What's the Latest Development?

When we talk about someone's personality, we tend to speak of unwavering characteristics that are exhibited in all varieties of circumstance. That view of behavior, however, doesn't reflect the fact that our surrounding environment influences our actions to a high degree. Sociologists have observed that people who live in a more closely knit community, for example, are more likely to engage in small anonymous acts of charity (mailing a stamped and addressed envelope found on the ground). And when an environment is full of litter (a parking lot strew with coffee cups and paper flyers), people are more likely to dump their own personal trash there (flyers placed on windshields by experimenters).

What's the Big Idea?

Study after study tells us somewhat disturbing things about the solidity of human character: There is no single version of "you" and "me" even though we talk as if there were. "Though we’re all anchored to our own distinct personalities, contextual cues sometimes drag us so far from those anchors that it’s difficult to know who we really are — or at least what we’re likely to do in a given circumstance. It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us."

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Read it at the New York Times