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Hero or coward? It all depends on the situation

Most people hope they would react courageously in an emergency – more like Coast Guard Captain Gregorio De Falco, who ordered the captain of the Costa Concordia to return to the sinking cruise ship to oversee the evacuation, and less like Captain Francesco Schettino, who faces criminal charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship.

But while we may like to think we'd act the part of the Good Samaritan in scenarios like this, the reality may not be so simple.

Our behaviours and attitudes change, depending on our surroundings and the company we keep, says psychology professor Sam Sommers of Tufts University outside Boston.

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Research, for example, has shown we tend to be less attentive when we're in a rush. We're more reluctant to lend a hand when we're in a crowd. And we're much less forgiving when we're around people who aren't like us.

In fact, our surroundings have a far greater influence on our lives than we think. In his new book Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, Dr. Sommers draws upon everyday scenarios and a library of behavioural studies to demonstrate this point.

The Globe reached Dr. Sommers at hisoffice outside Boston.

Studies show we're less generous and less helpful when we're busy or around other people. Can you explain?

We tend to think of the world in terms of heroes and cowards. But it's much more complicated than that. We read about people on the subway car who don't get involved to help a guy who's slumped over and winds up passed out or dead, and it's easy to indict them as being callous or indifferent to their fellow humans. But just being with other people makes us less likely to notice an emergency, less likely to interpret it as an emergency and less likely to assume personal responsibility to assist in an emergency.

With the Costa Concordia disaster, could you shed some light on why some aboard the shipwreck might have stayed to help fellow passengers, while others rushed to abandon ship?

It's a good question, and I'm not sure I have a great answer – I don't know many of the details of who helped versus who didn't and what their specific circumstances were. What I will say is that I think this is part of the reason the story is fascinating so many of us – it's just not a situation that any of us have really pondered outside of a Hollywood movie, how we'd react to being on a luxury cruise liner that was taking on water.

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Does being in a crowd bring out the worst in us?

It can. It can drive us toward apathy. It tends to make us feel anonymous and tends to change some of our norms and other guidelines that govern our behaviour. But crowds are also capable of great things, of movements that have risen up and changed society.

As you mention, it only takes one person to change the momentum of an entire group.

One person can surprisingly do a lot.... Just seeing one other person actcan be very powerful. It can spring a leak in the levy that's otherwise holding us back from certain behaviours.

Why is it so hard to be the first to go against the flow?

We're social animals. Part of being a good group member is sometimes going along with the general tone and tenor of the group. We also rely on other people as a source of information when we're uncertain about something, whether it's figuring out whether to get engaged in an emergency or not, or whether it's something academic or intellectual in question. Sometimes we over-rely on that, and it can make it hard to break free from the crowd and do what you really want or what you really mean.

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How does understanding the influence of situations give us an advantage?

It's really about understanding the true nature of human nature and what shapes our thoughts and behaviours, and by doing that, we become more effective people.

How can we train ourselves to become better at recognizing the impact of situations?

Some of it is really just knowing it's out there to be seen to begin with. I know that seems like a copout of an answer, but when you step back and not rush to judgment, it becomes easier to notice situations. A lot of it is forcing yourself to put yourself in other people's shoes or to just ruminate over "what is this context I'm really in?"

This interview has been condensed and edited.

sychologist Sam Sommers, author of Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, says context can determine:

Whether you lend a helping hand

A Princeton University study showed students were far less likely to stop and help a moaning, shabbily dressed actor slumped in a doorway when they were in a rush. The kicker? The participants were seminary students, running late to give a presentation on being a Good Samaritan.

The lesson: It's easy to vilify people for turning a blind eye to emergencies. But before you do, ask yourself, are you sure you wouldn't do the same?

How generous you are

When it comes to tipping the server at a restaurant, statistics show average gratuities increase from 15 per cent to 18 per cent when customers are given candy with their bills. The tips are even higher if customers are allowed to choose their own piece of candy.

The lesson: If you're looking for a favour, it helps if the exchange is reciprocal. People are more likely to help those who've previously helped them.

//COULD CUT: Whether you conform to a crowd

In a 1968 study, researchers asked participants to fill out a survey, as they arranged for the room to be slowly filled with a vapour-like smoke. When by themselves, most participants got up from their seats to report the problem. But when seated with actors who were instructed not to react to the smoke, only 10 per cent took action. A whopping 90 per cent stayed put and completed their surveys as the smoke surrounded them.

The lesson: Be vigilant against mindlessly going along with the crowd, and don't rely on others to make the first move. It may help to exercise occasional, small acts of rebellion just for practice, whether it's refusing to sign up for Facebook or boycotting the latest catchphrase.

Wency Leung

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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