The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Sam Sommers’

Sam Sommers on “Empirical Perspectives on Jury Diversity”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 28, 2010

Tufts Psychology Professor Sam Sommers speaks at Harvard Law School about his research on the interaction between the legal system and the psychology of race, stereotyping, and diversity.

Watch the video here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Sam Sommers at Harvard Law School” or click here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Law, Legal Theory, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Sam Sommers at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 5, 2010

Today the HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) is hosting a talk by Tufts psychology professor Sam Sommers entitled “Empirical Perspectives on Jury Diversity.”

Professor Sommers has extensively studied the interaction between the legal system and the psychology of race, stereotyping, and diversity and has served as an expert witness on racial bias and eyewitness testimony in a number of trials.

Professor Sommers will be speaking in Hauser 102. Free bagels will be provided!  For more information, e-mail

You can review a list of Situationist posts discussing Professor Sommers’s work by clicking here.

Posted in Implicit Associations, Law, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

“Us” and “Them”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 21, 2008

Us versus them t-shirtSam Sommers wrote a terrific situationist post, titled “The Power of Us,” on the Psychology Today blog.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Customers who insist on paying with a personal check at the grocery store. Waitresses who don’t write down your order. People who sit right in front of you at the movies when there are other free seats in their row. . . . Drivers who insist on backing into spaces in wide-open parking lots. Squirrels.

All of the above would make my list of Top 10 pet peeves. But at the top, without question, would have to be people who charge into elevators, head down, without waiting to see if anyone is getting off. Same with subway cars, for that matter. It’s just common courtesy, people. Which is what made the following interaction such a dissonance-inducing moment for me.

I was at the doctor’s office for a regular appointment and had to head up to the 7th floor. As the elevator doors opened and I began to exit, a middle-aged gentleman barreled in a clear hurry, like a Muscovite rushing into a bread store in the perestroika 1990s. I literally turned sideways to avoid a collision, feeling a bit like a torero sans cape. Clearly, this guy was worthy of Public Enemy #1 status.

But then a funny thing happened. He took a look at me, made a sudden U-turn, and followed me out of the elevator, all the while wheeling behind him his cart with several boxes on it. He pointed at my chest and asked, “did you go to school there?” Realizing that he was referring to the college name emblazoned on my t-shirt, I answered that, yes, indeed, this was my alma mater. “Me too,” he exclaimed. “What year did you graduate?”

And so began a 10-minute conversation that I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be having, what with my own dispositional aversion to small talk with strangers combined with the desire to check in on time for my appointment. But my fellow alum proved himself to be a pleasant enough fellow. And it’s always enjoyable to reminisce about familiar people and places from your past, especially when you went to a small school that doesn’t afford such opportunities that often. So we parted ways and I continued on to my doctor’s office in relatively good spirits.

And this is when it hit me–I had mentally pardoned my newfound friend from his otherwise capital offense. Now, I’m not saying I was wrong to do this. Why go around life bearing resentments and grudges against strangers for transgressions that are, objectively speaking, trivial? But were not for the common link established by my t-shirt, I never would have left this interaction in a positive mood, much less a somewhat favorable impression of this guy.

That’s the power of “us.” Sharing group membership with other people has dramatic effects on how we see and interact with them. Whether it’s a common alma mater or favorite sports team, whether it’s a more central aspect of identity such as race or religion, we’re more generous in our perceptions of fellow members of our own ingroups.

As written about by persuasively by social psychologist Marilynn Brewer, some of the disparities and prejudices that persist in our society likely have just as much to do with ingroup favoritism as they do outgroup derogation or dislike. Distinguishing between these different causes of intergroup disparity is clearly important, especially for efforts to remedy differential outcomes in any domain.

At the same time, from a practical perspective, differential outcomes are differential outcomes. It matters little to the job applicant who is passed over for a position whether the job went to someone else because of ingroup favoritism towards the competition or because of outgroup prejudice directed towards her. It is of little solace to the Black defendant hit with felony charges for a borderline offense that the relative leniency shown towards a comparable White defendant resulted from the desire to “give a good kid a second chance” as opposed to any type of disparity based on racial animus. In this sense, the power of us can be just as dangerous as the dislike of them. . . .

. . . .

