"I felt like I had no choice."
Have you ever said that? Maybe after doing something you weren't sure you wanted to do or even knew you didn't want to. Social scientists call this a "strong situation." As opposed to a "weak" one.
Why did I just tell the barber I loved my new botch job? Or clap for a speech I completely disagreed with? There are the two basic components of "situational strength" theory. A "strong situation" is defined by obvious cues — powerful signals as to what's expected of us.
A "weak situation" is a circumstance in which a you can use your personality, intelligence, values and experience to decide what to do. It's not dictated by the moment. A "strong situation" can come in the form of something as simple as an invitation to a New Year's Eve party. The invitation might be worded in such a way that it's clear everybody will drink a lot and party hard.
The expectation of how you behave is unmistakable. No matter what mood you're in, sitting silently in the corner would be considered weird or rude, even if you're dead tired. Another example creeping into our daily lives showing the stark difference between "strong" and "weak": tipping.
If a waiter leaves a check on the table and walks away, that's a "weak situation" — tip what you want. Now compare that with an increasingly common implement in small stores, like an independent coffee shop. You place your order, the employee punches the price into a small counter-top device, then turns the screen toward you. Sometimes it's double-sided — you can both see what's happening.
Either way, under their watchful eye, you must decide on a tip for the very person who is standing right there. The amounts are usually preset: 15 percent, 20 percent, 25 percent or "Custom." Or, oh yes, there's a "no tip" option. It doesn't matter that they're simply grabbing you a muffin. You've been formally invited to reward them. Welcome to a classic "strong situation."
Chances are you're going to tip, whether you wanted to or not. Could store owners remove this option completely and weaken the situation? Sure. Would that require them to pay their employees more? Yes.
That seems unlikely. So the strong situations will keep coming leaving us to feel bulldozed or cheap and guilty. Either way, in the face of pressure, most of us capitulate.