In Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, Sam Sommers argues persuasively that everyday situations matter much more for how we behave than we generally like to believe. According to the author, we tend to believe character (inborn or acquired) is much more important than it really is.
I really liked this book partly because its subject matter is one of my favorite topics of interest – human behavior. In addition the material was compelling, entertaining, and I think the thesis is important. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about why we do what we do.
In the introductory chapter the author concludes with the following summary of what is to follow:
“The chapters that follow continue to flesh out lessons like these in specific detail, examining the overlooked impact of ordinary situations on a wide range of human experiences. We’ll take a look at the contextual considerations that shape our private sense of self, that color our notion of the differences between men and women, that determine who we love and who we hate. We’ll start by examining the circumstances that dictate when we’re heroic and when we’re cowardly, with particular focus on the very situational notion that when we are surrounded by others, we become very different people than when we’re on our own.”
That last sentence “when we are surrounded by others, we become very different people” is a key theme of the entire book. It is very important that we stay aware of that tendency. The following is a list of the chapters in the book and my extremely brief summary of what each is about.
– Will you help someone in need?
Go With The Flow
– All about the power of social conformity
You Are Not Who You Thought You Were
– You really are a different person in different settings and at different times.
Mars and Venus Here on Earth
– All about gender differences and how they may not be as fixed as we think.
– You don’t have a soul-mate, you have lots of them in the right situation.
– All about bias and how it affects us all even when we don’t realize it.
I do have a couple of problems with the conclusions in this book and I think the author overstates his case. This is true in particular to his conclusions on gender differences where it appears he lets his own personal feelings override his scientific objectivity. On that subject I think he doth protest too much.
Also, throughout the book the author cites experiments where a situation in a lab led to a result that the author then concludes proves that certain behavior is not the result of inborn differences. While that may be a possibility, I simply don’t agree that you can draw that conclusion as strongly as he seems to believe.
Just because you can create an artificial situation in a lab and get a result, does not mean that such results naturally flow in the real world. For example it is entirely possible that situations out in the real world that the author is convinced drive behavior, may themselves be the result of inborn traits and thus influence our behavior indirectly. Just because you can override those natural tendencies in a lab doesn’t mean they aren’t really there.
However, even with these differences his point is well taken and I think he is in large part correct. I do think we are many different selves and that situations strongly influence which one of those selves wins the internal brain debate. I give Sommers high marks for writing an interesting and entertaining book on an important topic. Even though I don’t agree with everything he writes, I do consider the book very well done. I think you will agree.
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