12/30/2011 10:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What You Don't Know About People

You've been lied to. Or, at the very least, misled. It's simply not true that everything you need to know about life you learned in Kindergarten.

Because I remember kindergarten. And as much as I loved Mrs. Peerless's class, even after completing her rigorous academic curriculum, the 5-year-old me still thought of the other people in my social universe in terms of stable, defining characteristics: Michael was the smart kid. Lauren the lousy listener. Katie was the nice girl who always shared snack. Kevin was the kid who turned his arts supplies into snack.

As adults we keep this up, thinking of those around us as more or less predictable personalities. But you don't know people as well as you think you do. How else to explain the ubiquitous yet empty mid-scandal assurance that so-and-so couldn't have done the deed in question because he just isn't capable of it? Or the double-take we do upon seeing the supremely accomplished surgeon exhibiting supreme incompetence when it comes to, say, parallel parking?

As I argue in my new book out yesterday (12/29), when our worldview remains stuck within the confines of personality type, we never grasp the true nature of human nature. We fail to appreciate the ways in which ordinary situations-like where you are or who you're with-transform what we think, how we act, and who we really are.

What's so important about the power of context? Well, for starters, when you overlook it, getting what you want in life becomes that much harder.

Your negotiation with the airline customer service rep goes nowhere fast. Because when you view the person behind the desk as an intractable bully giving you a hard time just because her uniform and nametag allow her to, all you wind up with is frustration. And then she digs in even deeper.

Instead of yelling and stomping off-even when yelling and stomping off are justifiable-force yourself to take a step back. Analyze the situation objectively. This isn't the person who sent your luggage to St. Paul instead of St. Louis. She's just following procedure. Stay calm and suss out the details-and loopholes-of that procedure, and you're much more likely to get the concession you're looking for.

Paying attention to context turns your assumptions about the social universe upside-down. So you're a free-thinker who does what's right, not what's popular? Of course you are. But that's what everyone says. Actually, it's surprisingly easy to be swayed by crowds unless you recognize and avoid the situations that promote a herd mentality.

Men are from Mars and women from Venus? Not so fast. Yes, biological explanations exist for sex differences in aggression, sense of direction, and who we're willing to mate with. But many of these supposedly fixed (and interplanetary) differences between men and women shrink or even disappear with just the tiniest of tweaks to context.

Even our most intimate of thoughts and instincts are shaped by situations. Take love. Many of us pine for Mr. or Mrs. Right. Or pay dating websites to find "just my type." But falling in love is also all about context. Like proximity: just sitting near someone in a lecture hall makes students more attracted to certain classmates. And arousal: don't approach that possibly special someone at the office; ask him out at the gym while he's on the elliptical. The science says you'll get a better reaction that way.

Situations Matter. Everywhere and all the time. It's the central lesson (and title) of my new book, and one that will change the way you see the world around you. And it's a lesson that just might turn you into a more effective person, whether you're trying to negotiate with customer service, talk your boss into a raise, find love, or, yes, even help poor Kevin kick that nasty paste-eating habit.

Like this post? Interested in the book? Then check out the website for "Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World" (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below: