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Life, Oversimplified

03/08/2013 08:27 am ET | Updated May 08, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Personality is overrated.

One of our biggest misconceptions about human nature is that the people around us are of consistent, predictable character. When thinking about one another we tend to oversimplify, categorizing each individual as either a good or an evil person, a hero or a coward, and so forth.

But the reality of our social universe is far more nuanced. People are complicated and compellingly contradictory. Human nature is surprisingly context-dependent.

Zimbardo makes this case using graphic visual evidence to show us the darkest capabilities of otherwise ordinary individuals. But our tendency to explain away bad behavior as the result of "a few bad apples" isn't limited to egregious atrocities. In fact, I rely on the very same principles when speaking to corporations and other organizations about, say, the psychology of fraud and unethical behavior.

In pondering ethical lapses, there are at least three reasons why the bad apple model falls short. First, because unethical behavior is context-dependent. Frame a problem as a "business decision" and people rely on more questionable tactics to solve it than when the same exact problem is framed as an "ethical decision." Furthermore, research demonstrates that the business framing can have lingering unconscious effects, rendering people more likely to cheat on subsequent tasks as well.

Indeed, the psychology of fraud is a lot like the psychology underlying one of society's more lighthearted ills: the comb-over.-- Sam Sommers

Second, unethical behavior is contagious. Consider one study in which researchers arranged for college participants to witness another student's unethical behavior. When the cheater was from the same school as participants, observers became more likely to cheat themselves. But when the public cheater wore a shirt with another school's name on it, observers cheated less -- witnessing a rival's unethical behavior seems to remind us of the importance of holding ourselves to a higher standard.

And unethical behavior is incremental. We usually think of fraud and ethical violations as elaborate schemes deliberately plotted out in nefarious fashion. Sure, that happens. But more often you see the little white lie that snowballs out of control. The résumé half-truth that evolves into a publicly perpetuated fabrication. The fudged expense report that opens the door to unambiguous embezzlement.

Indeed, the psychology of fraud is a lot like the psychology underlying one of society's more lighthearted ills: the comb-over. The hair starts thinning, so you look in the mirror each morning and adjust a little bit here, a little bit there... every day, you do just a bit more than the day before to compensate... then, before you know it, years have passed and, without a conscious decision to do so, you're out and about sporting the full-blown Trump.

So the message of Zimbardo's talk isn't confined to military atrocity, cult suicide, or other extreme behaviors that conjure traditional notions of evil. Nor is it limited to how we react to negative behaviors. Even in the most general of terms, the influence of context is one the most important aspects of human nature to which we don't pay enough attention.

Recognizing this turns assumptions about the social universe upside-down. You're a free-thinker who does what's right, not what's popular? Of course you are. But everyone thinks that. Actually, it's surprisingly easy to be swayed by crowds unless you recognize and avoid the situations that promote the herd mentality.

Men are from Mars and women from Venus? Not so fast. Of course there are testable biological explanations for sex differences in aggression, sense of direction, who we're willing to mate with, and so on. But many of these supposedly interplanetary (read: fixed) differences between men and women shrink or even disappear with tiny tweaks to circumstance.

Even our most intimate of instincts are shaped by immediate surroundings. Take love. We pine for Mr. or Mrs. Right and pay dating websites to find "just my type." But falling in love is also about context. Like proximity: Just sitting near someone in a lecture hall makes students more attracted to certain classmates. And arousal: Don't approach that possibly special someone at the office; ask him out while he's on the elliptical at the gym. The science says you'll get a better reaction that way.

In short, our situations matter. Where you are, who you're with, what's going on around you at any particular moment... these are critical factors that shape how you think, what you do, and the person you appear to be in all walks of life. We may gravitate toward a world view based on stable personality type -- one populated by unambiguously good and bad apples -- but we don't know people as well as we think we do. That's a conclusion that reverberates from the halls of the military prison to the walls of the corporate boardroom. And it's a lesson with the power to make all of us better, not to mention more effective people.

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