Where We Are Shapes Who We Are". First he explains research from the 1970s about whether people would go out of their way to post an already stamped and addressed envelope that they had found on the ground. Even though only 6 out of 10 students in crowded dorms posted the letter, "when the researchers asked a different collection of students to imagine how they might have responded had they come across a lost letter, 95 percent of them said they would have posted it regardless of where they were living." Alter continues:
Most people, in fact, think of themselves as generous. In self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly and honest, too. We imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But in truth, we’re more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings.
For example, people behave more honestly in locations that give them the sense they’re being watched. A group of psychologists at Newcastle University in northeast England found that university workers were far more likely to pay for tea and coffee in a small kitchen when the honor-system collection box sat directly below a price list featuring an image of a pair of eyes, versus one with flowers. The researchers alternated the pictures of eyes and flowers each week during their 10-week experiment, using eyes from both men and women, to make sure that no single image affected the outcome. In every week featuring the eyes, the “honesty box” ended up with more money.
Other environmental cues shape our actions because they subtly license us to behave badly. According to the heavily debated broken windows theory, people who are otherwise well behaved are more likely to commit crimes in neighborhoods with broken windows, which suggests that the area’s residents don’t care enough to maintain their property.
What does this mean in terms of whether people are inherently good or evil?
These studies tell us something profound, and perhaps a bit disturbing, about what makes us who we are: there isn’t a single version of “you” and “me.” 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.
It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us.
But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be.
These environmental cues can shape and reshape us as quickly as we walk from one part of the city to another.
These studies are not unusual and they are not isolated. There are myriad examples of incredibly bad behavior from people who never would have predicted (or later admit) they would act that way, both experimental and historical (see also here and here and here and here, and for the limitations of good behavior here and here, and why despite all of this evidence, people still think that they are good people who could never do any real wrong, and that their definition of good is an expression of objective truth). Maybe the best common example of normal people behaving badly is what happens during a riot. Riots are not populated entirely of sociopaths, not hardly. They are ordinary people who either have let their emotions get the best of them or are using a breakdown in the social fabric to act reprehensibly. Taking advantage of a devastating national disaster and the ensuing chaos to rape 7 and 2 year-old children? Football fans killing each other? Riots to me are a good indication that ordinary people absolutely love to act out when everyone else is doing it or when they think they won't get caught.
Empaths like to pretend that they are immune to any bad thoughts or impulses, and sometimes I almost find myself believing them, so adamant and unyielding are their assertions. But the data doesn't support their self-assessments. Not only that, but they must be either lying on the self-assessments to make themselves look better than they are or they are lying to themselves to make themselves feel like they're better than they are. So... they're also hypocrites.
This is probably what I'm most worried about when people talk about rounding up all of the sociopaths and putting them on an island somewhere. Will we even make it there safely if the boat is being run by hypocritical and situationally exploitative empaths who are prone to emotional outbursts that may lead to murder? Empaths sound pretty dangerous to me.