Creatures of Circumstances

There is an intriguing article at BPS Research Digest regarding a study which has reported on a “Chameleon man”. No this is not a super hero like spider man or super man, but a 65 yr old AD, who after a stroke has acquired a capacity to assume any social role that his circumstances and situations demand.

According to the report, when in presence of doctors and in a hospital setting , he would assume the role of a doctor, with ad hoc explanations about how he came to become a doctor.

When with doctors, AD assumes the role of a doctor; when with psychologists he says he is a psychologist; at the solicitors he claims to be a solicitor. AD doesn’t just make these claims, he actually plays the roles and provides plausible stories for how he came to be in these roles.

To investigate further, Giovannina Conchiglia and colleagues used actors to contrive different scenarios. At a bar, an actor asked AD for a cocktail, prompting him to immediately fulfil the role of bar-tender, claiming that he was on a two-week trial hoping to gain a permanent position. Taken to the hospital kitchen for 40 minutes, AD quickly assumed the role of head chef, and claimed responsibility for preparing special menus for diabetic patients. He maintains these roles until the situation changes. However, he didn’t adopt the role of laundry worker at the hospital laundry, perhaps because it was too far out of keeping with his real-life career as a politician.

It is surmised that this is due to loss of dis inhibition. Ad also suffers from Anterograde Amnesia – which means he cannot form new long term memories after the date of the stroke- though his previous memories remain intact.

Now, this case is very interesting, because it throws light on the power of situation and about social role-playing. We have already discussed the personality versus situation debates earlier and this adds more fuel to the fire. If it is true, that to some extent, we are all prone to assuming social roles when present in the appropriate social context; then it seems reasonable that for those of us, who have some defects in this disinhibition, they would be more prone to succumb to the powers of the situation. An extreme case would be the extremely hypnotizable subject who assumes the social role playing very easily, on gentle nudging by the hypnotists. The hypnotist may somehow temporarily shut of this disinhibition circuit, and thus make the subject assume socila roles, as it seems assuming appropriate social rules is inbuilt.

To me this seems very fascinating, and if anyone can provide more details on this case study, or some related literature regarding social role assuming when in appropriate contexts, then I would be very grateful. Till then , it is a sobering though that not only in broader contexts, but even in day-to-day contexts we are all creatures of circumstances.

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