Sam Sommers’ SITUATIONS MATTER: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World is an exciting and witty book about one of the potentially driest subjects imaginable: situational ethics. Yet Sommers’ effort — a first book by a new writer, no less — is outstanding, funny, and extremely readable.
Sommers is a psychology professor at Tufts University; while he’s new at writing long-form nonfiction, his research has been discussed in many venues before, including at NPR, during ABC’s Good Morning America, in the Washington Post, and others. This is because Sommers is brilliant in how he proves that how you see a situation depends on how you expect to see a situation; how you react to that situation depends on how well you understand what you’re supposed to do. Those insights into human behavior go a long way toward explaining the previously inexplicable, and cast doubt on many things that seem like incontrovertible facts (like the whole conundrum of why most women believe they can’t do math).
Sommers writes in an engaging style that can’t help but draw you in. He talks about all sorts of things, from the most mundane — why people get antsy while making copies, especially if someone cuts in without a good reason — to the far more esoteric nature of behavioral psychology. Sommers discusses these things in a relaxed sort of way; you might not even realize how much you’re learning along the way, considering how easy this is to read.
Sommers’ conclusion is that we as human beings often do what is expected of us, and nothing more. This is why if you take women out of their traditional environments and have them play violent video games, they’ll be every bit as bloodthirsty as the men providing they believe no one is looking — but if they believe they are being observed, then they suddenly don’t want to play or believe that they should not behave in such a bloodthirsty manner, so they don’t. And it’s why at least a few people have died while screaming in a big crowd, where there were many witnesses to the fact that something really bad was happening; the problem is, no one feels responsible in a crowd because most people believe someone else will help that person, so they don’t have to do it.
Sommers’ book is so interesting that I read it three times, with pleasure, and got more out of it each time I read it. But be warned: much of who we think we are from day to day can vary depending on the situation (thus what I said before about situational ethics), and once you realize that Sommers’ explanations about why this happens, much less his examples about famous things that illuminate this or that principle, you may be a bit startled. Because situations do, indeed, matter, and the way you view those situations also matters; simply put, the more information you have, the better informed you’re likely to be, and the more likely you’re going to be able to handle the situation should it ever again arise.
A book that can inform, make you laugh, make you think, and make you believe that there’s more to the world than what you initially thought was present is a book you need in your library. SITUATIONS MATTER should be read by everyone, without reservation; this is one of the best books I’ve ever read on psychology or situational ethics in my life and deserves to find as wide an audience as it possibly can.
So what are you waiting for? Go grab this book right now! (You’ll be glad you did.)
— reviewed by Barb