Situations Matter

Another Face in the Crowd

The other day, walking down the street with headphones on as usual, I approached the crosswalk surrounded by a rush-hour crowd. The sign changed to “walk” and we all started moving like hurried sheep across the street. As I crossed, I looked to my left and saw a woman – late 60s, grey hair ¬– bent over picking up books she had dropped, or perhaps had been knocked out of her hands by the crowd. In the group of maybe 15 of us, not a single person paid her an ounce of attention. I like to think of myself as an observant, helpful person, but I can assure you I’ve walked by a scene just like this before and thought to myself, “Oh, someone will help them”. Not this time. I had just finished reading Situations Matter by Sam Sommers. I immediately stopped in my tracks, pulled my headphones off and began helping the woman gather her belongings. I was able to correct my behavior because of a renewed attention to the key theme of the book; “when we are surrounded by others, we become very different people”.

Following Sommers’ logic, if it were a quiet day on that street, and just one person saw the woman’s situation, he or she would have certainly stopped to help her. Sommers explains that crowds have an interesting affect on us – they alleviate our feelings of responsibility by making us feel anonymous and ambiguous. He urges us to remove our blinders in everyday situations and not just assume that someone else will take care of it – “it” being any number of “situations”, further described below. Sommers uses entertaining, if not familiar, scientific and real-world examples as fodder for his thoughtful and humorous explanations of our situation-based behaviors.

Everyday, mundane situations, from waiting in line at the copy machine to observing a framed painting at a museum, impact our behavior at a subconscious but undeniable level. The frame around a beautiful work of art at a museum proves that situations do matter: Your experience viewing the painting wouldn’t be the same without it.

Situations and Our Reaction to the World

Situations affect our self-perception (people around us not only shape our behavior but also our private thoughts), how we are viewed by the world around us, and how we react to the world. What Sommers demonstrates throughout Situations Matter is that people tend to cling to an incredibly oversimplified view of the world and of human nature. We hang on to the philosophy, “What you see is what you get”, or WYSIWYG. Because we cling to this idea, we often do what is expected of us – nothing more and nothing less. He urges us to abandon this philosophy, to look past what is on the surface and force ourselves to see familiar situations from unfamiliar perspectives. If you’re a teacher, take a class; if you’re a marketer, experience your product or service as a customer; walk the proverbial mile in the shoes of those around us. Sommers urges us to try because “rediscovering the power of situations will do more than make you a more patient human being – it’ll improve your ability to navigate social settings and make you better at your job to boot.”

Understand Your Customer, Contextually and Psychologically

How we react to situations depends on how we expect to see a situation and on how well we understand what we’re supposed to do. Take for example the now famous, psychologist engineered, “love bridge” experiment, in which a female researcher stopped men on two separate bridges to ask them a series of questions. One bridge was rickety and unstable, the other sturdy. Men were asked after their encounter to rate the attractiveness of the researcher. The chance encounter filled with adrenaline on the shaky bridge led to greater attraction than on the sturdy bridge. This is just one of many examples that shows that much of whom we think we are, what (or who) we like, and what we do varies greatly depending on the context we are in. When Sommers brings this to light through his examples – whether they be on perceived gender difference, conformity, love or hate – it drives home this concept: the better informed you are about situations and why people do what they do in those instances, the more likely you’re going to be able to handle them when they arise. As a marketer and researcher, Situations Matter is a reminder to understand your customer both contextually and psychologically as they interact with your brand. It is a solid read and certainly drives home the importance of context, both in everyday life and the work we do at Brandtrust.

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