Open education tends to put much emphasis on digital literacy (or literacies) development as a way to benefit from internet use. Some authors boldly state that: “Digital literacy skills are essential for today’s citizens. These skills are expected for everyday personal use, learning and effective performance at work.” JISC defines digital literacies as, “the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society” and The Oxford English dictionary defines a capability as the ‘power or ability to do something’. Digital Literacy research locates ‘success’ within individual self improvement, as seen by the use of terms like skill and capabilities. The estimated size of the US self-improvement market was $9.62 billion in 2014 (source: MarketDataEnterprises); and yet, some suggest, with little evidence of success when success is defined as effective functioning in a given situation rather than people accessing the self-improvement market.

Whilst open education practitioners have spent, and continue to spend, time defining and re-defining the kind of skill or capability the individual may need to learn to be effective in digital engagement, little attention is paid to psychological findings that clearly show capabilities, and other internal dispositions of the individual such as personality traits, are a very weak predictor of behaviour. Many studies since the publication of ‘Studies in the nature of deceit’ in 1928 show that a better predictor of how we act in the world is the situation we are in and its characteristics.

People do learn, but what we know or believe in is not the only factor that determines how we behave in a situation.

This post offers a counterpoint to the mainstream idea of self-improvement as a road to effective action by reviewing a classic psychology study on the role of situational factors in the way we act. It concludes that given the results of these studies and many that both followed it and preceded it, open education would do well to look beyond self improvement as a road for addressing shortcomings and learn to ask more often: What are the characteristics of an online situation likely to lead to effective action?

The details of the study

Studies consistently find that the correlation between how we act and our internal dispositions is disappointing at best. What appears to make more of a predictive difference are the parameters within the situation.

In a paper titled ‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’ researchers John Darley and Daniel Batson (1973) studied this phenomenon. The paper has become a classic and its results have continued to be replicated to the present day. It shows that the assumption that educating the individual will lead to a particular behaviour when a situation that requires it arises, may be flawed.

Online, we are put in a situation that can only enact a subset of complex human behaviour, we are constrained to behave according to the functionality implemented in the platforms we use. These platforms are designed to create habit and repetitive behaviours that lead to more and more usage: scrolling, liking, retweeting,  notifying, etc. The design aim is for the human to fit the platform and humans are great a filling in the complexity that may be missing in this new definition of what it means to be a social animal. Defining human behaviour to be that which the platform or online quiz enables, makes for predictability. This is an example of a situational factor online, the platform design and its affordances.

When we assume that we are just too smart/aware/digitally literate (internal dispositions) to be taken in by the situations we are in, we play into this covert manipulation. We might say something like ‘I would never act against my values or ethics just because somebody set up a situation that made it harder for me to behave ethically’. Yet, this is exactly what we do.

Darley and Batson’s  paper shows the ways in which disposition and situation interact rather elegantly. Let’s unpack the research in a little more detail.

The title of Darley and Batson’s paper,  is derived from a very well known parable in the Bible,  the Good Samaritan. If you need a reminder, enjoy this 3D animation.

The parable of the Good Samaritan inspired the researchers to ask: What made the priest and the temple helper walk past an injured man by the side of the road?

What in the situation may have led two men trained in strong religious norms to walk past the needy? Was it something to do with being in a hurry with minds filled with busy important thoughts? Maybe the samaritan was in less of a hurry? Did the religious men espouse a set virtues and ethical norms but did not practise these in life?

The basic design of Darley and Batson’s study was to re-enact the Good Samaritan parable in order to investigate the influence of the situation on human behaviour. Their results did not make for comfortable reading,

People going between two buildings encountered a shabbily dressed person slumped by the side of the road. Subjects in a hurry to reach their destination were more likely to pass by without stopping. Some subjects were going to give a short talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan, others on a non-helping relevant topic; this made no significant difference in thelikelihood of their giving the victim help. Religious personality variables did not predict whether an individual would help the victim or not.

