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.'