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14

Jan

Situationism vs. Dispositionism

beachkidsThink back to the last time that you can remember disagreeing with someone else’s actions. Perhaps they acted like a jerk or a fool. Perhaps they were mean to someone else or spewing anger at the room. Perhaps you can think back to a time that you saw someone being wasteful or seemingly unconscious in their actions?

Did you feel that? Did you feel the judgement? The self righteousness? Did you hear your mind say, “I would never….”? Did it feel healthy? Did it feel true? Might your thought be nearly as counterproductive as their action? Might there be a way to reframe the situation that is both more loving and more productive?

I was reading Charles Eisenstein’s latest book “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible” this morning when I came across this distinction between dispositionism and situationism. Perhaps you see where this is going? In a chapter titled “Judgement” Charles brings up the body of research that demonstrates that ‘good people’ in difficult circumstances act like ‘bad people’. Essentially, what an objective perspective seems to say, time and time again, is that we all do the best that we can given our resources at the time and the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

The example Charles offers is of the 1973 experiment by John Darley and C Daniel Batson where seminary students are sent off across their campus to deliver a lecture on The Good Samaritan story, a biblical tale about the one man who pauses to help a stranger moaning by the roadside (after a priest and a priests assistant do not). Along the way to their lecture they will have to actually step over a man in distress, collapsed in a doorway. These students are, quite literally, dedicating their lives to becoming ‘good samaritans’. They have also had their intention brought to this story. In their shoes, would you stop to help the moaning man? Would this tell me something about your character, your core disposition?

There is a twist. The students are broken up into three groups. Those in the first group are told that they are late for their lecture and better hurry. Those in the second group are told to hurry, their lecture starts in a few minutes. The third group is told that they have plenty of time, but should head over.

Can you guess who tends to notice the man in distress and stop to aid him? 10 percent of the first group and 60 percent of the third group stop. Clearly circumstances played a major role in their actions. It was not these students core disposition that determined their actions, it was the situation they found themselves in. Still telling yourself that you are different?

Any time that we judge someone we are saying that based on our observations we can tell some core truth about their disposition; who they are. In essence, we are saying that if we were in their exact position we would have acted differently. But what can we ever truly know about another’s exact position? Do we understand their entire upbringing? Do we understand the dreams or nightmares they had last night? Do we know if they are feeling nourished, loved and whole in their body mind and spirit? Do we know if they just received a crushing blow that has them crying on the inside, but lashing out on the outside?

Clearly we do not ever know the entirety of another’s truth.

So what happens if we instead work from the default assumption that someone’s ‘stupid’ actions are something that we might do as well given the exact same situation? What happens if we switch our default judgement from being dispositional, judging a person, to situational, looking at them as a product of circumstance? Might we approach others with more compassion? More patience? More understanding?

This does not mean that you must condone their actions. It does mean that you begin to make a distinction between their actions and them as a human being worthy of your love. It means loosening your belief that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people as well as the idea that you are ‘one of the good ones’. It means reconsidering your partisan beliefs that Republicans or Democrats are idiots at their core. It means relaxing your judgement that the violence in others is a product of some innate insensitivity that you could never be guilty of. It ends up meaning that a lot of the self-righteous congratulations that we give ourselves at the expense of others need to be reconsidered with a lot more humility and compassion for just how much others have had to struggle through things that we take for granted.

You may be asking what the point is. What is this effort worth? Why give up the my high horse? This is something I have struggled with. I was an angry, self-righteous young man with a chip on his shoulder and a desire to ‘set the world right’. How do you think I felt as this young man who knew better than those around him? I felt lonely and I felt judged. When we project judgement out into the world it finds resonance and it is the very thing that we then feel coming from others minds as we assume that they are judging us. But when I choose to search for understanding and offer acceptance as my default perspective I feel held, understood and appreciated in almost any situation. The simple truth is that judgement creates separation where there is always an option for compassion and understanding. If our intention is truly to right perceived wrongs and bring light to darkness it is worth questioning our assumption that people have a default disposition that is fundamentally different than our own. As Charles says, echoing saints and mystics, “you and I are one; we are the same being looking out at the world through different eyes.” “Moreover, situationism says that the “I” in every situation is bigger than the individual. The subject, the actor, the chooser, is the individual plus the totality of his or her relationships.

The self has no independent existence. Consider what that statement implies. Abstracted from its relationships to the world, the self is not itself.

So who is there to judge?

This post is from a series called Insights that are inspired by the work I do with my clients as a Life & Career Coach.

If you are ready to live with more joy, more passion and more purpose then I would love to be of service.

Contact me to find out how my Life Coaching Program can kickstart your journey.