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The Duality of Human Nature

Let me put forward a situation that I’ve found myself in a gazillion times.

You meet a person, in a party or wherever. It’s just the two of you. The conversation is free-flowing. You’re getting to know each other. Their personality appeals to you. You’re sharing common ideas and really hitting it off. You KNOW you’re going to adore this person.

Not after a long time, you meet the same person; this time in a group setting. Things are different though. Despite the physical presence of the individual, you’re almost certain it’s not the same human you met and adored the last time. They’re acting differently, thinking differently. It’s like meeting a new person, one you do not take a liking to. Your mind is boggled, to say the least.

I’ve been through this countless times. Spent all-nighters talking to people whom I’ve found interesting, trying to understand their perspective on the world. And a lot of them, I’ve developed immense respect for. But then I’ve seen those people go into a group and change their colors. No longer standing for what they did earlier. Bursting the bubble of respect instantly. And I’ve felt cheated, as if everything I’d seen before was a façade that I was meant to see.

At each of those times, I ended up trying to answer the same question — which of the two sides is the truer one? The one that I always admired? Or the one that was on display for the rest?

The answer came after a bit of observation and trying to understand the psychology behind human interactions.

As it turns out, humans have a very complex way of deciding their behavior under different circumstances. The same individual, put under a different situation, can be seen behaving altogether differently. It is very common, and often referred to as “The Power of the Situation” in Social Psychology. This makes predicting a behavior extremely difficult, no matter how well known the individual’s habits are. And this is why the answer to most situation-based questions is, “It depends.”

Interestingly, this can be applied to human interactions too. A person’s behavior in a conversational setting depends on the nature of conversation, most importantly the presence of a motive. Whether or not the interacting participants gain something significant from the conversation creates a massive difference in the way they act. Think of it this way, if a conversation reaps significant benefits, there is a good chance that the involved individuals will be more focused on displaying qualities that would help achieve those benefits; and those qualities could be VERY different from the ones they actually possess.

In most cases, one-on-one conversations (casual talks, of course) are motive-free (or let’s say, there is no significant benefit). With no pressure to achieve something, it is easier to be honest and be ourselves. In group conversations however, unsaid motives arise. There is suddenly a desire to please everyone. To lead. To be the cool, funny guy. And this motive (unconsciously) forces individuals to conceal their selves and act differently. This is why people appear to be very different in social situations, especially where new participants are involved.

The power of situation is evident everywhere. One of the most famous examples is the Milgram Experiment, conducted in the 1960s, where participants (regular people) put under extreme circumstances ended up delivering shocks up to 450 Volts to another human. Read more here, and watch the video below for a brief summary.

The Milgram Experiment

What do we get out of this? First, situations are important, they decide how an individual behaves, never rule them out. Second, while it may appear that individuals are “fake-r” in a group setting, it is not always the case; read the first point. Third, if there is a motive behind a conversation, people may not be the best (or truest) version of themselves. And fourth, give people a second chance; it is not as simple as it seems!