What Would You Do?

December 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

When you ask a “what if” question, can you take people’s responses at face value?

A student sent me a link to a study that asked whether Americans or Turks were more likely to act on principles of universalism as opposed to particularism.

I had talked in class about universalism (apply general rules to everyone) and particularism (decide based on the needs, desires, abilities, etc. of the actual people in some real situation).  My five-cent definition was this: With particularism, if the rules don’t fit the people, too bad for the rules.  With universalism, if the rules don’t fit the people, too bad for the people. 

One of the examples I used to illustrate the difference was shopping.  For most items, we prefer universalism – a fixed price.  Everyone pays the amount marked on the price tag. You have only two options: buy it or leave it.  In Mediterranean cultures, buyers and sellers are much more likely to haggle, arriving at a price based on the unique utility curves and bargaining skills of the buyer and seller.  This winds up with different people paying different prices for the same item.

The researchers asked American and Turkish students about a “hypothetical situation”:
You are a professional journalist who writes a restaurant review column for a major newspaper. A close friend of yours has invested all her savings in her new restaurant. You have dined there and think the restaurant is not much good. Does your friend have some right to expect you to hedge your review or does your friend have no right to expect this at all?
I assumed that the study would find Americans to be more universalistic.  But I was wrong, at least according to this study.
Turkish American Total
Particularistic 8 (19%) 85 (65%) 93
Universalistic 34 (81%) 45 (35%) 79
Total 42 130 172

Four out of five Turkish students said they would write their review according to universalistic principles.  Two-thirds of the Americans said they’d give their friend a break even if that meant departing from the standards of restaurant reviewing.

I was surprised.  So was my Yasemin Besen-Cassino.  Not only is she Turkish (though very global cosmopolitan), but she sometimes teaches a section of our methods course.  She added, “I am not a fan of hypotheticals on surveys.”

And oh boy, is this hypothetical.

  • IF you were a reviewer for a major paper and
  • IF the restaurant were bad and
  • IF the owner were your friend and
  • IF she had invested all her money in the place
    what kind of review would you write?
The more hypothetical the situation, the more I question people’s ability to know what they would do.   “IF the election were held today, who would you vote for?” probably works.  The situation – voting – is a familiar one, and there’s not all that much difference between saying the name of a candidate to an interviewer and choosing that name on a ballot.   But how many of us have experience writing reviews of friends’ restaurants? 

Nearly all my students say that if they were in the Milgram experiment, they’d have no trouble telling the experimenter to take a hike.  And all those concealed-carrying NRA members are sure that when a mass murderer in a crowd started firing his AR-15, they would coolly identify the killer and bring him down.  But for novel and unusual situations, we’re not very good at predicting what we would do. 

When I present the Milgram set-up and ask, “What would you do?”  sometimes a student will say, “I don’t know.”  That’s the right answer.

1 comment:

Bob S. said...


I agree with you that the right answer to a shooting situation is -- for me "I don't know'.

But the evidence to date indicates that most armed 'civilians' tend to correctly identify the shooter and act to stop the threat.


But for novel and unusual situations, we’re not very good at predicting what we would do.

The question I have regarding this is -- how much do you game out, practice the scenario before hand?

This is completely unscientific but every person I know who carries (concealed or otherwise) has thought about his/her reaction in various situations. We have to. The time to decide how we respond isn't on the spot but long before, much like the time to decide whether or not to have sex isn't in the back seat.

Look at the number of training classes people take, the training mandated by many states; use of force is covered often by those who carry firearms. It is something most of us have given great thought to.

Try running the Milligram simulation after briefing people on it, having them imagine their responses....then see how well they perform.