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Thursday, December 29th, 2011

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11:20p
So much depends on context ...
Here's another book that I got from LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewer” program. Sam Sommers' Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World is a fascinating look (as one might guess from the title/subtitle) at how the “frame” determines how one perceives the content of our experiences.

One of the key concepts Sommers uses here is that of “WYSIWYG”, the acronym from the early days of graphical display of text on computer screens (and, yes, I do recall the days of the green or gold monochrome system display), “What You See Is What You Get”. Obviously, it's been decades for most of us since this has been a concern, so I suppose that it's fair game for him to re-use, but (having lived through the evolution of text display) it seems somehow “off” in this context to me. Here's how he defines it:

The frame of social context has a similar impact on how people behave. When we overlook it, we produce an oversimplifed picture of human nature, clinging as we do to the belief that what you see is what you get. Computer programmers … [used] … this phrase … to refer to an interface that allows the user to see what the final product will look like while a document is being created. In daily life, even when we should know better, we endorse this idea of WYSIWYG … when we assume that the behavior we observe of another person at a particular point in time provides an accurate glimpse of the “true product” within.
The book is chock full of examples and studies which show people reacting to situations based on surface impressions, starting with one that shows that in a questioner/contestant situation, participants in a study rated the questioner 82 while rating the contestant 49, because the one asking the questions just seems that much smarter (and further illustrated by a thought experiment about which TV host one would want to hire as a tutor, Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, or Ryan Seacrest). Similar dynamics are at play with “celebrity endorsers”, were we to think about it, we'd realize that there is no special insight that the endorser has (beyond “endorsing” the advertiser's check) but their familiarity leads us to lend credence to the pitch.

The first major category that Sommers addresses here is that of crowds … the more people observing a situation, the less likely any of those people are to act … “When no one in the crowd seems concerned by what's gong on, each of us feels more comfortable with the status quo, contributing to a cycle of inaction that only continues as new individuals enter the scene.” … he concludes with a suggestion that in an emergency the best approach to get assistance is to specifically single out an individual to ask for help. From the passive inertia of crowds Situations Matter turns to the active role of conforming in various situations, from the shills whose role is to work up crowds at sporting events (there is a whole profession dedicated to this) to the function of social exchange. Frankly, some of the numbers here are mind-blowing, but various studies have shown that participants in experiments where actors were intentionally choosing wrong answers, seventy five percent of subjects would go against their senses at least once to be in agreement with the group! This is influenced by the reality that a group of people are likely to be, in the long run, more accurate in their responses than any given individual, but is surprising how big a lure conforming appears to be. A more common expression of this is in “reciprocity”, where a charity sends along some token “gift” to increase giving, or a car salesman knocks some small percentage off a very overpriced option to help insure the sale. Another amazing number here is that in one study 93% of subjects complied with an inconvenient request when a meaningless “reason” was given … only one percent less than what a reasonable request elicited (and well above the 60% compliance of just a request was made without a reason). Various situations are looked at here, Heaven's Gate, the People's Temple, Abu Gharib, and the notorious Milgram studies (where the presence of an “authority figure” increased compliance from 3% to 65%!), on to studies of how many extra pieces of candy trick-or-treaters would take in a group vs. alone.

The next part of the book looks at one's sense of self, and, again, there are amazing studies which show how context-dependent our view of who we are and what we believe and what we want are …

Why is your sense of self so variable across situations?

Because it depends, in large part, on who's around you and the culture in which you grew up. Because the process of introspection produces but a temporary snapshot of how you feel in this fleeting time and place.
Add to this the rather bizarre factoid (based largely on the author's own research) that something like 85% of any group will rate themselves as “above average” on a given topic, which he notes is “a mathematical absurdity”. Stranger still are the studies of people “preferring” letters from a random assortment which appear in their names, and the disproportionate number of people who live places that have names similar to their own, or even go into professions which are homophonic (i.e., “Larrys” becoming Lawyers).

Like the better-than-average effect, these surprising name-related findings reflect a propensity for seeing the world in an ego-enhancing light. Such self-serving tendencies are particularly likely when we're confronted with our own shortcomings and failures. Indeed, we have an entire toolbox of strategies that we use to maintain positive self-regard in the face of the humbling and threatening experiences that constitute daily life ...
Next is a look at how expectation affects results, where those whose belief is that they're “set” at a particular level won't be as likely to go for self-improvement, which dovetails into gender issues and how pervasive preconceptions along these lines are in society. This then moves into the subject of “love”, with somewhat ironic reflections on how proximity and familiarity are the most reliable gauges for attraction … but also how reciprocity, obstacles, danger, and similarity come into play. From “love” the book moves to “hate” and looks how easily sides are taken in almost any situation, which then significantly influences further decision making in terms of bigotry and even militancy.

Needless to say, Situations Matter is an interesting read, but it's also lively and engaging, with Sommers bringing in numerous personal stories amid the multitude of anecdotes of research studies regarding people's responses to various contextual settings. This is officially just coming out this week, so is likely to be appearing in your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, but both of the on-line big boys have it at 34% off of cover, which would be your best deal at this point.


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