Understanding How Context Transforms Your World
By Sam Sommers
Published by Riverhead Books
ebook ISBN: 9781101553794
Copyright © 2011 by Sam Sommers
Marta blinked twice, processing this new development.
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this,” I continued, in what I suppose was an instinctual effort to fill the silence.
“We haven’t even told our family yet,” I rambled on.
“Actually, you’re the first person to know,” I added, now picking up steam. “Well, other than our obstetrician. Oh, and the guy at the pharmacy who sold us the pregnancy test—I’m pretty sure he has his suspicions.”
Marta started typing, which I took as a sign to shut up. Good move, too, because had I kept talking, I might have gone on to promise to name our firstborn after her. After a few moments, she silently held out a green hotel voucher. Then, for good measure, she threw in tickets for breakfast the next morning.
My wife greeted me with a mixed response. Ecstatic that we had a hotel room, she also cautioned me that any future pregnancy complications would be chalked up to my having violated our superstitious agreement to keep all such talk private until we reached the second trimester.
“How do you feel about Marta for a girl’s name?” I asked her.
I study situations for a living. It’s the greatest job in the world, teaching people about the power of context and examining it in my own research. As I detail in this book, the world around us is constantly pulling our strings, coloring how we think and guiding how we behave. And yet we rarely notice.
My hope is that this book will force you to notice. Its aim is to prompt you to appreciate the influence that different situations have on your daily tendencies and experiences. Ordinary contexts of all types where you are, who you’re with, what you see around you—transform how you act and, indeed, what kind of person you appear to be. By coming to grips with this idea, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the other people in our lives.
What does the science of situations teach us? That many of our intuitions about human nature are wrong. Though we come to believe at a young age that we have a pretty good handle on what makes people do what they do, many of these assumptions turn out to be misplaced: individuals’ personalities—yours and mine included—are not as stable as we think they are. We’re more influenced by those around us than we’d like to believe. Even our private sense of identity is highly context-dependent.
This book will take you down a less-traveled, often surprising, and sometimes disconcerting road of human experience, refocusing your attention on the ordinary situations that have extraordinary effects on how we think and act. Research shows us that context impacts even the most intimate aspects of our lives, and this conclusion offers to those who embrace it insight as well as competitive advantage.
Now, I’m not promising you that reading this book will make you a better person. After all, I opened with a story about reneging on a marital agreement and shamelessly exploiting the miracle of pregnancy—all in the name of a free hotel night in New Jersey. So a self-help book this isn’t.
But I will promise that this book will alter the way you think about human nature, thereby making you a more effective person. It will do so by improving your ability to predict how others around you will react to a wide range of situations: by training you to step back and assess more dispassionately the contexts in which you find yourself and the social dilemmas you encounter; by making you acutely aware of how situational factors can be manipulated to sway others and how you can deflect similar efforts to unduly influence you. In short, if you want to maximize success in professional ventures such as sales, politics, litigation, marketing, negotiation, and teaching—not to mention more generally refine your people skills you have to start studying up on the science of situations.
Admittedly, there was nothing all that scientific about my performance in Newark. I didn’t draw on specific research findings to figure out how best to demonstrate voucher-worthiness. Rather, I just followed a more general principle: when we look at situations objectively, detaching ourselves from the emotion and bias that often cloud our vision, we’re better able to pick up on the clues that allow us to understand other people and achieve the outcomes we seek.
However, the science of situations also offers more concrete lessons about navigating our social universe. The chapters that follow explore human nature across a variety of dimensions, relying on empirical research as well as daily observation, drawing from scientific theory as well as Seinfeld episodes. And this is what makes studying situations so useful as well as so captivating: it requires attention to both scientific method and mundane detail; it appeals to both the behavioral researcher and sitcom fan lurking within each of us.
Because, in the end, situations of all types are important, from the unexceptional to the profound. Consider that the very same principles at work in my routine airport interaction with Marta can be found in settings with far graver consequences. As one example, according to a recent book by pseudonymous intelligence officer Matthew Alexander, U.S. interrogators weren’t particularly successful in obtaining useful information from alleged terrorists captured during the first few years of the Iraq war. The reason, suggests Alexander, was the default tendency of most interrogators to view their suspects as incorrigible evildoers who’d only respond to domination, threat, and fear—much like the fruitless strategies pursued by many customers with service representatives. And if you think this analogy strains credulity, well, clearly you’ve never seen the residents of my grandparents’ retirement community interacting with the dining room waitstaff during dinner.
The turning point in Iraq, writes Alexander, came when interrogators changed strategies, abandoning the harsh tactics of belittlement in the name of cultural respect and rapport building. It’s not that they started taking detainees out for pizza and ice cream—distortion of reality, false hope, and good, old-fashioned lies became essential ingredients of the new game plan. But the key was a shift from brutality to brains, as Alexander calls it.
part four 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