Kirkus Reviews QR Code


Understanding How Context Transforms Your World

by Sam Sommers

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59448-818-4
Publisher: Riverhead

Sommers (Psychology/Tufts Univ.) pokes holes in the comfortable assumption that our actions are driven by character.

The author calls attention to how our behavior is influenced by the context of the situations we face, invoking the software term WYSIWYG to describe the way people tend to accept an “oversimplified picture of human nature, clinging as we do to the belief that what you see is what you get.” He refers to a 2009 experiment—modeled on Stanley Milgram's much-cited earlier version—to illustrate how ordinary people can be induced to administer torture. Participants were partnered in what they were told was an experiment on the effect of punishment on learning. The job of one was to administer increasingly powerful shocks whenever the other (actually an actor pretending to be shocked) gave a wrong answer. A lab-coated experimenter encouraged the teacher to continue to the end of the protocol, despite agonized screams from the next room begging him to stop. When the setting for the experiment was a university, 65 percent continued to administer increasingly powerful shocks; however, when the so-called experimenter dressed informally, only 20 percent were willing to follow his prompts and continue. Sommers suggests that children are cued to the “ubiquitous societal norms regarding gender,” which accounts for much of what we accept as biologically determined gender behavior.

An enjoyable guide for would-be free-thinkers on how to recognize social influences that shape behavior.