Understanding How Context Transforms Your World
By Sam Sommers
Published by Riverhead Books
ebook ISBN: 9781101553794
Copyright © 2011 by Sam Sommers
The suspect is a father with young kids? Then pretend you’re a dad, too—all the better to bond over parenting stories. The interrogators’ goal became to find out as much as possible about the detainees, to suss out as many details as they could regarding the context in which this tense interaction was taking place, and then to spin those details to their own advantage.
From airports to Abu Ghraib, from small talk to life-or-death decisions, situations matter.
By the end of this book, my hope is that you’ll appreciate this conclusion and recognize the many ways in which context shapes human behavior and daily experiences—even your own. These are life lessons with the potential to pay dividends both personal and professional, in the short term as well as the long run. Because even when we aren’t bartering for hotel rooms or questioning terrorists, who among us doesn’t spend more time than we’d like to admit trying to anticipate the behavior of the people we live and work with? Devising strategies for making a better first impression? Pondering whether the saleswoman really has a thing for me or just tells everyone who tries on that shirt that he looks good in it?
We come to better answers to questions like these—regarding both the mundane and sublime aspects of our social world—when we take into account the power of situations. So think of this book as a primer on what really makes people tick. Consider if your guide as you start down a new path toward a deeper understanding of the true nature of human nature.
For the record, the saleswoman works on commission, hotshot. She says that to every customer.
The roddle of the Sphinx. Rubik’s Cube. Fermat’s Last Theorem. The popularity of NASCAR. To this pantheon of inscrutable puzzles, permit me to add another entry: the Conundrum of the Game Show Host.
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. You’re looking to hire a tutor. Maybe your fourteen-year-old is struggling with early European history; maybe you’re struggling with early European history. Either way, the school year is well under way, and all the experienced tutors are booked for the foreseeable future. However, as a result of the economic downturn, you’re able to dig up a few surprising applicants interested in the position. Your three finalists have no teaching experience whatsoever, but their names are familiar: Pat Sajak, Ryan Seacrest, Alex Trebek.
Remember, this is a vitally important choice. The grade point average of a loved one hangs in the balance. So take a moment.
Seriously. To the extent that your mental library of game show host images permits it, visualize each of these men as you mull over the question of whom to hire as a history tutor: the host of Wheel of Fortune, American Idol, or Jeopardy!
All set? Decision made? As yet another host would ask, is this your final answer? Then continue reading.
Most of you picked Trebek, of course. With Sajak a distant second. Why? Because Jeopardy! is the most intellectually challenging of the shows on which these men appear. We therefore assume that Trebek must be an intelligent guy in order to host it effectively—after all, “he” always knows the answer. While “European History” has been a category on his program, I don’t recall Simon and Randy (or, for that matter, J.Lo and Steven Tyler) ever discussing the Hundred Years’ War between Idol auditions. Perhaps Trebek retained some relevant information through osmosis? And at the very least, you’re confident that he’s going to know how to pronounce “Charlemagne.”
But is this a wise decision? Maybe Trebek isn’t the best choice after all. Would it surprise you to learn that Seacrest majored in history at Yale? That Sajak began a Ph.D. in European literature before turning to a career in television?
OK, it would surprise them, too, because I just made all that up.
What is true, though, is that you and I have no idea how intelligent these men are. For all we know, each is bright, well-read, and would make an adequate tutor. But for all we know, they’re nothing more than glorified spokesmodels who read well from cue cards and make good small talk with strangers. Even though the only information we have about these three individuals has been gleaned from the sanitized, edited context of syndicated television, we still feel like we have some idea of the type of people they are.
Therein lies the puzzle. Logically speaking, being asked to choose the wisest game show host should lead us to throw up our hands and plead ignorance. But Trebek is the consensus choice. Rationally, I have little more basis for this conclusion than I do for thinking that Patrick Dempsey or any other TV doctor could give me at least some useful insight regarding my grandmother’s blood pressure medication. But try telling that to my neighbor down the street with the faded “Martin Sheen Is My President” bumper sticker. You see, the Conundrum of the Game Show Host isn’t which of these three gentlemen you’ll choose as your tutor, but rather the question of why the vast majority of us is so quick to pick the same guy.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to Trebek. Our tendency to attribute wisdom to game show hosts emerges even when perfect diction and a certain Canadian bonhomie—mustachioed or not—isn’t part of the picture. Consider a research study conducted with pairs of college students at Stanford. At random, one member of each pair was assigned to the role of quiz show host, or “Questioner.” The other became the “Contestant.” The Questioner was given several minutes to compose a list of ten challenging questions on any topics, the only requirement being that she had to know the right answer to each one. Once the list was complete, the Questioner then proceeded to quiz the Contestant, whose job, naturally, was to answer the questions correctly.
The student body at Stanford is an impressive group. These are really smart people. But on average, Contestants answered only four out of ten questions correctly. After all, even the most accomplished of scholars is challenged when asked to match the idiosyncratic knowledge of another bright person. Just think about your friends and their varied interests, experiences, and expertise. When you’re a gourmet chef who’s into fantasy football and your buddy the entomologist can quote every episode of Star Trek by heart, stumping each other with trivia isn’t too hard. Finding common ground to talk about when you get together for drinks? That seems more challenging, but hey, he’s your friend, not mine.
Imagine how much greater this variability in expertise is for strangers with no shared history. In the quiz show task, unless the Contestant lucks into a partner who just happens to mirror exactly her own areas of interest, she’ll be stumped before too long. Take, for example, the eclectically well-rounded expertise exhibited by one of my former students during an in-class demonstration of this study:
1.Name all 5 members of NSYNC.
2. Who was the only President to serve on the Supreme Court?
3. Name all 5 members of the Backstreet Boys.
Maybe you’re equally proficient in judicial political history and pop music boy bands. For most people, though, this combination of disciplines poses a challenge.
Knowing all this: knowing that the Contestant’s job is quite difficult, that the Questioner is pulling topics out of thin air, and that the random draw to determine roles could easily have gone the other way, how would you evaluate the quiz show participants? The researchers asked this question by getting neutral observers of the study—the “studio audience” for the quiz show—to rate the general knowledge of both the Questioner and the Contestant on a scale of 1-100.
(continued on Friday)
*****TABLE OF CONTENTS *****
2. Help Wanted
3. Go with the Flow
4. You’re Not the Person you Thought You Were
5. Mars and Venus Here on Earth
part five 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