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The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology

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How does the situation we're in influence the way we behave and think? Professors Ross and Nisbett eloquently argue that the context we find ourselves in substantially affects our behavior in this timely reissue of one of social psychology's classic textbooks.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1991

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Lee Ross

17 books18 followers

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5 stars
171 (35%)
4 stars
189 (39%)
3 stars
76 (15%)
2 stars
27 (5%)
1 star
14 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews
Profile Image for Cara.
31 reviews5 followers
September 28, 2016
I recommend this book for those curious about social psychology--its theories and their application. I give it three stars for two reasons: because I found the style of writing to be dense and sometimes unapproachable and because the short afterword acknowledging the 20 years between the initial publication and this reissue is in my opinion insufficient to address the major updates and changes that have occurred in the field. On the whole, it was an interesting and informative book.
Profile Image for Sharon.
80 reviews
April 12, 2018
I’m glad I read it, but it was a tough read for a lay person in the psychology field.
January 17, 2019
It's not that often that some scientific reading really breaks reader's existing perception of the world. Even Einstein's revelations more amend, though overwhelmingly, a picture of the world given from the childhood than flip it over. The more breathtaking this feeling of a shaking ground when it comes from the sphere where everyone feels rather confident. Everyone thinks she/he is good enough in assessing others behavior. At minimum in ability to explain some deeds, at maximum to predict them when a person in question is somewhat familiar. But it appears that we're prone to a common mistake and misjudgment.

The main idea of the book is to show how basically situational factors facilitate behavior and how people erroneously tend to explain someone's behavior with personal traits. Here I must say that this book is a rare sample of a very well-structured presentation of information. There no random hops from one thought to another. The language is concise. And reading chapter number five I never had a feeling that I don’t remember what I’ve read in chapter number 2.

Authors start from general overview of the main theme and a plan of the book. In this plan they briefly introduce the so called tripod of situationism: 1) the power and subtlety of situational influences, 2) the importance of people’s subjective interpretations of the situation, 3) understanding both individual psyches and social groups as tension systems or energy “fields” characterized by an equilibrium between impelling and restraining forces. Then every leg of this tripod is thoroughly investigated in separate chapter.

My first acquaintance with social psychology happened when I read an exciting book of Milgram about his famous experiments investigating human's obedience. It was an obvious shock for me. And as it appears this was just one of the many examples of the hidden power of situation, of circumstances. The most potent situational force is represented by social pressures and constraints exerted by the informal peer group. Another extremely important mechanism of situation is 'channel factors'. This can be some very subtle detail which facilitates some behavior. For example, one of the experiments has shown that when one group of people had been voluntarily called to be blood donors and another group not only had been called but every representative also received a leaflet with a road map to a clinic then the number of donors from the second group significantly outnumbered the number from the first one.
The same works in an opposite direction: a behavior can be blocked with canceling some important channel.

If such purely situational factors can be assessed and even designed on purpose, then the subjective factors - people's interpretation of situation or construals - are much harder to investigate. First, one’s own understanding of stimuli is the result of an active, constructive process, rather than a passive reception. Second, every person constructs own interpretation of a situation in her own way, and even differently in different moments (you can't enter the same water twice).
A separate chapter is devoted to investigations of human's ability to assess someone's behavior, to infer personal traits from it and to predict behavior on the base of these presumably known traits. It's interesting how science found its way here. Usually scientists make some theoretical assumption and set up experiments seeking confirmation of that assumption. And if the assumption finds confirmation this makes the ground for a further progress. With researches in potential ability to predict behavior by personal traits it was quite opposite. Experiments were set with an aim to find a correlation between traits and behavior. And it was not found. Or it was found only within the same type of situations. So, for example, one set of similar situations was used for measuring person's friendliness. After that another set of situations was used for control check. And there was no correlation although both sets of situations were designed to reveal the same personal trait.

Ok, people are too much biased to rely on personal characteristics, these characteristics do not correlate with behavior, but somehow, we manage to predict behavior of our peers or relatives. How? And the answer is that we assess someone's behavior within situation, within some more or less stable environment which is familiar to us. And as it was said earlier, for the same situation correlation with personal characteristics does exist. So, when we see our colleague every day in the office we may be quite accurate in predicting her reactions on stimuli which are usual for this particular situational environment. And everyone may recollect how surprising might be to see some familiar person in unfamiliar environment, like to accidentally meet an always serious university professor laughing and relaxing with friends (perhaps other serious professors) in a pub. Because in different situation all existing behavior predictions suddenly stop working.
I could continue further since the book is not limited with only explanation of what and how actually impacts human's behavior. Social psychology is not accidentally called 'social'. There are many extremely interesting examples, implications, observations from social life which are very important per se. But I’d rather add a few quotes.

