Situational Psychology

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Perhaps the best known work in this area is Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, where he demonstrated how environment can influence our behavior more strongly than our "essential selves." Although he's most famous for a rather horrifying result, he's currently starting The Hero Project, where he's trying to bring light to the positive side of this finding.

The Good Samaritan study.

Psychology of the Status Quo

Aaron Kay gave a wonderful talk in March 2008 on the "Psychological Power of the Status Quo." He described three concepts:

  • System Justification: the motivation to perceive the status quo as just and desirable
  • descriptive norms: the way things are
  • injunctive norms: the way things should be

Studies show that when System Justification is high, then people tend to conflate descriptive norms with injunctive norms. In other words, they believe that the way things are are the way things should be.

For example, if people believe that the current business climate is a strong one and if they are faced with data that shows that there are very few women CEOs, they tend to believe that there should be few women CEOs.

This suggests that, in order to get people to take ownership over transforming the system, you need to lower people's System Justification. That could mean shifting people's belief that the system works adequately, and it could mean demonstrating that the barrier to change is not overwhelmingly high.

Creating Space

Environment matters. For example, studies show that therapists who adorn their offices with framed diplomas are not only perceived as more authoritative, but also as friendly. Rational? Maybe not. But these things matter when thinking about space.

Other examples: menu engineering and online retailing. People who sell something have applied psychological research like this for years. As designers who are trying to get people to collaborate, we should be doing the same.

See Also

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