Situations Matter

When I published my post The Best Self Development Books of 2011 I knew I had one more book to finish before the end of the year.

However, I didn’t really think ‘Situations Matter’ by Sam Sommers was a self development book per se and as such it wouldn’t matter if I excluded it.

And to be honest, Situations Matter isn’t a self development book in terms of how people usually think of the genre with goal setting, productivity and life hacks etc.

In fact the books author, Tufts Psychology Professor Sam Sommers, doesn’t even care for the entire self help industry as you will shortly read.

Having said all that, any book that helps people to think differently and look at old situations with new perspectives is developing the self and that’s why I tip my hat to a number of those books in my list of greatest self development books of all time.

On reflection ‘Situations Matter’ is no different and I should have included it in the best books of 2011 because it’s an excellent book and rarely these days do I read anything that challenges (successfully for the large part) my thinking so much.

I’m going to save the review of Situations Matter for my newsletter readers because today I want to share with you an interview I did with Sam Sommers as well as recommend you go and check out the book toot de suite!

An Interview With Sam Sommers

Tim: It seems to me that psychology and in particular social and behavioral psychology has exploded into the public consciousness in recent years with the likes of Dan Ariely, Jonah Lehrer and Daniel Gilbert all having best-sellers, why do you think that is?

Sam: I think social psychology is just an incredibly rich area.  You’re seeing great books written by journalists and science writers, by the scientists themselves, through collaborations between journalists and scientists… there’s a huge reservoir of empirical and theoretical perspective to be offered to a general audience, and until recently it has been an untapped resource.

It’s just an inherently fascinating notion, that we can study our everyday experiences from a scientific perspective.  Who wouldn’t be interested in reading about that?

This applicability to daily life is what drew me to the field to begin with.  And it’s why I tell my students on the first day of my social psychology class that it’ll be the best, most engaging, and most practically applicable course they’ll take in college.

I say this with a straight face and without a sliver of ego—I’m talking about the material, not the instructor.  And time and time again, I, like many of my fellow social psychologists, have students tell me, you know, you were right; I think about what we learned in this class all the time.  And now we’re seeing a similar response from the public at-large as they read and ruminate on these books.

Tim: I actually enjoyed your humor and it reminded me a lot of Daniel Gilbert in the brilliant Stumbling On Happiness, but as somebody that uses humor a lot in his writing I also know that it can irritate people not on the same wave length, did you ever consider stripping it out to appeal to a wider audience?

Sam: I wrote the book the way I teach.  The “voice” you read on the page is the same one I use when talking about psychology to students and other audiences (and the same one I hear in my own head, for better and for worse).  There was no scheming on my part to say, this section needs a dash of humor, or this section doesn’t.  It was an organic part of the writing process and the way I wanted to present the information.

What I was conscious of when writing, though, is that I wanted to share the science, but I also to capture the way people informally think and talk about human nature.  We do that through humor.  Pop culture reference.  Analysis of current events.  Personal anecdote.  I wanted to wed all of this with a clear and accessible presentation of the science because I think these are all the ways we reason through these ideas in natural conversation.

We’re all amateur psychologists much of the time, and I wanted the book to capture that the everyday human experience is both mundane and sublime, both humorous and gravely serious.  There are ups and downs to the tone and scope of the book, and that’s because there are ups and downs to the human experience as well.

Learning about the science of everyday life should be fun.  If you don’t have fun when you read a behavioral science book, then I think the author is doing the material a disservice.

Tim: I think the chapter called ‘You’re Not The Person You Think You Are‘ will be very enlightening for many people.

In a rather small nutshell, you offer the belief that there is no true authentic self because it’s always contextual and also changes with time.

I agree in large part, but I also have a hunch that for a tiny minority that isn’t the case. I’m referring for deeply spiritual people who spend years, even decades practicing meditation and looking to achieve total equanimity.

Do you think it’s possible that there are some people who can drill down deep enough in their soul for want of a more scientific expression and deal with every situation in the same manner not influenced by different situations?

Sam: My main argument would be that this idea of a core self is overrated.  Actually, worse than that—it’s hugely overblown.

Do some people behave in ways that are more consistent across situations?  Sure.  But the big (mistaken, I’d argue) assumption the book takes on is that we all have this “true self” lurking within us somewhere that we simply must locate through deep introspection.  A great deal of research suggests that we’d be better off recognizing that the answers to questions like “Who am I?” are more aptly written in pencil than pen—that our own aptitudes, opinions, and even preferences evolve over time and across contexts.  This should be a liberating notion, not a scary one.

Tim: You seem to have a fairly negative impression of the self help industry, or more specifically, self help gurus. Quite honestly if that’s true I’m with you! I get sick of reading material that tells people how it is for them when the author has no idea how it is for them and is merely dispensing generalizations that may or may not work.

Firstly, am I right in that assumption? And secondly, if I am, do you think the self help industry is a sham. Be honest, we don’t bite around here and I have ripped the Life Coaching industry a number of times  ;-)

Sam: Yes, I’ll admit: I’m skeptical of the gurus.  Of course, different things work for different people.  Some folks need to hear a purported expert telling them that if they follow steps A, B, and C, positive results will follow.  Fine.  But as I go to great pains to point out in print, mine is not a self-help book.

