science | July 03, 2013

We Change Our Behavior To Fit The Surroundings: Adam Alter In The NYT

"There isn’t a single version of 'you' and 'me'," Adam Alter reveals in The New York Times. "Though we’re all anchored to our own distinct personalities, contextual cues sometimes drag us so far from those anchors that it’s difficult to know who we really are—or at least what we’re likely to do in a given circumstance." As it turns out, who we are and how we act is largely shaped by our environment. We are, as Alter writes, "like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings."

Good people can be tempted to behave badly if conditions in a certain neighborhood seem to excuse it. Alter uses the hotly debated broken windows theory as an example. In neighborhoods where many storefronts have shattered windows, crime and vandalism rates tended to be higher. The same can be said of littering; we're more likely to toss our garbage onto the ground if there's already an abundance of trash peppering the area. Why did normally "good" people go against character in "bad neighborhoods?" Subconsciously, they "adopted the behavior that seemed most appropriate given their understanding of the area’s prevailing norms," Alter explains. If the windows are broken, it suggests the residents don't care about maintaining their aesthetics—so why should you? And if there's already mounds of garbage on the ground, what's one more coffee cup or chip bag going to hurt?

Certain cues can also sway us toward more honest behavior. Something as simple as an image of a pair of eyes can have a measurable impact on behavior. It gives the impression that you're being watched. While you could easily walk away with a free purchase in an honor-system scenario, that pair of eyeballs judging you from above the collection jar makes you think otherwise. Alter also cites another study where the installation of blue lights (resembling the hue of police car sirens) in crime-riddled cities translated to a decrease in the overall crime rate. In his book, Drunk Tank Pink, the NYU professor uncovers a host of environmental cues that have a profound impact on human nature. In his enlightening talks, he divulges the subtle, and sometimes strange, ways that the world around us influences who we are. 

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digital and social media | July 02, 2013