Author: Sam Sommers
APA Style Citation
Sommers, S. (2011). Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. New York, New York: Penguin Group.
Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, by Sam Sommers of Tufts University is an excellent source of supplemental material to make the emotion and social psychology units especially relevant and engaging for students. The book provides research and personal examples illustrating how behaviors and mental processes are strongly influenced by one’s current environment. Included in the text are a wide variety of brief, high-interest analyses of significant psychological studies including Asch’s conformity study, Milgram’s obedience study, and the Schachter-Singer research on the two-factor theory of emotion. The book stresses that although we like to think we objectively make decisions based on our individual personalities, we, in fact, are profoundly influenced by the situations in which we find ourselves. The goal of Situations Matter is to help individuals understand and predict the actions of others and evaluate how the power of the situation influences one’s behaviors. This book provides an interesting way to link social psychology concepts such as attribution theory and the power of the situation to numerous other units including motivation, emotion, and cognition.
The book is divided into seven chapters with distinct themes. Chapter One, titled WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get), pronounced “wizzy-wig,” demonstrates the tendency of individuals to emphasize dispositional attributions over situational ones. This section addresses cultural differences in attributional tendencies such as the fundamental attribution error and how attributions influence decision-making. There are also several excellent examples in this chapter of the halo effect. For example, Sommers references how the halo effect is used by advertisers to add creditability to their products through celebrity endorsements. The concept of WYSIWYG leads individuals to ignore the power of the situation in explaining why the celebrities are praising the products (they are being paid). According to Sommers, WYSIWYG allows for rapid impression formation and decision-making because it effectively eliminates many potential variables. WYSIWYG can however also lead to inaccurate decisions. The author argues that a greater understanding of this natural tendency to avoid considering situational variables can help individuals make more reasoned and effective choices.
Chapter Two, Help Wanted, highlights research related to how the presence of others impacts individual behavior by increasing inaction. Help Wanted details important social psychology concepts such as reciprocity, social loafing, the bystander effect, and diffusion of responsibility. This section includes both the Kitty Genovese and James Bulger murders as examples of the power of the bystander effect. There is also a detailed account of the Good Samaritan study conducted by John Darley and Daniel Batson, which illustrates a how the variable of time pressure contributes to the willingness of individuals to help others.
Chapter Three, Go with the Flow describes how the presence of others influences the actions of individuals. This chapter includes research related to deindividuation, social norms, and conformity and begins with the interesting example of Cameron Hughes who is paid to attend sporting events and get the crowd excited. Situations Matter explains how various theories from social psychology can explain why Cameron Hughes is so successful at his job. He has been hired to generate crowd excitement for professional teams including the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and New Jersey Devils. In 2010 he was hired to fire up crowds at the men’s and women’s Olympic hockey matches.
Chapter Four, You’re Not the Person You Thought You Were, demonstrates how situations impact self-concept. The author contends that the idea of a consistent personality is overrated in terms of predicting human behavior. This section includes an exceptional description of the research done by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer that led to the two-factor theory of emotion. Also, in this chapter are studies related to personal happiness and how self-concept is impacted by social comparisons. There are several short demonstrations in this chapter that can be used to highlight the better than average effect that which can be easily used in a psychology class as a high-interest demo.
The final chapters in the book including Mars and Venus Here on Earth, Love, and Hate emphasize how the power of the situation influences relationships with others and the differences between men and women. Mars and Venus Here on Earth highlights how gender norms are developed and maintained and argue that the differences between the sexes are more closely related to social situations than biology. Love includes sections devoted to the science of attraction and the importance of similarity, proximity, and reciprocity. The author even mentions a great article from the satirical newspaper, the Onion with the headline “18-Year-Old Miraculously Finds Soulmate in Hometown” that highlights how little we are aware of the impact of proximity. (http://www.theonion.com/articles/18yearold-miraculously-finds-soulmate-in-hometown,375/) The chapter also explains how the Schachter-Singer two-factor theory of emotion can be used to explain how individuals in an exciting situation may misattribute the physiological arousal they are experiencing for the emotion of love. This is demonstrated with the Capilano Bridge study (Dutton and Aron). This activity is provided in the open your class with this document and can be incorporated in either a unit on emotion or attraction. The chapter titled Hate gives an overview of the influence of actual differences in creating hostility and in-group bias. The author demonstrates through research how easy it is to create conflict in groups even when they are formed arbitrarily. The text provides a version of the Harvard Implicit Association Test to assess unconscious prejudice that can be easily used in class. By doing the test together as a class, there are no individual scores which can reduce student anxiety. The book also provides effective answers for addressing the concerns students typically express about the IAT. A different version of this activity involving stereotype about men and women in the workforce is provided in the open your class with this document on the blog.
Situations Matter provides exhaustive evidence regarding the power of the situation to influence human behavior. The text is witty, intelligent, and engaging and there are numerous sections that could be assigned for supplemental student reading assignments. The examples and stories can be used to help students find ways to apply psychology to their lives, decisions, and relationships.
Other Related Resources
The following link is to the website of author Sam Sommers for the book Situations Matter that includes two short videos an eighteen minute TED talk.
The following link is to a Psychwiki that provides additional background information on the Capilano Suspension Bridge Study research into misattribution of arousal that is one of the open your class today activities.
The following video is a reenactment of the original Capilano Suspension Bridge Study which can be used with the open your class today activity on misattribution of arousal.
This article explains five key psychological studies related to the science of attraction and includes the Capilano Suspension Bridge Study as number three.
The Annenberg Learner series video on the power of the situation which includes footage of several key experiments into conformity(Asch), the fundamental attribution error, and the Zimbardo prison experiment.
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Diffusion of Responsibility
Implicit Association Test (IAT)
Misattribution of Arousal
Suspension Bridge Study