On a regular basis, we see or hear about the negative behaviors of others and think, what is wrong with this person? We tell ourselves, I would never do that, firmly convinced in the veracity of our assessment.

But regular readers of this blog know that one of its central messages is that we're too quick to jump to conclusions about personality–to assume that the behavior of others reflects some sort of stable predisposition. We often overlook the impact of daily situations on human nature. One of those factors we consistently look past is the power of small increments.

So we read about some outrageous form of deception. Say, a politician who exaggerated or even fabricated past military service, claiming to be a decorated war hero when he really didn't see any combat. Almost instantly, we assume that he must be a pathological liar, an out-of-touch creep, and a generally immoral person.

And maybe he is.


But it's also possible that he's a more-or-less regular guy (to the extent that they exist in politics) with relatively ordinary flaws, who's exhibiting a not-so-unusual tendency to get caught up in the psychology of incremental change.

Allow me to explain...

Perhaps the most famous study in my field of social psychology is Stanley Milgram's examination of obedience to authority. Many of you are already familiar with Milgram's work, but here's a brief recap: research participants were led to believe that they were taking part in a study on how punishment affects learning. Presumably at random, they were assigned to the role of "teacher," while the other person in the room was to be the "learner."

Milgram panel

The learner was taken to another location and hooked up to a shock generator. The teacher's instructions were to read a series of word pairs and then test the learner on his memory for those words. Wrong answers required the teacher to flip a switch on a panel to administer an electric shock, with each new mistake prompting a more intense shock than the one before.

In reality, no electric shocks were given. The learner was actually an actor in cahoots with the research team, and his responses to each question (and each shock) were pre-recorded and played over an intercom for the teacher to hear. What Milgram actually wanted to study was the impact of authority on human behavior. Accordingly, an "experimenter" wearing a lab coat remained nearby and offered encouragement to each teacher to stick with the set procedure, issuing fairly non-coercive utterances like, "the experiment requires that you continue."

To the surprise of many at the time–including experts on human behavior and abnormal psychology–a full 65% of respondents in Milgram's original study kept going up the shock panel all the way to its maximum level of 450 Volts. This, despite warning labels that read "Danger: Severe Shock" and "XXX."  And despite the fact that the learner had stopped responding altogether to the questions and the shocks several steps below 450 Volts.

Third Reich Rally

Milgram's study is often cited in efforts to explain how seemingly ordinary citizens can be prompted to engage in or facilitate atrocious (and even murderous) behavior. It's a dramatically compelling demonstration of the power of a simple situational factor–instructions from an authority figure–on human nature.

It's also an illustration of the importance of small increments. Participants in Milgram's study weren't asked to administer potentially lethal shocks to a fellow study participant. At least, not all at once, right off the bat. Instead, Milgram set up his panel so that each shock represented a 15 Volt increase over the previous one. Essential to the outcome of his study is that the psychological experience of the respondents was incremental.

Had Milgram's experimenter simply come out and asked respondents to give a 450-Volt shock to their partner, far fewer would have agreed to do so. Implicitly, we recognize this when we think to ourselves, I never would've hurt, much less risked the death of another person like this. In doing so, we're focusing on the end result rather than the process of how people get there.

What we fail to recognize is that situations become much different when requests come in small doses. Almost every one of us would, in the apparent name of science, go along with a researcher who asked us to administer small shocks at levels like 15, 30, and 45 Volts. After that, it becomes hard to stop. Where do you draw the line?

If you agreed to give the 60-Volt shock, 75 Volts doesn't seem so bad. If I consented to 105 Volts, how can I suddenly refuse at 120 Volts? And so on.

The same incremental processes underlie many of the negative behaviors we see in others. The politician who lies about his military service, going so far as to buy fake awards to display on his desk? Odds are he didn't dream up an elaborate scheme one day and then go straight to ebay to buy himself some medals.


No, more likely it all began with a slight exaggeration on a résumé. Or the failure to correct a mistaken assumption in a bio someone else wrote. From there, it's a small step, not a giant leap, to mentioning this military decoration in one speech to one audience one time. The response of that crowd might then be so intoxicating that he starts using the line more often. Slowly, it evolves into an anecdote with specific details. Before you know it, other publications start spreading the incorrect information. Then visitors to his office start asking where he keeps his medals.

And so the snowball gradually grows bigger as it continues rolling down the slippery slope.

By no means do I seek to exonerate those who have engaged in such fabrications. Indeed, lying about military service or medals is a particularly deplorable domain of deception, given the very real sacrifices of those who have served bravely. But thinking about small increments helps us understand how such outlandish tales evolve, even among public figures who should really know better by simply assuming that someone out there is going to fact-check their statements.

It's the same psychology that emerges when you look in the mirror each morning. You don't notice that you've gotten slightly grayer, balder, or heavier than the day before. The change is incremental. But the friend or family member who hasn't seen you in a year? She notices right away when you reunite.

So it goes with deceit and a wide range of other unsavory examples of human behavior. Those same small, incremental steps that seem so imperceptible to the self are obvious and writ large to those of us observing from afar.

UPDATE (7/28): For more on this topic (and to hear my radio appearance discussing it today on The Takeaway), click here.

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