Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, a book analysing how little things can make a big difference, argues that there is no such thing as a unified and an all-encompassing character. Human behaviour depends very much on the context.
In his book Gladwell describes the following experiment:
A group of people were told to watch two sets of similarly talented basketball players, the first of whom were shooting baskets in a well-lit gym whilst the second set of players were practising in a badly lit gym (and therefore missing a lot of shots). The observers were then asked to judge how good the players were. Overwhelmingly, they regarded the players in a well-lit gym to be better.
Gladwell points out that humans are naturally a lot more attuned to personal cues than contextual cues. We seek out people’s essential attributes: lazy, gregarious, honest, ambitious, unreliable. To do otherwise and constantly qualify every person in every new context would be very difficult or indeed unfeasible. It is much easier to decide that we can trust a friend once and for all than to qualify his character at every opportunity.
Perhaps a more extreme and a much more convincing example in this argument is an experiment, conducted by a group of social scientists, led by Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford University in 1970s. They put together a mock prison in university’s basement and invited local residents to volunteer in an experiment, designed to find out whether prisons are such dreadful places, because they are full of criminals or because their environment is turning people into nasty characters. Volunteers were tested and judged healthy on the basis of a number of psychological tests. They were divided into two groups: prisoners and guards. Shockingly, the guards, some of whom had previously identified themselves as pacifists, fell quickly into the role of hard-core disciplinarians. Prisoners, unprepared for cruel and sadistic behaviour, experienced depression, rage and acute anxiety. One prisoner got hysterical after just 36 hours. The experiment, originally intended for two weeks, was called off after six days.
“Zimbardo’s conclusion was that there are specific situations so powerful that they can overwhelm our inherent predispositions. He’s not denying that how we are raised by our parents affects who we are, or that the kind of schools we went to, the friends we have, or the neighbourhoods we live in affect our behaviour. <…> His point is simply that there are certain times and places and conditions when much of that can be swept away, that there are instances where you can take normal people from good schools and happy families and good neighbourhoods and powerfully affect their behaviour merely by changing the immediate details of their situation.”
With this postulate in mind, workplace situations, family affairs and even world events appear in a different light. In a certain context, power corrupts, resolve weakens, whilst new career opportunities let people blossom.
To quote Gladwell: “Character isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits. <…> Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context.”
What are you going to do, given the power of context? Give someone another chance? Reserve judgement? Do something outrageously extravagant 'out-of-character'?