I’d maintain that one of the unsung obstacles faced by many minority and female professionals is that they’re simply less likely to benefit from such “usness,” in terms of hiring as well as promotion decisions. The White male entering the workplace simply has a greater chance of effortless bonding with his White male colleagues and superiors, whether over past affiliations or shared cultural interests. It’s an often overlooked benefit of majority group membership that can be hard to quantify.

Because usness is powerful. It leads us to bond quickly with some people, but not others. It prompts us to be far less stingy with the benefit of the doubt for similar individuals. And it can even get you off the hook when you violate cardinal rules of elevator etiquette, and I must tell you, that’s no small feat.

* * *

To read his entire post (with links and a postscript) including a section examining the low number of African American coaches in Division I football, click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see”March Madness,” Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” “The Origins of Sports Team Fandom,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” and “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II.”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

A Situationist Considers the Implications of Simpson Sentencing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 18, 2008

O.J. SimpsonSam Sommers continues to write super situationist posts over on the Psychology Today blog.  Here are excerpts from his recent post, titled “Whither O.J.?,” offering his reflections on reactions to the O.J. Simpson trials.

* * *

Today’s the day that O.J. Simpson finds out his prison sentence for his recent convictions for kidnapping, armed robbery, and assault. In many respects, it will be the final chapter in a sociolegal drama that has been going on for close to 15 years now, dating back to his criminal trial for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.

There is many a question this saga might inspire in the curious behavioral scientist: How much of a role did Simpson’s past play in his current treatment by a Nevada jury and sentencing judge? How are those Americans who celebrated Simpson’s acquittal in 1995 reacting to his recent legal problems? . . . And so on.

To me, though, the issue that has always intrigued me the most about the Simpson matter is this: there is no easier way to stir up agitation among White people than to simply utter his name.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to get riled up about when it comes to O.J. I was privy to different and additional information than were the jurors in his trial, but there is little doubt in my mind that he committed the homicides in question. And it’s easy to see how much of the general public would look scornfully upon a man whom they believed to have been the perpetrator of such crimes. Even more so given that he escaped prison time for their commission.

For that matter, even were you to be one who reserves judgment on Simpson’s culpability for the murders (or think that he was flat-out innocent), there’s still ample reason to find him reprehensible. There’s no doubt that he was a perpetrator of domestic assault, and that’s surely sufficient grounds for harboring antipathy towards him.

That said, I’d still argue that the response of much of White America to Simpson has been, and continues to be disproportionate. Yes, I, too, believe that he is a murderer who ultimately got away with his crime. But where’s the comparable outrage at the acquittal of Robert Blake? Or the jury that failed to convict Phil Spector in his first trial?

OK, so the circumstances aren’t identical in any of these cases–they never are when such comparisons are needed (which is why studying issues like legal decision-making using experimental methodology can be so important, but that’s a topic for another entry). But in each case, we’re talking about past-their-prime B-list celebrities who owe a great deal of their continued freedom to the money that allowed them to hire in-their-prime A-list attorneys.

The difference is that Simpson has come to stand for something more. For much of White America, Simpson’s acquittal at the hands of a predominantly-Black jury has come to stand as the prototypical example of “reverse racism” in the modern era. The images of African-Americans celebrating his acquittal serve to epitomize for many Whites all that they believe has gone awry with race relations in this country.

Perceptions of the O.J. trial–or, perhaps more accurately, perceptions of how Black America perceived the trial–even bubbled to the surface as a litmus test for some White voters during the Democratic primaries in Iowa. Just a few months later, Barack Obama went out of his way to assert his own belief in Simpson’s guilt, and his own displeasure with how many Blacks reacted to the acquittal.

The rest of Obama’s discussion of this matter is similarly revealing. He puts forth a hypothesis that I’ve often offered myself in many a conversation–of varieties both watercooler and academic–concerning the trial: many who celebrated Simpson’s acquittal didn’t necessarily believe that he was innocent. Much of their celebration came from the realization that for many years only rich, White guys were able to climb off the hook for crimes they had committed. Now a rich, Black guy was able to do the same.

Because when you think about it, if you put the media circus aside, Simpson’s acquittal owed far more to his wealth than his race. . . .