'Social processes unfold quite differently when people believe they have freely chosen their behavior, as a direct expression of their goals and attitudes, than when they believe the behavior was coerced or was under the control of extrinsic reinforcing agents.
In everyday experience the characteristics of actors and those of the situations they face are typically confounded – in ways that contribute to precisely the consistency that we perceive and count on in our social dealings. People often choose the situations to which they are exposed; and people often are chosen for situations on the basis of their manifest or presumed abilities and dispositions.'

'The key to a more powerful conception of individual differences is to be found in the enduring motivational concerns and cognitive schemes that guide attention, interpretation, and the formulation of goals and plans. ... Individuals may behave in consistent ways that distinguish them from their peers not because of their enduring predispositions to be friendly, dependent, aggressive, or the like, but rather because they are pursuing consistent goals using consistent strategies, in light of consistent ways of interpreting their social world.'

Why we tend to explain a behavior by personal characteristics but not by situation:
'When we observe another person, an actor, it is the actor who is “figure” and the situation that is “ground.” People are active, dynamic, and interesting; and these are the stimulus properties that direct attention. The situation, in contrast, is normally relatively static and often known only hazily. Nor does the observer normally spend much mental energy trying to figure out what goals the actor might be pursuing, what obstacles the actor might be confronting, what mood the actor might be in, and so on.'

And this is a quote of a quote since it belongs not to Lee Ross but to Heider:
'Man is not content simply to register the observables that surround him; he needs to refer them as far as possible to the invariances of his environment. . . . the underlying causes of events, especially the motives of other persons, are the invariances of the environment that are relevant to him; they give meaning to what he experiences.'

'People are often sympathetic to the plight of those who must predict their responses. For social harmony depends, in part, upon our willingness and ability to help other people predict our responses correctly, and our willingness and ability to respond in a way that confirms other people’s predictions about us. Accordingly, in many important domains of social conduct, we signal our intentions and generally avoid disconfirming each other’s predictions.'

'Current economic development is better predicted by the cultural facts of associationism existing a century ago than by the degree of industrialization existing a century ago.' – This I liked much! It tells so much about the future of authoritarian states where all gatherings are under suspect and polarization of society is achieved artificially on purpose.

'More collectivist cultures, including especially those of East Asia, not only show less focus on the self and more on family and other in-group members, they also are less dispositionist in their world view and in fact less prone to the fundamental attribution error [explaining behavior by personal traits]. They focus less on the actor and more on the social situation surrounding the actor.'

'We also think it is time to add another leg to the tripod, thereby making it a more solid platform. That extra leg would be recognition of the centrality of self in everyday social functioning. This recognition would go beyond the familiar idea that people defend the self against threats to positive self-regard, or that they strive for cognitive consistency and a sense of coherence and integrity in their beliefs and behavior. One important new idea about the self would be the role played by theories about the self – theories that guide behavior and dictate expenditures of effort and willingness to risk failure, and hence achievement and growth.'
Profile Image for David Wen.
225 reviews1 follower
April 13, 2015
Not an easy read but it brings together all the studies done on social psychology in the last century. Excellent starting point for anyone curious about social psychology to find more books and topics to read.
Profile Image for Neil Pasricha.
Author 22 books792 followers
March 31, 2021
Years ago I was watching an NFL playoff game when they flashed a graphic onscreen that stuck with me. They showed two quarterbacks, drafted the same year, with the same type of college cred. One of them had one head coach on one team over his entire career and had been a huge success and won a handful of Superbowls. (I’ll let you guess who.) The other had the pleasure of playing under something like a dozen coaches across half a dozen teams. And guess what? Pretty much zero success. And we all hail the first guy as a hero! Best quarterback of all time! But is he? Is it really the person that we can objectively see here? Or is it the situation? Malcolm Gladwell writes in the Introduction to this book that “social psychology stands at the intersection between our eyes and the world.” That’s such a great thought. Because what is social psychology? Malcolm (as he does) nails it. The intersection between your eyes and the world. What if I told you that when you perceive the actions and intentions of others you are pretty much mostly wrong? You do what we all do! You overvalue the person. And you undervalue the situation. This is a Big Idea book that will reorder how you look at the world. It will lay out the fallacies, assumptions, and leaps of logic you are constantly making. And it will do so in a kind, warm-hearted, empathetic, grizzled old professor type of way. Academic reading but highly recommended.
198 reviews1 follower
October 20, 2019
So many fascinating studies and ideas.

