Why People React Differently to the Very Same Situations

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People often react differently to the same situations. Find out why there are different reactions to the same situation.

My fascination with psychology started at a very young age. I was different from everyone I knew, yet I never knew why.  I never had the life I read about in those grade school readers. My grandmother, with whom I lived, was nothing like the mother in the Dick and Jane series of first grade readers that baby boomers learned from.

I was always wondering about human nature. I had questions about how people lived or reacted and most of the time when I was old enough and finally realized there was a discipline called psychology, I was eager to take courses in CEGEP.   I loved it so much that eventually I went on to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in psychology and then onto a Master's Degree in counseling psychology.

Throughout my seven years of learning psychology, I was particularly fascinated by how people react differently to the same situation.  For example, a man might get his new suit splashed by a car driving by and he might be angry, indifferent, run home and change, or continue on his journey wet and dirty.

I wanted to know why it is that people can have so many different reactions to the same situation.

The following is a short explanation for what I have learned about this topic written in laymen’s terms.

Psychologists will categorize our range of reactions including emotions by several theories.

Cognitive theory states that human responses are governed by emotions, which actually cloud our logic (cognition). Humans have a certain range of motions:  laughing, crying, anger etc, and how we display these emotions is known as our response. Our responses to different situations depend on several things. It depends upon the situation at hand, which is known in psychological terms as the stimulus. In this case the stimulus is the car splashing the man.

It also depends on what we have been taught by others or observed in others. For example, the man in the above mentioned example may have been taught as a child that regardless of the situation, he must never leave the house dirty and therefore he would run home and change even if it meant being late for work or a meeting.

It also depends upon his biological DNA. This is the area that biological psychologists study. Certain emotions can run in families, such as negative emotions associated with depression. The man in this situation could be so depressed after dirtying his suit that he just goes home and stays home, too emotionally distraught to go to work or go to that important meeting.  Or, he may feel that the meeting was not worth the bother of going home and changing and then going back out.

This thinking can lead into the thinking of the fatalist. Here, the man would take it as a sign that he was not meant to go to that meeting in the first place.

We have already covered the theory of how environment can shape a person’s thinking; what we are taught or what we perceive that others will think of us greatly shapes our actions and reactions to any given situation. The man may feel it would not be socially acceptable to go into that meeting dirty, or, on the other hand, he may feel that it would be better to go in late or not at all.

Learning theory is kind of the reverse side of cognitive theory mentioned earlier.  Instead of thinking and then carrying out an action, the learning theorists feel that actions are learned responses that may or may not be thought through. They are learned patterns of response. The stimulus in this situation is the act of being splashed by a car. The response is usually a learned reaction that is repeated over and over again without much thought. In other words, the man may always automatically return home because this is a habit he has formed for just a situation like this one.

To make this example clearer, habits are formed in this way.  An obese person may eat (response) in front of the TV (stimulus) without even thinking about it. Or, a smoker may light up a cigarette after a meal without even thinking about it. The meal becomes the stimulus and lighting the cigarette is the response.

Each of these theories explains a different side of human nature in the effort to begin to answer the question why people react differently to the same situation.

These theories are not mutually exclusive. Environmental theories and genetic factors come into play with every decision a human may make.

In addition, personality theorists will add that each situation is governed by our personally and our disposition. What kind of personally does the man in this scenario have? Is he a worrier, is he a neat freak, or is he a slob by nature? Does everything generally bother him or does nothing bother him at all?

What I have done here is to capsulate the theories in a simple explanation of how the human mind works and why we will react differently to any given situation. Of course the theories are much more complex than can be addressed in this article.

What we can take away from this topic is that we must understand human nature to answer these questions and we must delve into each unique individual to see what factors mentioned above are governing the decisions and the reactions to situations that we make at any given time.

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