Saturday, January 21, 2012

Situations Matter

A few months ago I had picked up an advance reader's copy of Situations Matter by Sam Sommers, meant to write a blog post about it and then got entirely too busy. Now that it's been published and is in the store, I've remembered how long I've been meaning to write about it and made some time to finally get it done.

The author, Sam Sommers, is a psychology professor at Tufts who specializes in examining how situations change us and our decision making. He argues that many of our assumptions about human nature are wrong, and can be explained by a closer look at the situations around various actions. Whether we're aware of it or not, all sorts of things can change how we act, from standing in a crowd to being the only person of your ethnic background in the room.

The chapter examining our assumptions about innate gender differences is fascinating, especially when he takes on the controversial statements made by former Harvard president Larry Summers on math and science ability in women. The way researchers have been able to erase or exacerbate the "gender gap" in math just by changing the circumstances of the test made sure I will never look at claims of innate ability in any subject the same way again.

I think this book does a great job of explaining the power of context, which goes a long way to assist us in our understanding of ourselves and others. While not a self-help book, there are many things in this book that can help you use knowledge of situations for your own benefit. For example, I'm in a band that plays at various places throughout Western and Central Massachusetts, and some crowds just aren't into the music as much as they are their beverages. After reading about the man who makes a living pretending to be a normal fan cheering like crazy at sporting events, I make sure to have a few friends in the audience that will dance, sing along, and help get the party going. The tip jar definitely shows the difference!

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