Understanding How Context Transforms Your World
By Sam Sommers
Published by Riverhead Books
ebook ISBN: 9781101553794
Copyright © 2011 by Sam Sommers
On average, they rated the Questioner an 82.
They rated the Contestant a 49.
In other words, despite knowing that the Contestant was at a pronounced disadvantage in this situation, observers drew internal conclusions about the pair as they watched them play the game. The Questioner must be the one with the greater wealth of knowledge, they inferred. The Questioner is the one they’d expect to do well on a real game show, and presumably the one they’d hire as a tutor. The Contestant, they determined in a resounding majority, was dumber.
SEDUCED BY CHARACTER
So much of how we see and interact with the social universe around us is shaped by our immediate context. As the chapters in this book detail, seemingly trivial aspects of daily situations determine whether we keep to ourselves or get involved in the affairs of others, whether we follow a group or stake out an independent path, why we’re drawn to certain people and away from others.
But as the game show examples demonstrate, we rarely appreciate this robust power of situations. We look right past them, hidden in plain sight. Just like the museum visitor pays little heed to the painting’s frame, we fail to notice the impact of outside influences on our innermost thoughts and instincts. But frames do matter. Though you won’t find them highlighted in a museum’s catalogue, they catch the eye and accentuate aspects of the paintings within. You might not realize it, but your experience at the museum wouldn’t be the same without them.
The frame of social context has a similar impact on how people behave. When we overlook it, we produce an oversimplified picture of human nature, clinging as we do to the belief that “what you see is what you get.” Computer programmers have adopted this phrase, complete with a fun-to-pronounce acronym, to refer to an interface that allows the user to see what the final product will look like while a document is being created. In daily life, even when we should know better, we endorse this idea of WYSIWYG (or wizzywig, if you prefer) when we assume that the behavior we observe of another person at a particular point in time provides an accurate glimpse of the “true product” within.
The waiter who screwed up our order? We label him incompetent. The colleague who won’t return our e-mails? She’s inconsiderate. The actor who delivers the knockout soliloquy? He’s articulate. WYSIWYG leads us to conclude that these actions result from underlying, consistent character—and we expect this personality to emerge reliably anytime, anywhere. So the waiter was an idiot before you showed up for lunch, the coworker is a jerk even on her day off, the actor would be the perfect commencement speaker, and Alex Trebek will help me pass history once he wraps his shooting schedule.
In essence, we’re most comfortable seeing each other the same way we watch sitcoms, expecting to encounter familiar characters who act much the same from episode to episode. Even in exotic locations, like a vat of grapes or a cursed Hawaiian vacation, we look for the familiar dispositions of our TV friends to shine through. When you think about it, although we call these shows “situation comedies,” they depend on stable personalities, and stock ones at that.
Developing a sitcom? You might want to include a nosy or wacky neighbor. Or even better, a nosy and wacky neighbor. Perhaps an overbearing mother-in-law or world-weary grouch with a hidden heart of gold. It only takes a few minutes at www.smalltime.com/dictator to confirm this notion of standard-issue sitcom characters. The website uses binary trees created by user input—essentially a flowchart of yes-or-no questions—to guess the sitcom character Or world dictator you’re thinking of (clever site tagline: “whether you’re Gilligan or Fidel stuck on that island”).
The program needed thirty-four questions to figure out that I was thinking of Pol Pot. For Cliff Clavin, the mailman from Cheers, it only took eleven.
The recent emergence of “reality TV” isn’t much different. These shows consistently promise the manipulative villain, the flirtatious schemer, the carefree soul just there to have a good time. These “characters” are often the products of creative editing (or even intentional staging), but viewers don’t seem to mind. Clearly, the producers of such programming also realize the appeal of easily identifiable personalities to those of us watching at home.
Back to the real real world, it’s true that every so often life redirects our attention to the power of situations, snapping us out of our default WYSIWYG mode. Maybe we discover our inept waiter at a nightclub playing a proficient guitar and learn that his incompetence is context-specific. We find out that our unresponsive coworker has been battling a computer virus and never received our messages. Our favorite thespian gives a stilted, hackneyed graduation speech and we realize that he isn’t particularly well spoken when the words are his own and he hasn’t had rehearsal.
Or we catch a glimpse of a more subversive, self-referential sitcom. Like the episode of Seinfeld when, through a typically convoluted tangle of plotlines, the giant neon chicken sign outside Kramer’s window prompts an apartment swap with Jerry. After just one night in a noisy, distraction-filled bedroom, suddenly it’s Jerry who’s frazzled and jumpy, recounting 3:00 a.m. phone calls from oddball friends and eating straight out of the ice cream carton. And the soothing effects of just one good night’s sleep allow Kramer to emerge as the all-knowing yet sarcastic voice of reason around whom the group gathers for perspective on their own neuroses. The comedic premise works because the audience is familiar with each character by this point in the show’s run. We immediately get the joke that the sleep-depriving physical space of Kramer’s apartment (and the relative lack of chaos across the hall at Jerry’s) could be all that separates one character’s recognizable quirks from the other’s.
But by the end of the half hour, status quo has returned. And in real life, too, while unfamiliar situations can push us beyond WYSIWYG, the general tendency lingers on: we encounter new people, we observe new behaviors, and we instinctively draw new conclusions regarding character and personality. Just ask the patient chagrined to see his doctor outside her realm of expertise, struggling to, say, parallel park. Or the surprised student who once ran into me at a bar and asked, “Isn’t it strange for professors to go out and see people from class?” While I realize that I continue to exist outside the lecture hall, she seemed genuinely shocked to learn that I could survive, much less enjoy myself, in a room without a dry-erase board.
We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.
Last summer, I got a first- (and second-) hand refresher course in just how blind we tend to be to situations. It came just days after I discovered that I am a marvel of modern medicine. Or, at least, that’s what a bemused emergency room physician told me when I showed up one night with two broken fingers, one on each hand.
How did I hurt myself? As I trudged through the next several weeks with matching splints, I had ample opportunity to answer this question. My response varied by mood. Sometimes I’d get creative and say I was injured pulling orphans from the rubble of an earthquake. Other days I’d stick to the truth and admit that the damage came from the knob of a slippery softball bat that flew out of my hands during a rainy slow-pitch game. It didn’t really matter whether or not I was honest: either way, no one—including multiple orthopedists—seemed to believe me.
One of the fractures went into a joint, which meant I needed surgery. But the morning of the procedure, I really wasn’t nervous. In fact, I was much less anxious than my wife, who was still juggling sympathy with (completely justified) irritation at how I had suffered the injury. Had I really been saving orphans, I would’ve gotten a pass, but my decision to ignore her prescient warnings against playing softball during a downpour didn’t sit well.
(This excerpt from Situations Matter by Sam Sommers ends on page 21 of the hardcover.)