Situational factors are the external factors that affect a situation. In psychology, we often consider situational factors as the external factors that affect our personality & behavior.
These include simple, everyday things such as being around friends who make you feel comfortable and let you express your true self. However, it also involves serious moral issues, such as the armed forces committing atrocities in the name of “following orders”.
Situational factors are contrasted with dispositional factors, which refer to individual characteristics that shape behavior. The former can be further broken down into three major categories, which we will discuss later.
First, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Situational Factor
Lazarus & Folkman define situational factors as:
“environmental factors that can impact an individual’s behavior, emotions, and cognition” (1984).
It includes all the influences that do not come from within the individual. These factors can include the physical environment, the social context, the people around you, etc. Often people tend to blame their failures on situational factors.
For example, if a student didn’t perform well on a test, they might say that the test was unfair. Situational factors can be a huge influence, so much so that they can even make us do things that we know are wrong.
In contrast, dispositional factors are internal influences. These include personality traits, genetics, mood, etc. While situational factors come from the environment, dispositional factors can happen anywhere as they are internal.
People often attribute dispositional factors for their success and attribute situational factors for their failures. So, if the student does well on a test, they might say that it was purely because they are sincere and worked hard. If they fail, they may blame the weather or their teacher’s tough grading.
Interestingly, we often inverse this when attributing blame to others: we will emphasized situational factors when others succeed (oh, it’s because the teacher likes him) and dispositional factors when they fail (what a fool – anyone could have done that!). This phenomenon is called the fundamental attribution error.
In reality, both situational and dispositional factors determine our actions & outcomes.
|Situational Factors||Dispositional Factors|
|Definition||External circumstances or environmental influences that impact behavior, thoughts, or emotions.||Inherent personality traits, beliefs, or temperament that influence behavior and reactions across various situations.|
|Examples||Weather, time pressure, physical environment, group dynamics, social norms.||Personality traits, values, beliefs, temperament, emotional intelligence.|
|Impact on behavior||Behavior is influenced by specific circumstances or contexts.||Behavior is consistent across different situations, reflecting stable characteristics.|
|Attribution theory||People may attribute someone’s behavior to the situation they are in, known as external attribution.||People may attribute someone’s behavior to their inherent character or personality, known as internal attribution.|
|Role in psychology||Important for understanding how context shapes behavior and decision-making.||Crucial for understanding an individual’s consistent patterns of behavior and responses to various situations.|
Examples of Situational Factors
- Weather: Weather happens outside of us and it out of our control, so we can consider it to be a situational factor. Psychology also accepts that weather can affect our moods and behaviors. For example, extreme heat can lead to irritability and may cause decreased productivity among students, while extreme cold is known to lead to lethargy. Similarly, the winter months may lead to seasonal affective disorder.
- Social norms: We don’t have much control over the norms of the societies in which we live. For example, questioning authority is accepted as a good trait in western cultures but frowned upon in collectivist cultures. Our choices to adhere to or challenge the norms of our society or culture can impact upon our relationships, job opportunities, and overall social standing.
- Time pressure: Deadlines may be imposed upon us, and we need to accept these as a situational constraint that we have to work with and around. Tight deadlines might mean that we’re more prone to making errors or submitting rushed work, which may potentially compromise the quality or thoroughness of the work we produce. Time pressure can also contribute to burnout, affecting long-term productivity and well-being.
- Physical environment: A noisy or chaotic environment might cause someone to feel stressed and fail to concentrate. For example, I remember teaching in a classroom where I had a student who couldn’t concentrate at all unless the class was calm and structured. Whenever we had an unstructured lesson, her performance declined.
- Presence of authority: In the presence of authority figures, we might change our attitudes or behaviors. As soon as the authority figure (or surveillance system) is removed, people may change their behaviors. For example, there may be increased cheating, deviance, or crossing of boundaries. Consider, for example, when a teacher leaves a quiet classroom and the class starts chatting immediately.
- Group dynamics: The groups with which we associate can affect the group norms and behaviors that we can engage in. Conformity, peer pressure, and groupthink can all influence our behaviors. For example, individuals crowds can often fall into a mindset known as deindividuation where they outsource moral thinking to the group, often leading to antisocial behaviors.
