Social Psychology and Marketing: What I Learned From Situations Matter

As an English dual major and self-proclaimed bookworm, I do my best to read as much as I can in my spare time. I recently stumbled upon Situations Matter by Sam Sommers**. The vibe is very similar to another of my favorite nonfiction writers, Malcolm Gladwell. Like Gladwell, Sommers covers social psychology phenomena in a very relevant and entertaining manner perfect for introductory readers.  Sommers, however, uses a lot more Seinfeld examples. Count me in!

Here’s a nifty youtube book preview (isn’t it wild that people are doing that?).

One of my favorite things about reading this book is that it’s relevant to just about any social interaction from job interviews (yes please!) to first dates to interacting with people over the internet. It’s a real writer who can sum up his argument in two words, but in this case it’s “situations matter”.  Context plays a much bigger part in social interactions than one might expect. As a predictor of behavior, it can even outrank personality as a predictor of behavior.  Since I’m interested in marketing, I decided to take some of the facts that surprised me in the book and translate them into marketing applications.

People don’t know why they do what they do

One of the backbones of getting to know the customer is asking them questions. While this type of research is certainly helpful in getting to know who your audience is (the personality), the science says that it’s an unreliable when accounting for motivations for action (context-driven behavior).

Take one study Sommers sites in his chapter, appropriately named “You’re Not The Person You Thought You Were”.  The researchers asked subjects to compare four samples of nylon stockings and pick the best product. The results were a left-to-right progression, with the first one on the left having four times less than the winner on the far right.

Social Psychology: The Science of Panty Hose

The subjects gave all sorts of reasons why the one on the right was superior. Better sheen. Quality knit. But the catch? All the samples were identical.  The real reason people bought the first product was the order. The desire not to settle for the first offer, but shop around.  Yet, when asked, they cited all sorts of reasons that influenced their behavior, even though they were not true. Context plays a huge role in purchaser decisions and is not always recognized by the people making them.

To understand your audience, know their situation (not just their profiles)

For flight attendants, fly coach. For customer service reps, call customer service. This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s nice when common sense is enforced by science. And the science in this book shows that context dramatically influences behavior.

With buyer profiles, demographics on your audience and interviews learning the personality of buyers, it’s easy to forget about the actual experience side. Yet the takeaway from this book states that situation is just as, if not more, important for predicting behavior than the inherent characteristics of the individual. For marketers, try being the customer.  Call customer service, fill out an order form, play on the software, whatever. Even if you’re not your a member of your own target audience, just understanding the situation your customer is in can help you make their experience more rewarding.


In the final pages of his book, Sommers explains that “the objective of this book has been to shake up your assumptions”. If nothing else, I know that this book will encourage me to challenge my own logic concerning everyday phenomena to acknowledge the power of the situation. I have a feeling that it will do much more though…stay tuned on Friday of this week to find out why!

**Full Disclosure: Sam Sommers is one of my previous professors at Tufts University. I enjoyed his class, so when his book came out, I was excited to read it. I’m not a student of his anymore, so blogging about his book doesn’t affect my GPA.

Thanks for reading! Lindsey Kirchoff

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