Yet there he remains, Public Enemy #1, O. J. Simpson. Worthy of our denunciation? Sure. Perpetrator of acts that merit contempt? Absolutely. But how did he ascend so quickly to the top of this mountain of notoriety, climbing over so many miscreants and barbarians to get there? Because he became the symbol of racial discontent for much of White America; he grew to represent something far bigger than the sum of his personality or the specifics of his actions. Ask yourself where the comparable outrage is for the others who have gotten away with murder over the years. Ask yourself why there’s no easier way to get White people seeing red than simply mentioning his name.

* * *

To read his entire post (with links), click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “The Racial Situation of Criminal Juries and the Consequences,” “The Legal Situation of Race Equality – Abstract,” and “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.”

Posted in Law, Life | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

The Situational Power of Anonymity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 2, 2008

Sam Sommers has another first-rate situationist post, titled “Aggressive Drivers Anonymous” over on the Psychology Today Blog.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Last week I was driving my daughters to a birthday party when I pulled over at an intersection to let a fire engine through. Naturally, one driver, in a green Nissan, decided to use the speeding truck as his personal blocking back, tailing close behind and passing those of us who had pulled to the side. He made just enough progress before getting to the stoplight that I found myself totally cut off once the truck passed, forced to sit there and wait through yet another cycle of the light. I could have just let the transgression go, of course, but I felt an uncontrollable urge to honk my horn at Green Nissan as we waited at the red light.

In fact, I didn’t just give a quick honk of irritation. No, I gave him two distinct honks—the first a brief one to announce my presence with authority, the second a longer, drawn-out one to remind Green Nissan, as he waited at the light, that 1) he did something wrong, 2) I know he did something wrong, and 3) I know that he knows he did something wrong.

* * *

. . . [D]istracted, it took me a few minutes to realize that, two miles later, I was still right behind Green Nissan. And I had made a few turns since the fire truck went by. I started to get the sinking sensation that we might be headed to the same destination, a hypothesis further supported by the sight of a car seat in the back of his car as well.

Why this gave me an uneasy feeling, I cannot pinpoint precisely, as there were multiple factors at play. But of one thing I’m quite sure—the freedom I felt to honk my horn aggressively at Green Nissan from my safe, anonymous seat behind the windshield quickly dissipated at the mere thought of having a face-to-face encounter with him in an open parking lot.

Was I afraid of an actual physical confrontation? Not really. . . .

More likely, I was thinking about the fact that I really don’t enjoy confrontations of any type, my zealous horn-honking notwithstanding. Moreover, I don’t relish being thought of as a jerk, and it was beginning to dawn on me that this was probably precisely what Green Nissan thought of me. Maybe I hadn’t been a jerk per se, but had I overreacted at least a tad? Sure. And while all these thoughts were running through in my head, I found myself following Green Nissan through yet another pair of turns, one left, one right. I slumped a bit further down in my seat as I drove on.

* * *

The experience just served to crystallize for me how powerful it is to feel anonymous in a situation, particularly when it comes to the manifestation of aggression. As [Situationist contributor] Phil Zimbardo has written, feeling anonymous and deindividuated leads college students to administer greater levels of shocks to fellow student in laboratory studies. Along similar, albeit graver lines, perpetrators of violence, whether vigilante or state-sponsored in origin, often disguise themselves in hoods, masks, or make-up. And it’s no coincidence that the harshest, most aggressive verbal swipes taken in cyberspace usually come from anonymous sources as well.

Research even speaks directly to my very experiences on the road last week, illustrating that feelings of anonymity lead to increases in aggressive driving. In retrospect, that’s exactly how I felt behind the wheel when Green Nissan cut me off: anonymous. I knew he could catch a glimpse of me if he turned to look, but I assumed we were heading in different directions and I was never going to see him again. That liberated me to act in ways I’d never dream of in face-to-face interaction.

* * *

. . . . Just yet another demonstration of the power of subtle situational factors: It’s amazing how something as simple as sitting behind the wheel of a car can be enough to lead to such transformations in identity and behavior.

* * *

To read his entire post (with links), click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho,” “The Devil You Know . . . ,” “The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing,” “Alone Together – The Commuter’s Situation,” and “Internet Disinhibition.”

Posted in Conflict, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Perceptions of Racial Divide

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 30, 2008

Sam Sommers has another terrific post (this one titled “Obama and the Racial Divide”) on the Psychology Today blog. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

[T]he Times poll indicates that a majority of White and Black Americans think progress towards racial equality is being made, but only Whites seem to be getting more optimistic over time regarding the general state of race relations. Why is this? Well, in large part it seems to be the case that Whites and Blacks use different reference points in answering these questions.

