Can We Control Our Behavior?

In some ways, we’re all victims of circumstances, but a new analysis by Alfred Mele and Joshua Shepherd suggest we can overcome the negative influences inherent in certain situations and still do what is ethical.

Mele and Shepherd, both of Florida State’s Philosophy Department, start with the history, citing older evidence that some situations bring out the worst in us and there’s little we can do about it. While recognizing the first part of that sentence, they offer encouraging evidence to refute the second part.

The authors note, for example, a 1968 study in which participants were told they were part of a discussion about a college student’s personal problems. The subjects were divided into three categories. Category A members were told there was only one other participant; Those in the B category were told there were two others; and those in the C category were told there were four others. Each member of each category was put in a separate room and told his microphone couldn’t be turned on when someone else was speaking. They were then subjected to a recording of a person who begins talking and then says he feels a seizure coming on and thinks he might die. After two minutes, he makes choking sounds and his voice is cut off.

Only 31 percent of Group C participants, who thought there were multiple participants, left their rooms to go to the aid of the speaker. Group B responded at a 62% rate, while Group A responded at an 85% rate.

The results (and other studies like it) confirm the so-called “bystander effect”—the idea that the more people witnessing a person in trouble, the less likely any of them will act to help.

But Mele and Shepherd go on to cite other more encouraging studies to suggest that this problematic response—and several others blamed on situational behavior—can be overcome through awareness, training, and planning.

The authors argue, for example, that once people become aware of the bystander effect, they are more apt to overcome it. And because of the spike in interest in studies of human behavior, to say nothing of the explosion in mass media, far more people are aware of the tendency and the need to suppress it.

The authors also draw optimism from the 9/11 national trauma. Prior to 2001, few would have expected passengers on an airline flight to take matters into their own hands when threatened by a hijacker. But in several instances since then, passengers have played a significant role in subduing terrorist suspects. Clearly their knowledge of earlier events influences their behavior.

Have you witnessed the bystander effect in your own life? Or seen members of a group overcome the tendency not to act?

This is a complex issue, and I can’t do justice to it in 500 words. I’d strongly recommend the very readable article by Mele and Shepherd, which appears in the first issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics (Vol. 1, Number 1, June 2013, pp. 62-83), a publication we welcome to the mix.

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