Also kind of dry.

I'm curious what new parts research has filled in over the last 30 years.
6 reviews1 follower
June 17, 2020
This is a textbook about social psychology: the subfield of psychology that studies how people's thoughts and behavior are affected by the presence, implied or actual, of others. The book is written for a student of social science without much background in psychology, and the emphasis is on thoroughly summarizing the literature and explaining seminal studies, not on narrative. There are a few powerful ideas:

The fundamental attribution error: People tend to attribute the observed behavior of others too much to some innate characteristic of the person than to an aspect of the situation. We hear about someone assisting a stranded motorist and infer they are a helpful person, rather than questioning whether they did so because they had nowhere else to be that afternoon. In general, the cross-situational predictability in behavior is quite low: knowing someone was sociable in one situation doesn't have much predictive power for whether they will be social when thrust in a rather different situation. This raises the puzzle of the coherence of everyday social experience. It is extremely common to describe people's personalities and dispositions – he tends to be quiet, she is abrasive, etc. These descriptors clearly have some utility. The authors argue that much of this is because of how we communicate our expectations of how others will behave and how others' self-conceptions constrain their own behavior and the situations they find themselves in. Think about how shocking it can be to see your high school teacher at nightclub: our social relations vastly limit the types of interactions we have with a given individual, and thus we are likely to form an impression of their personality or character that might not actually hold up if we observe them in a radically different situation. But the paradox is that for most people most of the time, the impressions we form are likely to have some predictive power and thus to be validated.

Another important idea is construal: when thinking about behavior, it's important to understand how the subject construes a particular situation, and inattention to this fact often leads to overconfidence in our prediction of what others will do. This connects, for example, to the behavioral economics literature on framing effects – behavior can vary dramatically depending on reference points, whether someone sees a potential outcome as a gain or a loss.

The book discusses tension systems and channel factors, the idea that behavior is shaped by impelling and restraining forces and that the two might actually be closely balanced such that behavior is very susceptible to small, seemingly unimportant interventions. This is the principle behind interventions that seek to increase turnout by asking people to name a time of the day when they plan to vote. The idea is that there are a host of balancing forces involved in the decision to vote – civic duty, traffic on the way to the polling place, the desire to be seen as a good citizen, your level of hunger – and it might not actually take that much to shift the balance and provide a channel for one side to win out. This is intuitively reasonable, but I didn't find the term "tension systems" particularly useful because I'm not entirely sure what makes this analytic device a "system" if it requires a situation-specific analysis of competing forces.

Finally, it's worth noting that Malcolm Gladwell loves this book, and that social psychology (and, to be fair, much of social science) has been the subject of a bit of a replication crisis. As someone interested in using insights and ideas from social psychology to form hypotheses about social behavior and test them in non-experimental settings, I found this book engaging and helpful. I can also imagine how this book would be useful in thinking about all the subtleties involved in designing experiments with human subjects. And as a summary of a large body of interesting and influential literature, this book is terrific. But I would hesitate to take individual findings or effect sizes too seriously, and I would question interventions or policies that rely too heavily in their justification on a theory of human behavior that stems largely from the social psychology literature.
11 reviews18 followers
November 13, 2022
First six chapters make up conceptions development retrospective,so may seem as boring, as own college thesis. Action start from ch.7 with carefully selected and reviewed experiments, smart assessment of fails and social experiment accusations.
Final chapters are the ones placing this work among classical ones
564 reviews3 followers
February 10, 2020
Is it the person or is it the situation is the classic question. This book takes on the question of what is influence? It argues that context and the situation substantially impacts behavior. Karen Briscoe, author and podcast host 5 Minute Success
16 reviews5 followers
July 12, 2021
It contains really high academic language and it was a bit of a challenge for me to try and understand everything placed inside. The book is pretty good in terms of given experiments with control human groups and following conclusions.
Profile Image for Ronalds Cinks.
6 reviews
December 14, 2018