In a series of research studies, Yale social psychologist Richard Eibach has observed the comparable result that White Americans typically perceive more progress towards racial equality than do Blacks. One reason for this racial gulf is that Whites typically answer the type of question found in the Times poll by comparing the present to the past, whereas Blacks tend to answer it by comparing the present to the racial ideals they envision for the future.

In other words, when you ask White Americans about race relations in this country, on average they tend to respond by thinking, well, things are certainly better now than they used to be, so I’ll say we’re doing OK. Blacks, on the other hand, are more likely to think about their personal experiences with prejudice or current racial disparities in important outcomes like health, income, or employment. Accordingly, Blacks more typically think, things still aren’t as good as they could or should be, so we’re not doing so great.

* * *

So some of this racial disparity reflects different reference points used by Whites and Blacks in answering these questions. Anytime you ask someone for a global assessment of anything—whether marital happiness, job satisfaction, or the state of the economy—the reference point they choose to use is hugely important in determining the answer they give. . . .

But there also remains a more pessimistic interpretation of this racial divergence in opinions. Some of it clearly has to do with self-interest. In another set of studies, Eibach concludes that many White Americans view gains in racial equality as personal losses, whereas Black Americans see them as personal gains. Of course, it’s hard to get people to support movements that they see as working against their self-interests, suggesting that this gulf between Whites and Blacks can’t be bridged completely by getting everyone to focus on the same point of reference.

* * *

To read the entire piece, click here.

For a sample of previous posts examining situational elements of voting or, specifically, the 2008 presidential election, see ” On Being a Mindful Voter,” Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”

Posted in Blogroll, Politics, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Preoperative Care

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 17, 2008

Sam Sommers, a social psychologist at Tufts University, has a nice post over on Psych Today on the elusive power of daily situations (and we appreciate his nice words!). His post delves into his situation while he was in pre-op. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

I have to admit, by this point I am getting a bit nervous. Mind you, everyone’s just doing their jobs, and doing so in a courteous manner at that. The nurse was friendly and reassuring; the anaesthesia folks spoke in terms that were clear and accessible to a layperson. But various aspects of this situation now have me feeling pretty uncomfortable and even a bit spooked. I’m in an unfamiliar place, I’m making decisions about medical issues about which I know very little in consultation with people I’ve never met before, and did I mention that I’m still naked under an uncomfortable gown whose status remains anything but secure?

My guess is these are aspects of this situation that the physicians and nurses with whom I was interacting paid no attention. But to me, the room, my dress, the sudden appearance of an anesthesiologist who wants to discuss the small risk of permanent nerve damage three seconds after introducing himself and shaking my splint… this is what transformed my disposition from blasé to anxious.

A few days after the procedure, I recounted my experience to my father-in-law, a neurologist who practices in Boston and teaches at Harvard. He told me that whenever he’s asked to give a talk to graduating medical students or new residents, he always tells them that one of the best things that can happen to them professionally is to get sick. Not a serious illness, of course, but enough to get them struggling to book a timely appointment, wrestling with the insurance company, sitting too long in waiting rooms, and just generally getting a refresher on what being a patient is all about.

I think it’s great advice, and certainly not just for health care professionals. It’s useful for those of us who work as professors to once again experience what it’s like to be a student in a lecture course. For psychologists to experience an hour as a patient. For the customer service representative to spend 30 minutes on hold. Without such experiences, or at the very least imagining such experiences, it’s far too easy to lose sight of the situational factors that influence the people with whom we interact during the course of doing our jobs.

As we know from decades of research in social psychology, many of us are far too inattentive to the power of the situation in our daily interactions. (For a great blog that explores the scope and implications of this tendency as it applies to varied domains such as law, politics, business, and more, check out The Situationist.) And it seems as if this tendency is only magnified when we operate within the comfortable confines of our own professional worlds.

* * *

For the rest of the post, click here. For some related Situationist posts, see “The Racial Situation of Pain Relief,” “Unlevel Playing Fields: From Baseball Diamonds to Emergency Rooms,” and “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi.”

Posted in Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

%d bloggers like this: