Organizational behavior studies: Why do people behave the way they do?

What causes people to behave differently in similar situations?

In any given situation, different people will behave in different, often unpredictable ways. An individual’s behaviour can be influenced by previous experiences of a similar situation, their culture or even what mood they are in at that particular moment.

Pan Am Tenerife - predicting people's behaviour - Richard PriceAttribution theory can be used to help an individual identify the reasons for their behaviour (McLeod, 2010). Individuals will often attribute their actions on environmental factors whereas observers will attribute the actions of individuals on their personality. Attribution theory suggests that an individual will make a judgement on the situation and behave according to their mood and past experiences.

Social and cultural influences can affect how different groups of individuals will behave in a situation. While in European culture it is considered appropriate to shake hands as a greeting, in Japan the preference is to bow, so consider how two individuals from these different cultural backgrounds would behave when they first meet and how they might greet each other. They would likely behave differently even though they are in the same social situation.

Buchanan and Huczynski, (2010, pp.52) discuss how different individuals judge their behaviour to be ethical or not. Our upbringing and culture can influence what we consider ethical and how we would behave compared to a colleague, but the environment (the culture of the organisation for example) can influence our behaviour. What we consider ethical in one context (for example in a business context) might be completely different where the setting is different (for example in a charitable context).


To what degree can we predict their behaviour?

It is difficult to predict human behaviour and almost impossible to guarantee how someone will react to a given situation. Simon (1985) discusses how it is important to understand human rationality and the boundaries which govern that. Simon argues that rationality is governed by our subjective views of the World based on previous experiences and ideas rather than more tangible facts and figures. If we were to know the subjective views of an individual it would be considerably easier to predict their behaviour than if we had no knowledge of the individual.

However, I would argue that as the complexity of the situation increases, the number of parameters increase and therefore the less chance we have to predict the influences on an individual’s behaviour.

A situation with few parameters can be fairly easy to predict regardless of the individual. Imagine an individual returning to their car to find a parking ticket on the window. Most people will exhibit anger or frustration to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps we can’t predict the level of anger, but it is fair to say that we can predict that the individual won’t be happy with the situation.

Under high pressure situations such as in the event of an aircraft crash landing, it would seem relatively simple to predict human behaviour. One would assume that as soon as possible after the incident the passengers would rush to the exits and try and leave the aircraft. However, the evidence suggests otherwise and in reality everyone reacts differently in this situation, making this a far more complex and difficult situation to predict (McRaney, 2012, pp. 57).

In 1977 at Tenerife airport, a KLM Boeing 747 aircraft carrying close to 300 passengers careered down the runway at take-off speed as a Pan Am Boeing 747 aircraft crossed the runway. Due to a combination of thick fog, and the pilots mistaking instructions from air traffic control, the crew were unable to see each other and ended up colliding causing 583 fatalities – the worst airline disaster in history.

The subsequent investigation into the crash suggested that far more people died than would have been killed by the initial impact with many people remaining in their seats as fire engulfed the aircraft. Leach (2004) explains that the reason for this behaviour is because individuals crave normality and try to deny the perilous situation they are in by going into a state of shock. McRaney (2012) calls this ‘normalcy bias’. Some people did leave their seats to escape, some will have helped others on their way out, some will have reacted calmly and some will have panicked, but it would have been impossible to predict how each individual would react in advance.

Thankfully, few experiences in life are as extreme as this example but the different reactions in this serious situation demonstrate that predicting human behaviour is actually very difficult and the more complex the situation, the greater the number of parameters that will influence behaviour, so the number of possible outcomes increases.


Can Organizational Behaviour help us to increase the probability of some predictions?

As previously discussed, it is possible to influence the behaviour of individuals by influencing their subjective views (Simon, 1985). Buchanan & Huczynski (2010, pp. 50) suggest that environmental determinism can be used to influence perceptions. They argue that the behaviour of an organisation and its employees is largely the result of external environmental factors acting on the organisation. Therefore, if you can manipulate these environmental factors, it may be possible to influence the behaviour of an organisation and increase the probability of a prediction.

As discussed previously, social and cultural conventions can also play a role in the behaviour of organisations. The recent media coverage of Starbucks in the United Kingdom highlighted that they paid very little corporation tax. The news was met with public outcry and after several weeks of protests and negative media reports, the organisation agreed to meet demands and offered to pay additional tax (BBC News, 2012). In this case, environmental factors (i.e. public pressure) influenced organisational behaviour.

If we consider the United Kingdom to be a collection of organisations, the current economic climate could be considered to be an environmental factor acting on the economy of the country and the organisations within it. There is a strong possibility of a sustained recession but if we can positively influence the environmental factors affecting the economy (such as the media reporting positive economic news), it might be possible to decrease the probability of these negative predictions.



BBC News (2012) Starbucks agrees to pay more corporation tax. [Online]. Available from: (Accessed: 16 January 2012).

Buchanan, D. & Huczynski, A. (2010) Organizational Behaviour. 7th Ed. London: Pearson.

Leach, J. (2004) ‘Why People ‘Freeze’ in an Emergency: Temporal and Cognitive Constraints on Survival Responses’, Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 75(6), pp. 539-542, IngentaConnect [Online]. Available from: (Accessed: 16 January 2012).

McLeod (2010) ‘Attribution Theory’, Simply Psychology [Online]. Available from: (Accessed: 15 January 2013).

McRaney, D. (2012) You Are Not So Smart. First Ed. London: OneWorld Publications.

Simon, H. (1985) ‘Human Nature in Politics: The Dialogue of Psychology with Political Science’, The American Political Science Review, 79(2), pp. 293-304 [Online]. Available from: (Accessed: 15 January 2012).


1 Comment

  1. A good article to get started. Most people are engulfed with the false reality that they build up around themselves wrapped up in mainstream media, twitter self indulgence and sadly live their lives third hand via Facebook.
    You only have one life, take every opportunity to live it. Popular and organisational culture influence people so much these days. I wonder if some people actually feel alive or know who they really are when they look in the mirror! Maybe a status update will show them the way! he he. Scary! These people are running the country.

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