- Economic conditions: The economy is something that no one individual can affect. So, it’s a situational factor that is out of our control, but nonetheless will affect what we do and how we do it. If there is high inflation, we may experience financial stress and that may lead us to spending less money, and even developing o feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
- Accessibility: Limited access to resources, transportation, or services can result in social isolation, reduced opportunities for personal growth, and diminished quality of life. Efforts to improve accessibility can empower individuals, promote inclusion, and foster greater equality within communities.
Categories of Situational Factors
While there are several situational factors, they can be mainly split into three categories: proximity, the status of authority, and personal responsibility.
Proximity refers to the distance between oneself and the other person. The closer we are to them, the more likely we are to obey them. For example, it is much more difficult to say no to somebody in person than over a text message.
Earlier, we talked about Milgram’s shock test. When Milgram increased his distance from the participant, he found out that their willingness to administer shocks reduced. Earlier, about 65% of participants gave high shocks, but now it reduced to 40%—distance reduces obedience.
The second situational factor is the status of authority, that is, how powerful we think the other person is. The more powerful they are, the more likely is our obedience.
For example, it is easier for us to say no to a colleague than to our boss.
Authority tends to be established by social norms or a groups’ consent to authority. For example, a person may wish they have authority, but unless the people around them have due respect for them (or, a structured organization ascribes authority to that individual), then they may be ignored.
3. Personal Responsibility
Finally, the third situational factor is personal responsibility. How much personal responsibility we feel for a situation determines our actions. If we are asked to do something by an authority figure, we might simply obey, since the responsibility would ultimately fall upon them.
In contrast, when our actions directly reflect on our character (that is, we have higher personal responsibility) then we may be unwilling to blindly obey someone.
1. The Standford Prison Experiment
The Stanford prison experiment was a two-week simulation of a prison environment to see how situational factors would influence participants.
Male volunteers were chosen from a local community, and then randomly assigned to be prisoners or prison guards. Although everyone knew that this was merely roleplaying, the guards became incredibly abusive, and ultimately the real police had to intervene to stop the experiment.
The lead psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, argued that the participants playing guards were not inherently sadistic; instead, the situation of the prison made them act in this way (1972).
2. Civil Unrest and Deindividuation
During incidents of civil unrest (say a riot), individuals behave quite differently from what they would have done normally.
Le Bon argues that this is due to “deindividuation”: when someone becomes a part of a crowd or a mob, they are vulnerable to losing their identity (1895).
By joining a group, we experience increasing self-anonymity and decreasing self-awareness, which allows us to diffuse all responsibility to the group. This can lead to “out of character” behavior, such as extreme violence. Hence, cases of civil unrest often involve ordinary people, who simply go along with the situation.
3. Milgram’s Obedience Study
Another famous research on situational factors was Milgram’s “Shocking Obedience Study”.
The study involved participants playing the role of teachers, who were told that they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner” (actually an accomplice of Milgram) for every wrong answer.
Although the participants did not know that the shocks were fake, about 65% of them kept increasing the shock levels to a point that would have been fatal in real life. Milgram concluded that there were no significant dispositional differences among them, so the situational factor alone determined their behavior (1974).
4. Group Projects
Even in everyday situations, such as a student group project or a collaborative work project, situational factors can play a big role.
Often we are stuck with people who are unwilling to work hard. This can make it quite stressful for us as we have to do the project by ourselves.
Moreover, the group dynamics are also significant. If there are positive relationships among members, then everything will function efficiently. Otherwise, if there are communication issues or conflicts, then it will be difficult to get work done.
5. Crisis Situations
Crises force us to act in ways that are quite different from our everyday behavior.
For example, during natural disasters, people face extremely difficult situations, which often involve life-or-death decisions. These can often make people act in selfish ways, placing themselves and their families above other people.
Even in less severe situations, say before a business deadline or in the final minutes of your football game, the time constraint forces us to be on our toes and act with immediacy.
Situational factors refer to external influences that shape our behavior.
These include the physical environment, the people around us, the social context, etc. These are contrasted with dispositional factors, which are internal influences. Situational factors are broadly of three kinds: proximity, status of authority, and personal responsibility.
Gustav Le Bon (1895), cited in Carlson, N.R., Heth, D.S., Miller, H.L. Donahue J.W., Buskist, W. and Martin, G.N. (2006) Psychology: The Science of Behaviour. Prentice Hall.
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer Publishing Company.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. Harper &. Row Publishers.
Sykes, G.M. (1958). The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison. Princeton University Press.
Zimbardo, P. G. (1972). The Stanford Prison Experiment a Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment. Philip G. Zimbardo, Inc.