We’re back again with one of those issues that lead us to questioning one of the most basic questions of human nature (that’s basically what social psychology is all about): are human beings good, bad, both, or neither? We could answer this question with elaborative philosophical approaches as some sophisticated peeps would do, but I would do it the social psychology style!
So what exactly is “good”? Prosocial behavior, which is any act performed with the goal to help another person, is definitely good. Altruism, which is the desire to help another person without waiting for anything in return, is also good. Throughout history, there is much evidence proving that human beings can go great lengths to assist other people. But why do people help in the first place? One, as the reciprocity norm suggests, is to increase the probability that someone will help us in the future. Two, to avoid feeling guilty afterwards were we not to help. Three, to gain certain rewards. We are also more likely to help if we feel empathy for others, which is our ability to put ourselves in their shoes.
This all sounds like everything will be okay, right? No, not really. As incredibly helpful as people can be, sometimes they fail to offer it in the most needed situations. We are unlikely to help/empathise with someone from an out-group. When we are overstimulated and over occupied from living in a noisy and busy cosmopolitan city, a phenomenon known as urban overload hypothesis, we often won’t stop and help someone in need. When there are many people in a situation, more likely than not, people will just watch the situation pass by, thinking that someone else will do something, a phenomenon known as the bystander effect.
If we move to the extreme end of this argument (the scarier one), we notice that people can sometimes perform all kinds of aggression, which is the intentional behavior to hurt someone either physically or psychologically (Ouch). When something hampers us from reaching our goal, we become more aggressive, a phenomenon known as the frustration-aggression theory. The mere presence of an aggressive stimulus, which is an object associated with aggression, we will act more aggressively.
Ehem…so maybe human beings are not so good. Then WHAT? What are we? In my humble opinion, I believe that humans possess both drives within them. No one is a goody-two-shoes all the time and no one is a hooligan all the time either. We see the primmest of people sometimes lose their temper and behave in ways you never thought they had the capacity to. On the other hand, we can also see a bully stopping to give a cat some milk, even though you thought he could never feel any sympathy towards any living creature.
This brings us back to….yes, again, social influence! That is what the whole thing is all about, well…partially of course. As social psychologists, we must never ever underestimate the power of the situation in hugely affecting people’s behavior, or we will be committing the fundamental attribution error. We can’t always assume that people behave the way they do simply because that’s who they are. By now, we must have know that so well.
Last but not least, we should also not overestimate the power of the situation to the extent that we eliminate a person’s inherent power to take control of the situation and behave according to his/her beliefs and values. We cannot attribute someone’s terrible and vindictive behavior to the power of the situation. Sometimes, people do really intend to hurt others. However, we must acknowledge the fact that humans are (mostly :D) rational beings who are able to think for themselves and assess the situation at hand. The oversimplification of such a matter and saying that it all comes down to the situation is dehumanizing in my opinion because we are robbing humans off their cognitive capacities that lead them to sometimes perform miracles or disasters.
– All images are hyperlinked to their original sources.