Participants were recruited from a seminary study course for ‘a study on religious education’. After an initial assessment 40 people participated in both phases of the study. Experimental procedures started in one building and then participants were asked to go to another building for the next phase. On the way they found ‘a man slumped in an alleyway’ in need of help. The researchers defined ‘helping’ as ‘an ethical act […], an act governed by ethical norms and precepts’. Encountering the situation between tasks reduced the chances of ‘artifactual determinants’ of results. Urgency was varied by the way participants were told to move to the other building. They either had to talk about the parable or about an unrelated career topic. In one condition participants were told that they were late for the next phase. In another, they were told they had time to get there. Their findings suggested that it is people in a hurry who are less likely to help, even if they are thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan as they find the situation that needs them to act ethically.

On several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!

The researchers suggest that there may have been a ‘narrowing of cognitive maps’ in participants who were in a hurry and that decisions may have been ‘deferred’ because some did not perceive ‘the scene in the alley as an occasion for an ethical decision’.

Potential implications for open education

Maybe individual self improvement in the shape of digital literacy training is not the means to change online behaviour. The results of the study discussed in the previous section seems to show that an internal disposition to act ethically is not enacted in situations that require us to implement what we know or what we believe. In the same situation, we would ‘walk over the man in the alleyway’ because we are in a hurry. It may be time to focus more on the nature of our online situation and less on individual self-improvement if our aim is to create effective educational environments in the open web.

What are the factors in the situations we deal with online that, like being in a hurry, may make us see online interaction as ‘not an occasion’ for ethical decisions? The paper states that previous research ‘on bystander intervention in emergency situations (Bickman, 1969; Darley & Latane,1968; Korte, 1969; but see also Schwartz &Clausen, 1970) has had bad luck in finding personality determinants of helping behavior.’ Darley and Batson’s study concludes unambiguously that ‘personality variables were not useful in predicting whether a person helped or not.’

This was 1973 but maybe more recent research has had better luck? No. The bad luck has continued.  It turns out that, since then, much more evidence has accumulated showing that  personality as a construct predicts little (Ross & Nisbett, 2011). The only thing that may be able to predict how we will behave in a situation, is how we have behaved in similar situations in the past but even then, experts suggest, attending to the situation is more likely to give us the behaviours we want,

If I had evidence of how they had behaved in a similar situation in the past, that would be useful. But my advice would be to create the kind of norms and reinforce them in such a way that they produce… that is to say, I would try hard to model the kind of behaviour I want, I would celebrate it when I saw it, I would respond immediately to behaviour that was inconsistent with what I wanted.

Interview with Lee Ross (2014)

Ross notes in the same interview that we do not have a word for ‘this is a situation that is likely to lead to honesty’ yet we talk about an ‘honest person’. He sees this as often the case in ‘individualist cultures foregrounding the personal and not seeing the situational’.

We have moral codes, we learn skills, we develop individually but there is little or no correlation between what we bring into a situation and how we act in that situation. We may have and say we live according to collegiate values in our academic lives, for example, but when an action arises that requires us to apply these, we do not because something in that situation leads us elsewhere. Recent findings that an increase in trolling is connected with natural mood cycles through the day makes for a useful example – trolling happens more in the evening when we are tired than in the morning. These researchers take the approach suggested here by looking at situational factors. They ask: ‘what if all trolls aren’t born trolls? What if they are ordinary people like you and me? We found that people can be influenced to troll others under the right circumstances in an online community.’

Some research has shown that Open Education scholars on social media can create or have the potential to create echo chambers. There can be extensive talk about (espoused theories) the ‘kind of person’ needed to succeed in online learning. This narrative implicitly assumes that ‘we’ (those having the conversations) would always stop to help that man in the alleyway. Yet, research finds that we are much more likely to stop if the situation makes it easy for us to do so.

What are the characteristics of an online situation likely to lead to the creation of more fruitful educational environments in the open web? The paper explored in this post and extensive subsequent psychological research suggests that a better answer may be found in situational design than self improvement.


Belshaw, D. (2012). What is’ digital literacy’? A Pragmatic investigation (Doctoral dissertation, Durham University).

Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). ” From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 27(1), 100.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R. E. (2011). The person and the situation: Perspectives of social psychology. Pinter & Martin Publishers.Hey Mar