Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

By James Waller | Go to book overview
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7
What Is the Immediate
Social Context?

A Culture of Cruelty

There must be a moment at the beginning, where we all could have said no. But somehow we missed it.

Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

AS I POINTED OUT IN CHAPTER 6, mainstream social psychology has long believed that what really matters is not who you are, but where you are. Decades of research have hammered home the power of the situation in influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Generally, social psychologists believe that personality variables have little predictive utility because they depend on forecasts of future actions based on past reactions in similar situations—but rarely based on the exact situation currently being encountered. Thus, predictions based mainly on personality variables often misinterpret or underestimate the dominating and pervasive impact of the immediate social context.

In trying to understand the causes of complex human behavior, most social psychologists start with a situational analysis and yield to the dispositional only when the situational fails to offer a satisfactory explanation. We operate with the beliefs that dispositional variables only explain a small portion of the variance in social behavior and that the greatest insights will come from an analysis of the immediate social context. This directly counters the predominant view—inherent in much of psychology, psychiatry, religion, and the law—that behavior is primarily under the influence of dispositional factors.

A situationist perspective is not an unconscious, unstated, hush-hush presupposition of social psychology. It is fundamental to what we do and

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