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How to shape circumstances to your advantage

Book Review: 'Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World'

Book Review
Title: "Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World"
Author: Sam Sommers
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 2012; 304 pages; $14.91 at

Do you consider yourself a rugged individualist, like John Wayne or Ayn Rand? Well, get over yourself.

In his new book, "Situations Matter," Tufts University professor Sam Sommers makes a very strong argument that our personalities aren’t nearly as stable or as strong as we think, and that the people, places and things that make up the context — the situations — we’re engrossed in exert much more powerful influences on our choices, our relationships and our behavior than you might think.

In "Situations Matter," Sommers drills down into what he calls the "robust power of situations" with the declared aim of making you, if not a better person, certainly a more effective one, especially if you work in "people" fields, like sales, marketing and management, or if you ever (like Sommers) find yourself trying to prod a hotel voucher out of a harassed customer service agent at a Newark, N.J., airline counter.

Here are a couple of Sommers’ most profound insights on the critical importance of context. I give them with the caveat that this book is stuffed to the brim with such smarts, so if you find these gems interesting or are in a profession that requires you to interface with or understand other people, you’re likely to find this book to be a game-changer and perspective-shifter.

1. "WYSIWYG" is the exception, not the rule, for understanding human behavior. Throughout "Situations Matter," Sommers proves the point that What You See Is rarely, rarely What You Get when it comes to explaining what causes people to act as they do, join up with others, remain isolated, tip poorly, confess to crimes they did not commit, come off as smart, come off as incompetent, and even fail to help others who appear to clearly need it.

Much more often than not, researchers have shown that the primary drivers of these behaviors are not our inherent brilliance, deep-down incompetence, core stinginess or plain old rottenness. Rather, contextual factors like whether you’re running late or whether you’re in a crowd of others and, so, feel anonymous, have enormous impact on our actions in a given situation.

The more we can begin to appreciate and account for (a) the fact that a person’s bad behavior in one moment does not necessarily warrant writing them off as a numbskull, and (b) the actual situational factors at play that might be influencing decisions and behaviors, the more effective we can be at shaping those factors and, to be frank, getting what we want.

2. Conformity is both friend and foe. The human inclination to go with the flow, following social norms and rules, is most markedly our friend when it comes to things like traffic safety. Turns out, though, that the pressure to avoid violating norms is so strong an influence on human behavior that it’s also the dear friend of marketers who want to get people to buy things and much more nefarious others (think: Jim Jones’ Guyana horror and the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide) who want to coerce people to do bizarre, self-destructive things.

In both these nightmarish scenarios, investigators reported finding extensive evidence of identical dress, communal living, renouncing birth names, and other strategies cult leaders use to create mindless conformity in the months and years leading up to the ultimate conformist act.

Sommers says that those who want to create behavior change in others should take note, seeding their own tip jars with a couple of bucks, for example. And those who want to interrupt conformity in their families or communities, say, to stop candy grubbing at Halloween, should do anything they can to emphasize the individual identities of their subjects (Hint: Ask the costumed munchkins their names and what street they live on).

Or you can do what Sommers did long ago to stopping conformity in its tracks, in his own tiny little way: Next time you’re at the football game, don’t do the wave.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website,


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