New Book Explores the Hidden Power of Context

Situations Matter by Sam SommersIf you enjoyed reading Cialdini’s Influence, Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, or Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner, then chances are you’ll enjoy the new behavioral psychology book Situations Matter by Sam Sommers.

Situations Matter explores how our behavior is shaped by circumstance. For example: In one situation, we may be proactive; but in a similar situation with a slightly different context, we may be completely apathetic. What makes the difference? And why?

These are the types of scenarios Sommers investigates in his book. As the author explains on page 17:

So much of how we see and interact with the social universe around us is shaped by our immediate context. As the chapters in this book detail, seemingly trivial aspects of daily situations determine whether we keep to ourselves or get involved in the affairs of others, whether we follow a group or stake out an independent path, why we’re drawn to certain people and away from others.

I enjoyed Situations Matter more than I thought I would. After all, the title didn’t intrigue me at all, so I let the book languish on my desk for two months. (I think it would sell better with a title like The Hidden Power of Context: How Situations Shape Our Behavior, but it’s a little late for that.)

The title aside, after I started reading, I was hooked. Sommers explores fascinating topics like how we fall in love; why we tend to rate ourselves as “better than average” at nearly everything; how being part of an arbitrary group affects how we treat those outside the group; how context and expectation influences test scores; and much more.

And while you may already be familiar with some of the studies Sommers uses to support his arguments (like Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiment), chances are there are many more you’ve never heard of.

Every chapter contains valuable insights into human behavior and practical lessons to apply long after you’ve finished reading. My favorite chapter was chapter six, the one simply titled “Love.” This chapter confirmed some of my hunches about attraction and romance, and revealed some new information, too.

Just be forewarned: die-hard romantics may be upset or even angry after reading this chapter. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a relationship, this chapter may prove to be immensely helpful.

My least favorite chapter was chapter five, “Mars and Venus Here on Earth.” This chapter explores gender stereotypes. While I found some of this chapter interesting and enlightening, there were parts of it that rubbed me the wrong way — mainly the parts where he argues that gender differences are not as hard-wired as we believe. I get his point, but my thinking doesn’t go quite as far as his does toward erasing gender norms.

My only other criticism is Sommers’s efforts at humor. Quite a few of them fell flat for me. This is echoed by at least a couple reviewers on Amazon. William McPeck writes, “I could have done with less of the author’s attempts at humor. I feel it detracted from the book’s message.” Ditto.

Although many people could benefit from reading Situations Matter, it will probably appeal most to direct marketers, students of influence, and people who simply want a deeper understanding of human behavior.

Situations Matter was just published December 29, 2011, and is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book sellers. So if you got a gift card for Christmas (or even if you didn’t), consider grabbing a copy for New Year’s reading. I think you’ll enjoy it.

-Ryan M. Healy

P.S. I received an uncorrected proof of Situations Matter in advance of publication for the purpose of writing this review.

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Ryan Healy

Ryan Healy is a freelance copywriter, list manager, and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like,, and

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