The Rationality of Irrational Behavior

From the outside, explaining away the end of the world or a higher energy bill all looks pretty irrational, as does a lot of other behavior social psychologists have observed in the laboratory. The frequency and ease with which social psychologists have been able to induce il logical behavior has led Aronson (1994) to conclude that "people who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy" (p. 9). Instead of attributing our behavior to personal characteristics of the individual, social psychologists instead look to the situation to examine the social forces that induce us to behave irrationally. For example, Milgram (1974) showed that two thirds of his participants pushed levers that they believed would inflict shocks that could seriously hurt or kill another human being. Because they followed such instructions given by a research scientist, social psychologists emphasized the power of the situation to induce obedience.

Instead of looking for internal explanations like evil, social psychological explanations focus on the situation instead, specifically, the norms and roles these situations support. A norm is an implicit rule, an expectation about what kind of behavior is appropriate in a given situation. A role is a set of norms that accompany any particular relationship to other people in that situation. In the Milgram simulation, obedience to the experimenter was maintained by norms communicated by the professional appearance of the laboratory, by the explicit orders given by the experimenter, and by the lack of any social support for disobedience.

Whereas Milgram's laboratory experiments were extreme (and so controversial on ethical grounds that they could not be conducted today), norms and role expectations continually shape our behavior, whether or not we are aware of them. We constantly "read" a social setting for what is appropriate language, manner, gestures, and behavior. We become so dependent on these cues that we only notice their importance when we have trouble deciphering them. For example, you are much more likely to sign the ESA petition if everyone else at the party is signing it because others communicate a norm that is easy to read. In the absence of knowing what is expected, our behavior is more uncertain (when you receive a telephone call, it's not as easy to read the norm, because other people are not present to demonstrate their reactions). This is not to say that everyone conforms in all situations, but that when we are uncertain about an action, we look to situational cues to help us decide what to do.

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