When someone acts like a jerk, we often reason that they are just bad people. This is a logical conclusion. But it also misses the full picture. It is not personality that explains most of human behavior but context.
In a Stanford experiment, 100 students were categorized based on past behavior as either charitable or uncharitable, i.e. either as saints or jerks. All students then received a letter asking them to donate food at a charitable booth at the Tressider Plaza.
Two weeks later, 25% of one student group had donated food. Only 8% of the other group donated.
Based on these results alone, we would conclude that the 25%-group were the saints and the 8%-group were the jerks. A charitable person would also behave more charitable, right?
In fact, it was the other way around. 25% of the jerks donated while only 8% of the saints did.
What was the explanation for this surprising result? The researchers had sent out two different types of letters to both groups: one basic and one detailed letter.
The basic letter asked the receiver to bring canned food to the Tressider Plaza. The detailed letter included a map to the precise spot, a request for a can of beans, and also asked them to pick a time when they would be near the spot so they would not be inconvenienced.
When saints got the detailed letter, 42% of them donated. When jerks got the basic letter, none donated.
But when saints got the basic letter, only 8% donated. When jerks got the detailed letter, 25% of them donated.
Personality clearly influences behavior. But nothing influences human action as much as context. Put in the right context, a jerk has the capacity to be 3X as giving as a saint in the wrong context. And the difference between these two situations was minuscule. A few more sentences of instructions were all it took to change a jerk to a saint. What would the results have been if the jerks had been given additional incentives to donate while the saints had faced greater obstacles?
Since context is so much more powerful than personality, I have chosen to believe that every human is inherently good. Whenever someone does something selfish, I think to myself: “Oh, they were just in a challenging situation. They would have been more caring if only their context had been better.”
Perceiving everyone as inherently good gives one such a brighter outlook on life. Wherever I go, I am surrounded by kindhearted people! And because I perceive their intentions as good, I approach every person as a caring friend I have known for years. I want to listen to their story and offer them my help without expecting anything in return. Because that is what a friend would do.
And when someone acts insensitive, I am free to respond with kindness. Knowing that their actions were a reflection of their context and not their personality.
You will meet many people throughout your life. Some will tend to be giving and some will tend to be selfish. And you can’t change their personalities. But you can change their context by being kind to them first. You can get others to act like saints.
When the cashier greets you with a scowl, notice his nametag and smile and say “Hello [name]! How are you today?”
When preparing a meeting with a demanding client, ask “How can I focus on helping them rather than talk about why they should hire us?”
When your child does her homework but ‘forgets’ to clean her room, say “That is great that you have finished your homework! I love how hard-working you are.”
Whose context will you change today?