Skip to content

Situations and responsibility

I think this is true: my behavior, and your behavior, and all human behavior, is shaped in a wide range of ways by the environment. What do I mean by the environment? Here are some examples.

Being in an environment with loud noise levels might make you less likely to help strangers in need (Matthews and Cannon 1975).

Being in a pleasant smelling environment might make you more likely to help strangers in need (Baron 1997).

Wearing sunglasses might make you behave more selfishly (Zhong et al. 2010).

Should we be worried about these kinds of environmental influences?

Many philosophers think that we should be. The fundamental problem is that these kinds of environmental influences seem to suggest that in many cases we do not act for good reasons, in part because the forces that shape our behavior have very little to do with reasons.

In a forthcoming paper I argue that if that is right, then the following kind of view is undermined.

Reasons-Driven. In any given circumstance, the capacities that undergird free and responsible behavior track almost all relevant reasons for action, almost always successfully implement rational plans of action, and do so untainted by low-level, reasons-irrelevant mechanisms and processes.

Should we be worried about this? It depends on the kind of behavior in question. The law seems to give human agents a break in some cases depending on the circumstance – witness the ‘heat of passion’ defense. And we seem comfortable admitting that factors like stress and exhaustion render us less than perfectly responsive to reasons for action. Even so, many find the reasons-irrelevant influence of situations on behavior deeply troubling. Could it be the case that all of us are less responsible for our actions than we think, because all of us are less responsive to reasons for action than we think?

Suppose for the moment that we are less responsible for our actions than we think. What would an appropriate response to that fact look like? Is it possible in practice to mitigate the way that we blame (and perhaps praise) others, or are attempts to do so futile?


Baron, Robert A. ‘The sweet smell of… helping: Effects of pleasant ambient fragrance on prosocial behavior in shopping malls.’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23 (1997): 498-503.

Mathews, Kenneth E., and Lance K. Canon. ‘Environmental noise level as a determinant of helping behavior.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32.4 (1975): 571.

Shepherd, J. ‘Scientific challenges to free will and moral responsibility.’ Philosophy Compass (forthcoming).

Zhong, Chen-Bo, Vanessa K. Bohns, and Francesca Gino. ‘Good lamps are the best police: Darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior.’ Psychological science 21.3 (2010): 311-314.

Share on

4 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for your interesting post! Any chance of linking to your forthcoming paper? (Or, could you email me the PDF?) I assume you’ve looked at John Doris’s work on this, e.g., “Lack of Character” … ? John Bargh did some of the initial work in social psychology showing that we may act on behalf of influences that are not reason-based, and he and I wrote a paper a few years ago summarizing this position:

    “The Will is Caused, Not Free” –

    FWIW, Neil Levy really, really doesn’t like this paper: he thinks we get the folk conception of free will wrong, based on some recent surveys of the folk (but I’m not entirely convinced by those surveys). One other point I wanted to raise is the recent difficulty that social psychologists have been having in replicating “sexy” priming effects, leading to the so called “crisis in confidence in social psychology” — have you been following that literature? It might post some problems for the evidentiary basis of your argument, namely, the view that we are in fact regularly buffeted about by reasonless situational influences. For a recent example, see this paper by me, Jim Everett, and colleagues:

    “Out, Damned Spot: Can the MacBeth Effect be Replicated?” –

    For a more general overview of the “replication crisis” see, e.g.:

    Pashler, H., & Wagenmakers, E. J. (2012). Editors’ Introduction to the Special Section on Replicability in Psychological Science A Crisis of Confidence?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(6), 528-530.


  2. We are ultimately responsible for our actions and shouldn’t use this as to excuse bad behavior. It’s just that we are not perfect – therefore it is our responsibility to learn about what kinds of things affect our actions so that we can adjust accordingly.

    Specifically, I’d say we are responsible to:
    1. Make the environment as helping-people friendly as we can.
    2. Practice awareness of the bias in real-world scenarios. For example, if we know we’re likely to be more selfish when wearing sunglasses, actively try to be more selfless when we are wearing them.
    3. Educate more people about the effect of the environment on actions.

  3. Confined spaces may move people’s willingness to communicate in different ways. Silence runs high in elevators and medical offices’ waiting rooms. Some other milieus like buses (well, not only tour buses!) make people share experiences. Perhaps it would be worth experimenting with pleasant stimuli in the “quiet” environments, a more relaxing atmosphere may do good there.

Comments are closed.