Wednesday, 29 February 2012

How context transforms our world

What type of person are you? How would your family, friends or colleagues describe you? And would you say you are always like that, no matter what the situation is? This is what psychology tries to do: describe people with respect to certain personality traits that are assumed to be rather stable across situations and time. These traits are then used to predict people’s future behaviour. It is also what most people in everyday life like to do: predict a person’s future behaviour from what they think the person is like. But what if this not possible?

In his book “Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World”, Sam Sommers from Tufts University questions the notion that our behaviour can entirely explained and predicted by personality. Rather, he thinks that our reactions are to a great extent driven by the context we are in. He recommends not to simply rely on personality when interacting with other people (be it in job or private settings), but to always consider the situation in which a person is. In a short video, he explains his basic ideas.

In an article on the book in the Washington Post, some of the experiments conducted on the situation specificity of human reactions are explained. For example, experimenters made men and women meet on a rickety suspension bridge vs. on a stable one and found attraction between the two to be greater in the “exciting” situation (on the suspension bridge). In another experiment, men and women were exposed to a math test. When told that the test had no gender bias, men and women performed equally well, without this specific instruction, men outperformed women. Sam Sommers also mentions the tragic fact that people are often injured or killed by others while many people around them just watch and do nothing, whereas spectators are more likely to intervene when only few people are around.

The ideas are in line with what the famous psychologist Walter Mischel already found in the late 1960s: Our behaviours are much more dependent on situational cues and far not as consistent across situations as we think. He argued that when looking for consistency in human behaviour, we should take the situation into consideration as well and thus look for if-then consistencies: in situation X, a person will show behaviour Y.

This is maybe the key message here: when explaining and predicting a person’s behaviour, always take the situation into consideration. In similar situations, a person is likely to behave similar, but not in all situations. And we can even make use of this insight: we can generate the situations in which we know our employees perform best, or in which our customers buy what we are offering them, and so on. Context matters!

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