Situations Matter

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 - WYSIWYG

Even though ordinary situations have a profound impact on how we think and act, we view each other through the lens of stable personality.  The cryptic title of this chapter stands for What You See is What You Get, a phrase that computer programmers use—complete with fun-to-pronounce acronym—to refer to an interface that allows a user to see what the final product will look like while a document is being created. 

In daily life, we cling to the idea of WYSIWYG (or wizzywig if you prefer) by assuming that the behavior we observe from another person at a particular point in time provides an accurate glimpse of the “true product” within.  Essentially, 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 predictable dispositions of our TV friends to shine through.  Same goes for real life.

Chapter 2 - Help Wanted

This chapter starts laying out the case for the many ways in which context actually shapes behavior, beginning with a focus on how ordinary situations can transform goodhearted people into indifferent ones. It turns out there are circumstances under which all of us—you and me included—are less likely to take action.  In one poignant demonstration, researchers observed seminary students literally stepping over a semi-conscious homeless man on their way to give a sermon on, of all topics, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  What did it take to prompt such callous behavior from such pious people?  Simply telling them that they were running behind schedule.  Another surprising conclusion is that groups are less helpful than individuals.  Chapter 2 provides concrete suggestions for institutional efforts to combat apathy (how can we raise consciousness of this humanitarian crisis?) as well as for people making more localized, short-term appeals for assistance (how can I get someone to stop and help me change this damn flat tire?).

Chapter 3 - Go With the Flow

While the previous chapter examined apathy in groups, Chapter 3 takes the notion that crowds strip us of individuality in a different direction.  The presence of others has active consequences too, shaping how we think, even goading us into actions we wouldn’t otherwise consider.  Some of this social influence is just mindless conformity.  Like fashion.  The way the wave starts at a football game.  Or the stupid things college students do when in groups—you know, frat initiations or spring break?  (Or so I hear—in the more nebbish social circles in which I traveled in college, it was a bunch of us switching off the freezer in the dining hall soft-serve machine, then watching as student after student pulled the lever to get sprayed by melted ice cream.  Good times.)

But our tendency to go with the flow is also implicated in far more disturbing episodes.  Looting and rioting.  Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.  Even genocide.  We’re quick to label such transgressors as immoral or evil: Bad apples who are the exception to the greater goodness of our humanity.  But this chapter shows that many of these people are little different than you and me.

Chapter 4 - You’re Not the Person You Thought You Were

Situations affect more than how we see the world; they also color our most private and intimate of thoughts, those about ourselves.  This chapter examines such self-perception, exploring how you come to learn what type of person you are.  One option is to check in with the so-called experts, the gurus of self-help who populate the bestseller lists and Oprah’s couch.  After perusing their work at the bookstore, I’ve learned that the answer apparently has something to do with chicken soup.  And beyond that, it seems we’re supposed ask ourselves questions that unlock a “true” identity. 

But the gurus got it wrong.  Our sense of who we are is no less context-dependent than the behaviors of those around us.  Our tastes, attitudes, and identity all change over time, across situations, depending on whom we’re with.  And there are important sources of self-knowledge besides introspection, like the other people around us.  This may seem disconcerting at first, but the message of this chapter is actually optimistic.  How liberating to realize that we’re not hemmed in by stable disposition, that just as our physical self grows and evolves over time, so, too, does our identity, our preferences, our personal strengths and weaknesses.

Chapter 5 - Mars and Venus Here on Earth

Sex differences are real, but what’s surprising is how many can be chalked up to subtle situational causes.  Men are more aggressive than women?  So say crime rates in pretty much every country that keeps statistics.  But a funny thing happens when you put people in a situation where no one will know their gender: the sex difference in aggression shrinks or even disappears.  In one study, participants played a video game in which they had to defend against attacks as well as drop bombs on their opponent.  When wearing name tags and expecting to be monitored, men were the more aggressive players.  But when they remained anonymous, women were just as trigger-happy.  

This chapter explores the wide range of gender differences driven more by context than biology.  Jealousy in relationships.  Spatial navigation.  How parents describe their newborns just hours after birth.  Its moral is that you can forget about being from different planets: even on Earth, context plays a huge role in the apparent differences between men and women.

Chapter 6 - Love

Ask people what leads them to fall in love, and they’ll tell you about their ideal mate: personality traits; preferences regarding physical appearance; perhaps a certain, indefinable quality of character.  We fail to recognize the mundane circumstances that play an enormous role in who we’re drawn to and the relationships we enter.  Like simple physical proximity.  About to move and looking to make friends quickly?  Pick the apartment near the mailroom, or the one by elevators—increased foot traffic may be detrimental to your sleep schedule and carpet wear, but it does wonders for your social life.

Or another example: conventional wisdom says that arousal is a symptom of attraction.  That is, you see a hot guy on the elliptical machine next to you and your pulse quickens accordingly.  But as this chapter details, arousal often precedes attraction, not vice versa: we feel our heart race and temperature rise, and only then do we look around to see who’s responsible.  Chew on that next time you’re trying to decide where to sit in spinning class—the choice could have long-term consequences.

Chapter 7 - Hate

Something about simply being divided into factions brings out negative thoughts towards the “other.”  Of course sometimes animosity between groups reflects substantive differences, like Democrats and Republicans, Mac and PC users, those of us who back into parallel parking spots and the mouth-breathing Neanderthals who barge in front-first.  But take a bunch of strangers and divide them based on trivial or even random criteria, and you still inspire antipathy and distrust.  In other words, it takes only weak nudges of circumstance to get us to see the world in Us vs. Them terms.  It’s a notion that could be depressing, this idea that so much of the conflict and hatred among us is based on trivial aspects of ordinary situations.  But this chapter also offers more reassuring conclusions, namely that just as context contributes to the onset of group conflict, so, too, can we be retrained by new experiences to think of people in new ways, to see past social categories when evaluating individuals.


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