Editor’s Note: Today, January 17, Jeremy’s blog, The Psychology of Wellbeing, is a listed stop on the online book tour (cool idea) for the book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, by Sam Sommers. Jeremy had already published one article in his blog about the book last October, with the intriguing title, Why Men are Better than Women at Math. But he liked it so much that he signed up to write another article so that he could join the online book tour. We are running that article here simultaneously.
The theme of Situations Matter is the importance of context in determining our beliefs and behaviors.I am inspired to write this article by a small scrap of paper with “Face, Butt, Wit” written on it. It’s an example of a response that Sommers got from one of his undergraduate psychology students from Tufts university when he asked them what they are attracted to in a potential romantic partner. While the responses varied, there were some common themes. Most of the answers captured either a physical characteristic, such as face, butt, legs, or fitness, or a personality trait, such as humor, wit, confidence, or intelligence. Sommers reminds us that who we actually end up with probably has far more to do with situational factors than it does with appearance and personality. For example, one research study of a new residential community found that friendships formed based on how closely people lived to one another. “For every meager nineteen feet of apartment floor plan that separated two Westgate neighbors,” Sommers said, “their chances of developing a close friendship were cut by nearly half.”
Another study showed that marriages were also fueled by the proximity of the pair. In Ohio, for examples, 1/3 of married couples lived within 5 blocks of each other when they met. It may not be as romantic as going on an around-the-world quest to find your soul mate (see Around the World in 80 Dates by Jennifer Cox, and while you’re at it read How the World Makes Love: . . . And What It Taught a Jilted Groom by the wonderful Franz Wisner), but the good news is your future partner is probably regularly shopping in the same supermarket you do.This may not sound too surprising. I mean, there may be some amazing potential partners in other parts of the world that you will never have the chance to meet and eventually marry. But Sommers shows that this is more than just the convenience of proximity. He also shared research showing that familiarity breeds attraction. Having more incidental contact with someone leads to greater attraction, even between strangers.
Reading Sommers’ book, I can’t help but think about how I met my own wife. We met on match.com, and presumably we both had our profiles built and our own list of “Face, Butt, Wit” characteristics that we were looking for in a partner. But my wife Catherine will tell you there were strong situational forces at play.
She was about to give up and went online to cancel her match.com membership. But she decided to do one last search for eligible men around her age within a one mile radius of her house. A picture of me popped up wearing an Alpaca wool sweater that was identical to a sweater that Catherine’s brother had brought her from a trip to South America. Catherine sent me a note, “Nice sweater, how was Bolivia?”I could say, “and the rest was history” but even that would not cover how we came together as a couple. It was not love at first sight. But we met and found that we both loved surfing and so we started spending time together and the attraction grew and grew.
Surfing with a potential partner is a great way to heighten romantic feelings. Sommers cites research showing that people are more attracted to others when they are in a high adrenaline situation, such as on a high narrow bridge. So Catherine and I fell in love riding the waves on our favorite beach in Long Island and sharing our love of travel with surf trips to Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Fiji and South Africa.
So if you are looking for love, my advice is to forget about “face, butt, wit.” Crumple up your list and throw it away. Instead, start paying attention to the situations that are bringing interesting people in and out of your life and the situations that will help the seeds of love to blossom and grow.
References and recommended reading:
Sommers, S. (2011). Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. Riverhead Hardcover.
Cox, J. (2005). Around the World in 80 Dates: What if Mr. Right Isn’t Mr. Right Here, A True Story. Gallery Books.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.
In a supermarket line courtesy of Beppie K
Surfing together courtesy of Yoshihiro Taguchi
Thanks for sharing your personal love match, Jeremy. And I bet you have surfed in Vallarta or Sayulita, too! Love the article. And two of my best friends also scored on Match.com. I am so happy for you.
Love it! I met my husband in university residence (talk about proximity!) and always wondered how adults out of such convenient contexts met their life partners. It is so often a second-degree connection (friend of a friend) or else they just happen to see each other and start talking – proximity seems to rule in both situations!
And yet another book to add to my online wish list. Really… 🙂
Jeremy, your article hits on an important idea that has been largely ignored in positive psychology: context matters. Personal well-being is often contingent on environmental factors, just like the search for a soulmate or bff is typically influence by situational factors (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button illustrates this nicely).
I enjoyed the read, and the thoughts about the situations in life that brought me and my wife together (teacher credentialing program and a pre-thanksgiving dinner walk) and the ones that brought me and my best friends together (marching band and a camcorder).
I forgot to mention: Thank you for putting this book on my radar: I will definitely read it. It looks like it will deal with similar ideas to those addressed in both “Outliers” and “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.
Thanks Judy! Great surfing in Punta Mita and Sayulita. Catherine and I have been to both several times!
Thank you Kevin, it sounds like you have some interesting stories of your own!
You had me at “Butt.”
Way to cut through the clutter. More importantly, way to bring important thinking to the us in your usual direct and informative way. Now, I have to go ask my wife why she just bought a surf board.
Jeremy – amazing! I wasn’t aware until I read your article that my first husband lived very close but that’s not how I met him – it was through a friend who lived much further away. And the same with my now husband. I met him via a friend who lives much more than a five blocks away, only to learn my now husband lived very close to me.
Your last sentence is fabulous: “forget about “face, butt, wit.” Crumple up your list and throw it away. Instead, start paying attention to the situations that are bringing interesting people in and out of your life and the situations that will help the seeds of love to blossom and grow”.