to its essence, human behaviour is anything that you do. Anything You Do is a behaviour. If you stand erect, that’s a behaviour. If you slouch when you sit down, that’s a behaviour. If you wake up early every morning, that’s a behaviour. Behaviour isn’t just confined to anything you do physically; it’s also anything you do mentally. If you say “Oh my God!” to yourself (only in your head) whenever you face a difficult situation, that’s a behaviour. Or if you go inward and get lost in thought when someone’s talking to you, that’s a behaviour too. Likewise, if you say to yourself in your mind, “I’m strong and I’m gonna make it” when you face something difficult or if you feel engaged and energized when someone’s talking to you, those are behaviours as well.

A big reason we behave differently in different situations is because Behaviour Breeds Behaviour. This means a couple of things. Firstly, if you do something once, it’s easy to do it again. If you smoke once, it’s easy to smoke again. If you fast once, it is easy to fast again. Secondly, if you do something with a person once, it is easy to repeat that behaviour with that person again. If you tell someone a secret and build trust once, you are likely to share more with that person. If you have sex with a person once, it’s a little easier to have sex with that person again. Finally, your behaviour could influence the behaviour of the people around you and vice versa. For example, if you hang out with a group of fitness enthusiasts, your own alignment towards fitness is likely to increase. You’re more likely to run a full marathon if you hang out with a group of runners rather than with a group of party animals who go out and  get drunk every night.

Another big reason why we behave differently in different situations is because, of the conditioned responses that we might have to the behaviour of people around us. This conditioned behaviour response is a phenomenon that starts from when we are kids. For example, even as children, we tailor our responses to situations and incidents based on the behaviour of people around us, just like adults do. I’m sure you’ve seen a toddler running around and playing with his parents. If he suddenly topples over and is not really hurt, he looks around for people’s reactions. If his mother comes running towards him expressing shock and anxiety, the kid starts to cry. If she continues to play the game and brushes the “fall” aside like nothing happened, the kid moves on with life. Imagine someone getting fired by his organization and the rest of the team and people on his work floor coming and genuinely congratulating him. Telling him how this opens up awesome opportunities for him in the market and sharing the success stories of people who’ve been asked to leave in the past. I know even the thought of something like this happening has a “Dali painting” like surrealism to it. But if it did happen, I’m sure that the behaviour of the person who got fired would be far different from what we usually see. Different from the usual behaviour of being morose and feeling out of place due to uneasy interactions from colleagues, awkward silences when he walks into the cafeteria and taps on the shoulder from team mates with the “shit happens” look on their faces.

One of my other favourite explanations of why people behave differently in different situations is based on the Social Impact Theory. Psychologist Bibb Latané developed this theory in 1981 when he was at Ohio University. According to this theory, Strength, Immediacy and Number are three factors that impact a person’s behaviour in social situations. Strength refers to the amount of influence, power or intensity that a person perceives the source of the social impact to have. For example, your behaviour is more likely to change in the presence of someone whom you perceive as being from a greater social status or of higher authority. The phenomenon of an employee who’s been delivering a wonderful corporate presentation that goes completely haywire as soon as his CEO walks into the room. Immediacy refers to how recently the person was subject to the source or event. For example, you are more likely to retain a high state of motivation at work, just after you’ve been given a raise. Children are more likely to be at their best behaviour just the week after they’ve been grounded. And finally, number refers to the number of sources exercising social influence on a person. You are more likely to alter your behaviour in the presence of other people compared to when you’re alone. In fact, the psychosocial law that governs social impact suggests that the most significant change in behaviour happens to a person when the number of sources moves from zero to one. With an increase in number thereafter, the extent of change of behaviour progressively decreases. So your behaviour is likely to change more drastically when you shift from sitting alone in a waiting room to sitting in the presence of just one other person. In comparison, if you are giving a talk to 500 people and that increases to 600, the degree of change in your behaviour is likely to be negligible.

These are just some of many reasons that explain why people behave differently in different situations. I won’t go into any of the others, since the purpose of this article is not to psychoanalyze the zillion reasons of changing human behaviour. It is to just bring to your awareness that there are more than a couple of reasons why we behave differently in different situations. This awareness in itself has been a transforming experience for many of my clients and has helped them make better behaviour choices.



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