The argument is not that one will become a better or more authentic person by reading the book.  Rather, it’s that by better understanding how context shapes who we are (and transforms those around us as well), we can’t help but become more effective people.

Effective in terms of being more pro-social and altruistic when we want to be, sure, but also in terms of getting what we want in various situations.  When you start with the story of how best to wrestle hotel vouchers out of the proverbially hands of a stingy airline, you, hopefully, signal to readers that this is not a feel-good, self-help book.  There’s not a lot of chicken soup for the soul going on here, so reader beware.

Tim: You use a lot of research to back up your points, some of which is fairly well known and I’d read before and much I had not. The James Bulger story was interesting to me as I remember the national uproar and vitriol aimed at the ‘Liverpool 38’ at the time.

For those that don’t know, 2 year old James Bulger was abducted from a Bootle (just outside Liverpool) shopping mall by two 10-year old boys. They then tortured and murdered him, but not before being seen by at least 38 people (those were the ones that came forward) on their way to the murder scene, none of whom intervened effectively.

I think it’s easy to understand why most people did nothing, they simply had no way of knowing what was happening and made the incorrect assumption the crying boy was their brother.

Do you think books like yours will really change peoples future behavior in such situations? Or will people be aware to begin with and then slip back into previous, largely unconscious ways of doing things, especially after the first time they intervene in a completely innocent situation and get highly embarrassed?

Sam: Well, to take a bit of issue with one of your conclusions here, I’m not sure it is easy for everyone to understand why most people did nothing in cases like this one.

I mean, it is easier in retrospect when you really try to reason your way through the situation and force yourself into their shoes—force yourself to see that in the heat of the moment, these were regular people seeing something ambiguous and relying on the default assumption that everything must be OK.

But when these cases happen—and unfortunately, they seem to happen quite often—I still think many among us have the default reaction of blaming the inaction on unusually callous personalities.  We still jump to the conclusion of this would never happen in my neighborhood.

To answer your question about changing future behavior, I’d say some of both.  I do think that learning about the power of context can be life-altering.  Just knowing about, say, our tendency to be apathetic in crowds makes a difference the next time we’re in that situation—as detailed in the book, I get multiple email messages each year from former students with specific examples to that effect.

But you’re also right that we slip back into comfortable routines and tendencies with time.  And as the book details, I’m not putting myself out there as some paragon of social consciousness—a lot of the humor you alluded to earlier comes at my own expense.  So even when you know about the power of context it has to be a consistent struggle to stay vigilant and pick up on the situational factors that are pushing you one way or the other.

Tim: You tell the story of the college students who were instructed to give a talk at the other side of the school campus. On their way they came across an man on the floor who appeared to be ill. He was in reality an actor playing the part of a sick man to see how the students would respond.

The biggest deciding factor on whether they stopped to offer help was whether they had been told to hurry or not by the person sending them to speak. The irony was they were Seminary students and supposed to be giving a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Yet even so, when in a hurry the majority ignored the stranger in trouble. These facts are amazing, but in this experiment and other similar ones is there any further research done into the people that did buck the trend to see what makes them different from the majority?

Sam: Yes, there is.  In fact, I was just reading a newly published research article that makes the case for the importance of embarrassibility.

Apparently (and as you alluded to in the previous question), the more easily people are embarrassed, the less likely they are to engage in interpersonal helping behavior because doing so carries the risk of making a fool of themselves.

So my argument in the book is not that individual differences like this don’t exist; they do!  But they’re overrated in the sense that they’re what we think of first and foremost, often at the expense of recognizing the contexts that play just as big (if not a bigger) role in predicting behavior.

Tim: The chapter on differences between men and women was a HUGE eye-opener for me. Like I would imagine most people, I really did believe that the majority of differences were down to nature rather than nurture.

I won’t spoil it for people who will buy the book but you pretty much explode that myth and I was wondering, when you first started to do your own research on the subject if you were expecting to find what you did? Or you were as surprised as most people will be by how contextual differences were?

Sam: Well, most of my own research focuses on race—on issues of how we communicate, think, and behave in racially diverse versus homogeneous settings.  And we consistently find in these studies just how powerful context is for interracial interaction.

When it comes to my colleagues who study gender, the behavioral science findings really are something, aren’t they?  Administer a standardized math test and even high-achieving women tend to underperform.  Give other people the same exact test but tell them it’s been validated as being free from sex bias, and the sex difference goes away.  Pretty amazing.

Tim: And finally, other than the excellent and highly worthwhile ‘Situations Matter’ if you were recommending a non-academic book on the topic of social psychology, which one would you opt for?

Sam: I’m going to go old school and pick Bob Cialdini’s Influence, first published more than 25 years ago now.

It’s a great read that draws on research just as much as it does the real-life practices of car salesmen.  And it’s the book that really made the case that the work we do as social psychologists can find a wide audience when presented engagingly and tied directly to real-world experience.

A massive thanks to Sam for taking the time out of his launch schedule to answer my questions, unlike some authors I could mention he didn’t cherry pick only the ones he liked and left the rest. Oh by the way, the links are affiliate links so please make me rich beyond avarice by buying a copy of the book and earning me my 4% commission.