‘Situations Matter:Understanding How Context Transforms Your World’ part one

Situations Matter:
Understanding How Context Transforms Your World
By Sam Sommers
Published by Riverhead Books
ISBN: 9781594488184
ebook ISBN: 9781101553794
Copyright © 2011 by Sam Sommers

Buy the Book


A fascinating exploration of the invisible forces that influence your life–and how understanding them improves everything you do.

The world around you is pulling your strings, shaping your private thoughts and innermost instincts. And you don’t even realize it.

Every day we overlook the enormous power of situations in our lives. We fail to appreciate that life’s basic details–where we are, whom we’re with, and even whether we’re in a hurry–affect how we think and act. That’s a mistake, says Sam Sommers in this provocative book.

Many of our assumptions about human nature turn out to be wrong, precisely because they don’t account for context, for what goes on around us at any given time: Personalities aren’t as stable as we think they are. We’re more influenced by the actions of those around us than we’d like to believe. And attraction, love, and success all depend highly on context.

In Situations Matter, Sommers argues that understanding the powerful influence of context forces us to rethink how we see ourselves and makes us more effective at work, at home, and in our daily lives.

He describes the pitfalls that we should avoid and offers startling insights into how we can make better decisions and smarter observations about the world around us.

Perceptive, engaging, and highly readable, Situations Matter is a rich and engaging primer on the importance of context in our lives and on what really makes people tick.


Sam Sommers is an award-winning psychology professor at Tufts University. His research has been covered by Good Morning America, Harper’s, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR. Sommers lives near Boston with his wife and two daughters. 



Mama said there’s be days like this, but failed to mention that mine would keep happening at the Newark airport.

We were on our way from Michigan to Massachusetts for a wedding. Still graduate students, my wife and I were blessed with a flexible schedule but burdened by a fixed income. In other words, we were the perfect guinea pigs for one of those travel websites that offers low fares in return for your relinquishing control over airlines and flight times. So I had typed in our travel dates, agreed to the terms and conditions, and hoped for the best.

Instead, I got Newark.

To be fair, I have nothing against the city proper—my only visits have come in the form of airport layovers. And I suppose my repeated experiences of long lines, longer delays, and inexplicable cancellations have had more to do with the airlines I’ve flown than the airport itself.

But it sure feels like every time the word “Newark” pops up on my itinerary, the fates conspire against me in new and creatively malevolent ways.

On my previous visit, misfortune had arrived in the form of a last-minute cancellation followed by two equipment-related delays. I ended up on the floor of an overcrowded gate for hours, squeezed between a dozen Hasidic Jews who passed most of their time in prayer. The only silver lining was my corresponding reassurance that God would never let anything bad happen to the plane once it did take off, my own spotty record of synagogue attendance notwithstanding.

But that was then. This time, my problems started with a website itinerary that left just forty minutes to make our connection in Newark. High winds that had briefly delayed our first flight narrowed this time window even further. And, of course, our airline just had to be the one to spread out its gates over multiple terminals, forcing us through a gauntlet of monorails, food courts, and moving walkways on the way to our second flight. When it became clear that the success of the mission might hinge on mere seconds, I decided to dash ahead of my wife, determined to get to the gate and hold the plane for us before the agents closed the boarding door.

Because, as we all know, once they close that door, there’s no going back. No, that’s nonnegotiable and irreversible. To reopen that door—that modern incarnation of Pandora’s box—would be unthinkable. Doing so would undermine the very fabric that holds our society together, not to mention disrupt the space-time continuum as we know it. Clearly, you can’t reopen that door under any circumstance. Not even when the plane is still parked right outside and it’s eight minutes until the posted departure time and there isn’t another flight from Newark to Boston until late the following morning right around the same time as that wedding you’re supposed to attend.

It was demoralizing to see our plane through the window but hear that we were too late to board. Still sweating from my impromptu sprint, I waited for my wife to arrive and then we both dragged ourselves over to the airline’s customer service desk along with the other aggrieved passengers who’d also stumbled on a surprise New Jersey overnight. Exhausted, our focus shifted from irritation to simply wanting to find out how to get to the hotel where the airline would be putting us up for the night.

But we were in for another surprise. Things in the customer service line weren’t going so well, either. The first passenger to the desk was a heavyset man with sunglasses perched backward on his enormous shaved head. As his conversation grew increasingly animated, the glasses staring back at the rest of us began to bob up and down rhythmically. He became apoplectic—the glasses speeding up to a discolike tempo—when he learned that there’d be no hotel voucher because the delays to his first flight had been caused by weather. He stormed off in a huff, still cursing under his breath as he headed toward the bar.

Next up was a well-dressed woman who seemed just a bit too made-up for the airport. She related her tale of woe, voice trembling with tearful sincerity. She needed to get to Boston to see her sister before surgery, her plans were now ruined, and she demanded a hotel room as well as a full refund. No dice. Marta, as the desk agent’s bewinged name tag read, wasn’t biting, not even when the passenger’s quiet sniffling devolved into a full-fledged tantrum. After continued hysterics, she finally moved to the side and began furiously punching buttons on her cell phone.

Now it was my turn. Obviously, I needed a different strategy. Yelling wasn’t working with Marta. Neither was crying. My wife had grown so discouraged that she had already left the line for the comfort of a nearby bench, taking out a magazine from her carry-on to pass the time.

And that’s when I saw the light.

Right at that moment, it dawned on me that I was uniquely equipped to figure out how to successfully navigate this interaction. After all, this is what I’d been studying as I worked toward my Ph.D. the nature of situations. Of course, not this exact situation, involving angry passengers or stoic airline agents—then, as now, my research examined the ways in which we think and act differently in contexts that are racially diverse, as well as how people make decisions in legal settings like the courtroom. But the basic principle still applied to this, the most mundane of circumstances:

“To understand human nature, you must appreciate the power of situations.”

part two of  Situations Matter appears here tomorrow.  If you’re enjoying this selection from the Oakville Public Library Business Online Book Club, go to your local library or better still, Buy the Book

Oakville Public Library Business Online Book Club is a free service made possible with the help of the Sprott Foundation

About Dawn Montgomery

Dawn Montgomery doesn't believe in boxes. In 2009 she gained access to the hidden job market by connecting with commuters on the GO train, receiving coverage from The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Hamilton Spectator, plus interviews with Canada AM, CHML 900 and That Channel; however, this was not the first example of her "box?...what box?" thinking. On arrival as an immigrant to Canada the anticipated job and accommodation were no longer available, so she sourced another opportunity and, seven days later, with suitcase of heels and coordinating bags, drove 1804k to the logging and mining community of Ear Falls (pop. 1500) Ontario; it was January, the journey took five days, she stayed two years...the path less travelled is a familiar one!
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