The beneficial effect of our psychological inhibition system might be overstated. Research supported by multiple experiments show that a little inhibition goes a long way in helping people behave in socially acceptable ways. When the inhibition is too strong, however, the opposite may occur, as in the bystander effect.
When we find ourselves in social situations that are unfamiliar, unsettling, or confusing, our tendency is not to react immediately, but rather to take a moment and think about what we want to do or say—that is, we appraise the situation to determine the appropriate behaviour in which to engage. As we appraise the situation, our behavioural inhibition system (BIS) is activated. The BIS helps us refrain from acting instinctively and without thinking.
The consensus is that the BIS prevents us from unthinkingly engaging in antisocial and destructive behaviour. For example, when we are frustrated, the BIS prevents us from overreacting or taking aggressive and impulsive action that can lead to negative consequences for us and the people around us. The BIS thus encourages positive social behaviour—what is commonly known in psychology as prosocial behaviour.
This consensus view is challenged by the research of University of Utrecht professor Kees van den Bos, Fuqua Business School professor E. Allan Lind and their colleagues. This research, spanning a number of years and involving multiple experiments, culminated in an appraisal-inhibition model that adds nuance to the effect of the BIS on prosocial behaviour.
According to this model, a weak BIS—allowing people to act with less inhibition—can lead to prosocial behaviour. In contrast, activating the BIS too strongly can have the opposite effect, blocking acceptable and encouraged social behaviour.
To conduct their research, van den Bos, Lind and their colleagues first developed and tested a method to weaken the BIS by having participants recall situations or circumstances in which they did not care about what others thought—that is, when they acted without the BIS inhibiting their behaviour.
With this method in hand, the researchers conducted a series of experiments involving different situations when individuals often act against their own personal prosocial values.
One example is the bystander effect. The bystander effect involves a situation in which a person sees someone in need of help but is inhibited from acting because no one else present is stepping in to provide help. In the researchers’ bystander effect experiments, participants were divided between the strong BIS and weakened BIS conditions. A bystander effect situation was created: in one experiment someone dropped a load of pens on the floor; in another, someone pretended to choke on a piece of candy. Participants who were in the weakened BIS condition were more likely to help the person who dropped the pens or was potentially chocking on a piece of candy than those who were in the strong BIS condition. In short, people who were less inhibited were more prosocial—a reversal of the consensus.
In another experiment, the researchers explored how participants would react to receiving an advantageous outcome, given to them by a person in authority, that was unfair to others. In this series of experiments, the unfair outcome took different forms—for example, unwarranted overpayment, or unfairly receiving a free iPod. In each case, the participants who were less inhibited were more likely to reject the unfair outcome (the prosocial reaction). Participants whose BIS was strongly activated, in contrast, were more likely to accept the unfair outcome even though they knew it was wrong.
Why, in these two situations, did a strong BIS activation block rather than encourage prosocial behaviour (helping people in need of people and rejecting unfair outcomes)? The reason is that strong activation of the BIS leads people to go along with situational demands. In the bystander effect situation, inhibited participants did not want to act differently from the other bystanders ignoring the person in need. In the unfair outcome situation, the inhibited person did not want to challenge the authority who was offering the unfairly advantageous outcome.
Another counterintuitive result of the research is the impact of disinhibition on relationships with peers. Prosocial behaviour includes connecting with one’s peers. However, a strong BIS will inhibit an individual’s attempt to relate to his or her peers. Reducing the BIS, the research shows, encourages individuals to reach out to peers and conform to the group’s behaviours—although drawing a line at behaviours that go against their personal values. The researchers note that some individuals have different social values than the majority. These individuals are proself rather than prosocial, only caring about themselves and never caring what others think. The experiments relate to participants with prosocial values, whose lack of inhibition leads to prosocial behaviour because they are acting according to their personal values. Proself individuals acting in accordance with their personal values are going to act in antisocial ways. Uninhibited proself individuals, for example, are more than happy to keep the unfair outcome.
Van den Bos, Lind, and their colleagues are quick to point out that further research is required to understand the full extent of benign disinhibition. They also don’t discount the benefits of BIS. However, the research offers a warning to managers and organizations that oversimplifying the effect of BIS can lead to unintended consequences. To mitigate these consequences, managers and organizations can use the methodology of reminding their people of events in which they were not inhibited, thus eliciting reactions that are more aligned with their personal, prosocial values—and with the behaviour that the organization is seeking.
If, for example, an employee needs help, fellow employees should seek to help them regardless of what others are doing (i.e., overcoming the bystander effect). If a manager confers an unearned reward on an employee—for example, conferring credit to a team leader for a team member’s work—that team leader should not be hesitant in setting the record straight.
The bottom line is balance: helping employees have enough control (inhibition) to take the time to act appropriately in unsettling situations without letting an overly strong BIS prevent them from acting according to their personal values.
On Sense-Making Reactions and Public Inhibition of Benign Social Motives: An Appraisal Model of Prosocial Behavior. Kees van den Bos, E. Allan Lind. Chapter in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Edited by James M. Olson and Mark P. Zanna. (2013).
Further Relevant Resources:
Kees van den Bos’ profile at University of Utrecht
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