In his fascinating book Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, psychology professor and researcher Sam Sommers, Ph.D, reveals the big impact context has on public behavior — how we think about others and even how we think about ourselves.
According to Sommers, “Even the most private of perceptions — our very sense of self — is shaped by where we are and who we’re with, though we may resist this notion.”
Our Iffy Introspection
Complete this statement five times: “I am _____________.” This is a short version of the “Twenty Statements Test.” If you were given this same test tomorrow or a few years from now or in a different place, do you think your answers would be the same?
Sommers doesn’t think so. He says that how we view ourselves actually changes over time and location. Even small changes in context can affect our responses in a big way.
Research shows, Sommers explains, that we tend to think of ourselves as distinctive. Students in Sommers’s classes rarely say they’re a “college student,” but completing the test in another location, such as a doctor’s office, they do. Whites are less likely to mention race than others on the Twenty Statements Test — unless they attend a historically black college or are hanging out in the heart of Chinatown.
Consider another seemingly simple study of four stockings. Michigan researchers Dick Nisbett and Tim Wilson asked participants to pick out the best stockings from four options. Participants tended to give the highest ratings to the stockings at the far right. The interesting part?
The stockings were all the same: same brand, style and color. It seemed that the order of the stockings was really the determining factor. But when participants were asked why they picked the stockings they did, they referred to the stockings’ knit and sheen among other qualities. Even when the researcher asked how stocking order might’ve played a role in their assessments, almost all participants denied it (and usually with a worried look on their faces). According to Sommers, this study captures the limits of introspection.
Sommers cites a more recent study published in the Journal of Arthroplasty. Participants who were going to have hip replacement surgery completed a checklist about why they were having the procedure. A year later, researchers gave these participants the same questionnaire and asked them to name their original reasons for having the surgery. Most of the participants gave very different answers. This was especially common among participants who didn’t think the procedure met their expectations.
Much of the information that introspection generates is fleeting, on-the-fly construction at a particular point in time: how we think we feel, why we guess we’ve made the choices we have. By looking inward, we don’t gain access to a stable set of impressions regarding an unwavering, authentic self. We produce a temporary status report.
How Even Strangers Make a Difference
Most people will agree that others have influenced them, particularly loved ones, teachers or coaches. But Sommers says that total strangers also shape us.
In the book he gives the example of an experiment from Columbia University researchers Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer. One hundred and forty men received either an injection of adrenaline — which speeds up heart rate, blood flow to muscles and respiration — or saline — which does nothing. The participants thought that they were receiving a vitamin injection to test its effects on their vision.
What researchers really wanted to see was whether participants’ emotional reactions would be influenced by a complete stranger’s reaction. Would another person’s behavior affect these men?
After the men received the injection, they sat in a room with another participant, who was really an actor. This actor basically has a tantrum over the questionnaire (which did ask very personal and insulting questions), curses the researchers and even rips the packet and leaves the room.
The participants who were given the saline shot didn’t show any anger. However, the participants given the adrenaline reported feeling angry and assumed that the offensive questionnaire was to blame.
In another experiment, the actor instead acted elated and engaged in silly behaviors like flying paper airplanes and even twirling hula-hoops. Participants who received the adrenaline also engaged in these activities and reported feeling elated.
So how we interpret our emotions does depend on others. As Sommers writes:
These results demonstrate that even our own emotional states are not as cut-and-dried as we think. Both anger and euphoria are accompanied by physiological symptoms similar to the effects of adrenaline: racing heart, dilated pupils, elevated blood sugar. When we experience these sensations, our body doesn’t automatically translate them into corresponding emotion. Rather, we look to those around us to figure out what it all means, to determine which of the many emotional labels available fits the situation: This guy sure looks angry and this questionnaire sure is offensive… hey, I must be angry, too!
Realizing that situations shape us this much may be a disappointing, if not depressing, thought. But Sommers sees it differently. Instead, he views this discovery as empowering.
It’s refreshing to realize that that you’re not a finished product — that who you are in the here and now may not be the same person you’ll be in the then and there.
And he views the flexible self as an opportunity for growth.
Instead, you should train yourself to view intellect — and any other aspect of your personal skill set — as a muscle that grows with effort and atrophies with neglect. When you accept that the answers to “Who am I?” should be written in pencil and not pen, threats become opportunities and failures transform into life lessons.