Expert Q&A With

Sam Sommers PhD

Professor Sam Sommers is a teacher and researcher of social psychology at Tufts University outside Boston. His research specialties include how people think, communicate, and behave in diverse settings, as well as psychological perspectives on the U.S. legal system.

In 2008 he received the Saleem Shah Award for Early Career Excellence from the American Psychology-Law Society and he has won multiple teaching awards, including being selected by the Student Senate as the Professor of the Year in 2009.


What does your website offer its visitors?


The website offers all sorts of details about my new book, Situations Matter, including reviews, table of contents, and an excerpt. You can also find out more information about my research and links to my regular blogs on Psychology Today and Huffington Post.


Tell us more about your book ‘Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World’


Situations Matter tells the story of the psychology of everyday life. The book's central premise that is that human nature is surprisingly context-dependent. Where we are, who we're with, what's going on in our immediate environment…all of these seemingly mundane factors have dramatic effects on what we think, how we act, and who we are as people. This notion that situations affect us may seem self-evident - certainly we're aware of it on some level.

But what we too frequently fail to grasp is just how pervasive this influence is, across a surprisingly wide range of human endeavours, from how we act in crowds to how we think about ourselves, from whom we're drawn to in platonic and sexual relationships to what's really going on when it comes to sex differences in cognition and behaviour. And my argument is that by recognizing this hidden power of context to shape human nature, we become more effective people in a wide variety of endeavours, including the professional as well as the personal.


What is the thinking behind ‘small talk’?


Well, that's the title we've gone with for my blog on the Psychology Today website. The idea is to convey that any conversation or interaction, no matter how seemingly mundane can be analyzed using basic principles of behavioural science. As I suggested above, my book is (and my blogs are) very much a narrative about the psychology of daily life. My aim was to make the book (and my blogs) useful as well as fun by integrating behavioural science, pop culture analysis, personal anecdote, and humour, all in the effort to paint a more complete picture of what makes people tick.

So while the book reviews a wide range of provocative and important research findings, it's also intended to be an engaging and enjoyable read. I think for everyone who reads it, at least at some point during the book (and hopefully multiple points), they'll say, I was just thinking about this the other day or this just happened to me last week and so on… I want readers to see aspects of their own lives as they go through the book.


How do you combat jealously in a relationship?


Jealous Picture

(Photo Credit: raymaclean)

Good question. Honesty seems like a potential answer, but also an oversimplification. How about realistic expectations and forcing yourself to see your partner's actions and mindsets in the same way you see your own?

It seems like people are often prone to thinking that they themselves are permitted to have wandering thoughts, innocuous flirtations, and so on because "I can handle it," but then they don't make the same allowances for their partners. Being able to put yourself in another person's shoes - not on a cursory level, but really seeing the situation from their perspective and putting your own biases aside - is easier said than done and can make you more effective across a variety of social interactions. And, of course, honestly, transparency, good intentions, trust…that's all important too.


Who influenced you to pursue a career in behavioral science?


My first professors of social psychology at Williams College, Saul Kassin and Steve Fein. They showed me that all of this rumination and analysis I was doing of social interactions in my daily life could also be done at a more generalisable and scientific level. And they taught me that doing this type of work and exploring human nature was not only important and intellectually satisfying but could (and should) also be fun.


How does having an adept understanding of non-verbal communication affect your private life?


I think "reading" people is an incredibly important aspect of our daily social effectiveness, and clearly non-verbal cues play a major role in that process. I'll give you just one example…let's take effective teaching. I think so much of what makes someone an effective teacher are the same characteristics that make a person someone you'd enjoy talking to at a cocktail party. In academia, you meet people who are impossibly bright, but also unable to explain simple ideas to diverse audiences. You meet people who are incredibly well-trained in a variety of scientific techniques, but who can't sense, during a conversation, that the person they're talking to is losing interest or that the interaction has run its course.

As a teacher, you need to be able to sense that your example isn't working and you need to try another one; you need to pick up on the fact that attention spans have reached capacity and you need to shift from, say, lecture to small group discussion; you need to be able to read your students' reactions, and nonverbals play a large role in that. And so it goes at cocktail parties, when talking to your colleagues, interacting with your kids, etc.


What advice would you give someone who is considering studying with yourself at Tufts University?


Being a social psychologist is the best gig in the world. To make a living teaching, collaborating, and talking with intelligent, enthusiastic people about important and relevant issues of the day…it doesn't get any better than that. It's a terrific field to enter.

Of course, graduate school and becoming a researcher is a long haul and a highly competitive process. So the more research experience you can get before applying, the more your application will stand out from the crowd. And personally, I'm always on the lookout for students who are interested in both the theoretical and practical implications of the the work we do as social psychologists.


What have you got planned for the rest of 2012?


I'll be spending the summer catching up on some writing - journal articles, grant applications, a bit of blogging here and there. And still enjoying giving talks, interviews, and other interactions in the course of promoting the book.

Then in September it'll be back to work with a whole new crop of students, courses, and the like, and picking up where we left off in the research lab. We've got a lot of good work going on in the lab on issues related to diversity and intergroup relations and always eager to see the directions in which it winds up taking us.


Learn More


Click Here to follow Dr. Sam Sommers on Facebook

Click Here to follow Dr. Sam Sommers on Twitter

Click Here to visit Professor Sommers' lab website for more details regarding publications, ongoing projects, and media coverage of his research.

The Hidden Power of Context

Situations Matter

Essential Reading

Situations Matter

Book Details

An "entertaining and engaging" exploration of the invisible forces influencing your life-and how understanding them can improve everything you do.

The world around you is pulling your strings, shaping your innermost instincts and your most private thoughts. And you don't even realize it.

Every day and in all walks of life, we overlook the enormous power of situations, of context in our lives. That's a mistake, says Sam Sommers in his provocative new book. Just as a museum visitor neglects to notice the frames around paintings, so do people miss the influence of ordinary situations on the way they think and act. But frames- situations- do matter. Your experience viewing the paintings wouldn't be the same without them. The same is true for human nature.

In Situations Matter, Sommers argues that by understanding the powerful influence that context has in our lives and using this knowledge to rethink how we see the world, we can be more effective at work, at home, and in daily interactions with others. He describes the pitfalls to avoid and offers insights into making better decisions and smarter observations about the world around us.

See following link for full details.

Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World

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