Brain Pickings

Situations Matter: How Context Shapes Our Lives

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Debunking the myth of character, or what sitcoms have to do with the mysteries of personality.

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire,” Charles Bukowski famously wrote. We walk through life and its fires along narrative paths that define who we are and what our personalities are like. We speak of the “architecture” of character as if it were as rigid and unmoving as a building. We often perceive others as sitcom characters — static and unchanging from episode to episode. Yet ordinary contexts, from where we are to what we see around us to who else is with us, influence and transform how we behave and what character traits we exhibit — who we appear to be. Coming to terms with this idea, argues Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers in Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, gives us a more profound understanding of not only ourselves but also the people in our lives and the complex interpersonal dynamics that underpin our world.

We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.” ~ Sam Sommers

For the ultimate cherry on top, especially for fellow lovers of book trailers, here is a wonderful pictogram- and typography-driven motion graphics teaser for the book:

From why “personality” is a myth (cue in Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick) to how “character” fluctuates (cue in David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo’s Out of Character) to a multitude of other psychological biases and misconceptions that cloud our interpretation of reality (cue in David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart), Sommers fuses cognitive science with sociology and witty observation to pull into question what personhood means (cue in Christian Smith’s What Is a Person?) and illuminate the puppeteering power of situations over our lives.

Though uncomfortable and dissonant with our self-perception as independent individuals acting, rather than reacting, under our own volition, the eye-opening insight into these influences offers a new way of relating to and navigating everything from workplace dynamics to romantic relationships to self-actualization — what Sommers calls “both the mundane and the sublime aspects of our social world.”

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