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Operationalizing 'Situations Matter'
March 12, 2012 - 7:30pm

Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers

Good on Sam Sommers, Tufts University psychology professor and blogger for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today

Sam has written a terrific book in Situations Matter, one that will make you re-think how you think about your colleagues, your students, and even perhaps airline employees. His main theme, that people's behavior is always context dependent and that we overemphasize innate personality, seems blindingly obvious. But as with many things, when our actual behaviors are closely examined (as opposed to how we report how we behave), it become clear that our true actions are wildly divergent from our self-perceptions. 

Turns out, we predictably and consistently make the mistake of overvaluing personality based explanations and underestimating situational reasons for behaviors. This flaw in our thinking is known as the fundamental attribution error, and none of us are immune.

Situations Matter takes us on a tour of the social psychology literature around this fundamental attribution error, with Dr. Sommers guiding us through the academic literature via some amusing storytelling  (which often hinge on Dr. Sommers' own mistakes). This is definitely in the genre of pop-academic writing, accessible to a wide and general audience. But Situations Matter is also a book that undergrad psych students would learn a great deal from. One gets the sense that Sam Sommers is a wonderful teacher, in addition to being an engaging writer and an accomplished researcher - the sort of professor that we'd all like to have at our institutions.   

Where Situations Matter was immediately helpful to me has been in thinking about job recruiting and project management.  I am working hard to remember the lessons of Situations Matter and to think about the actions and behaviors of the people I work with (and might work with in the future) as explained by the context in which they work. In practice, this involves working to withhold initial judgements and being willing to ask many questions (and really listen) to understand the environment and constraints in which my colleagues (and job applicants) navigate.  

Reading Situations Matter helped me understand not only the degree to which we make the error of discounting context, but the reasons behind our errors in judgment. This knowledge is very helpful in my own efforts to evolve my behaviors. This book has real practical value.

What are you reading?


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