the book introduces a thourough framework to understan human behavior and the aspects to be taken into account when trying to change it.
Profile Image for Alice.
624 reviews1 follower
Want to read
September 30, 2019
Malcolm Gladwell says this book “basically gave me my view of the world."
Profile Image for Stuart Wade.
3 reviews1 follower
February 18, 2020
Pretty dense. Reads like a text book for the most part. Redeems itself with citing some interesting studies
3 reviews
June 13, 2020
Probably the most impactful book I have read. I read it just as I was finishing my graduate studies and it completely changed the way I thought about everyone and everything.
Profile Image for Ana.
109 reviews99 followers
December 30, 2015
I found out about this book from a list of Malcom Gladwell's recommendations in an article somewhere and I took his word for it. It turns out it's an actual textbook and it's written quite some time ago (I've looked it up, in 1991!) with minimal revision for newer editions. Inevitably, its biggest drawback is related to this, it feels outdated, a little clunky and it ostensibly lacks the perspective of more modern studies for the most part. It's ok for an introduction in social psychology, but I believe there must be better ones out there. It manages to bring value from interpreting and contrasting several classical studies (that I've read quite a lot of times by now) and it adds some recent ones just at the end as extensions, so I do believe it would profit from a more thorough update. I would recommend waiting for that version or finding a more enjoyable book on the same topic.
Profile Image for Abner Huertas.
Author 7 books1 follower
October 20, 2015
Comprender a los demás, y a uno mismo, es una ciencia. el estudio del comportamiento humano en sociedad, es interesante; este conocimiento permite desarrollar la empatía.

En este libro se desvelan muchos aspectos interesantes de nuestra forma de ser, desde el porqué juzgamos el resultado de las acciones de los demás, pero queremos ser comprendidos por nuestras intenciones. Los perjuicios, los conceptos que formamos y el porqué a veces gente buena hace cosas malas, son algunos de los temas que se aprende de este libro.
Profile Image for Edilson.
51 reviews3 followers
April 28, 2016
Além da personalidade própria, ego, emoções e modelos mentais que nos fazem ter perspectivas diferentes sobre um mesmo fato, o autor acrescenta a variável relacionada ao contexto no qual estamos inseridos.
O contexto pode influenciar dramaticamente nossa percepção dos fatos e, indo além, também podemos alterar o contexto para influenciar e liderar de maneira adequada e, principalmente, inspiracional.
Excelente leitura.
Profile Image for John Petrocelli.
Author 1 book47 followers
November 25, 2017
Review: This advanced topics read of social psychology is centered around three themes: 1) the principle of situationism; 2) the principle of subjective construal; and 3) the concept of dynamic tension systems. Homage is given to Lewin’s early work throughout. The authors have packed the book throughout with conclusions and implications of empirical social psychological research, containing much of the material of a typical textbook in social psychology. The section on audience-induced consistency and predictability in/of behavior is particularly interesting. Favorite chapters include Chapter 5 (Lay Personology and Lay Social Psychology) and Chapter 6 (The Coherence of Everyday Social Experience). Chapters 4-6 are particularly challenging to personality psychology, in some ways implying that the subfield is a massive fundamental attribution error.

Favorite Quotes: “There is an old joke about the three baseball umpires who were discussing their work. The first says, “I call ’em as I see ’em.” The second says, “I call ’em as they are.” The third says, “They ain’t no thin’ till I call ’em.” Our contention is that, like the second umpire, most people are philosophical realists, with little appreciation of the extent to which their own cognitive processes have contribute to their judgments. Insight into the interpretive nature of judgment such as that shown by the first umpire is rare, let alone the extreme subjectivism of the third umpire.” (p. 12). “Parents are often surprised to hear accounts of their children’s behavior at school, at a party, or in the home of a particular friend. Part of the surprise comes from the parents’ failure to appreciate the impact of various social contexts on children in general. But part of the surprise comes from the fact that whenever they personally observe their child, they themselves are an important element in the child’s situation, producing more uniformity than would otherwise be the case.” (p. 153).
August 31, 2018
its important for me to read because it provides the best information for my growth as a pyschologist
Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews

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