Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

What Tiger Teaches Us

Lessons from Tiger's public free-fall.

Few public figures in recent memory have fallen as far as fast as Tiger Woods. Indeed, we're just one or two juicy steroids insinuations away from hitting rock bottom on his downward trajectory. Oh, wait. Never mind.

Of course, falling so far requires one to first have scaled the highest of heights. But Tiger's athletic and business accomplishments are not the only reasons this story continues to have legs. Its momentum owes just as much to the fact that his alleged behaviors seem so very much at odds with the type of person we believed Tiger to be.

Tiger Woods is calm. In control. Remarkably self-disciplined. Those are the traits the average American would have used to describe him three weeks ago. We thought we knew who Tiger was, and the reckless actions we hear about now couldn't be further removed from that impression.

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So there are plenty of potential lessons to be learned from Tiger's fall. Lessons regarding the potential for fame, success, a sheltered upbringing, and–let's face it–power to skew one's sense of propriety and risk. Lessons regarding the inevitable trade-off between public acclaim and personal privacy. Lessons involving the perils of hero worship.

In terms of more daily life, Tiger's troubles also remind us of the dangers of thinking that we know someone based on highly limited exposures. Again, what drives much of our interest in this story is the incredible juxtaposition between the man Tiger seemed to be and the behaviors he apparently engaged in. But think about it: how foolish was it for any of us to think we knew who Tiger was based on sterile press conference soundbites and scripted product endorsements?

We do this all the time, observing snippets of behavior under controlled circumstances and then jumping to conclusions about a person's more stable disposition. Like the patient surprised to see his well-regarded, highly-trained physician struggling with a rudimentary, but non-medical task like parallel parking. Or the audience member confused by her favorite thespian's inability to carry on impromptu small talk.

It's all part of our love affair with personality. The world seems like a less threatening, more predictable place when we can rest assured that the behaviors we observe reflect some sort of stable predisposition lurking beneath. So we read too much into the few glimpses of behavior that we do observe, and we quickly form impressions about "the type of person" someone therefore must be.

What Tiger has to teach us is that we're too quick to assume that the person we see in one situation is the same person who exists in all other situations.

Like how we find it jarring to see our buttoned-down attorney enjoying a carefree night out on the town.

Or how we're caught off guard by the politician who moralizes publicly, but scandalizes privately.

Why we're consistently shocked to learn what those around us are truly capable of.

Or why we're actually surprised to find out that actors are nothing like the characters they play (and why some fans apparently send letters to actors who portray TV doctors asking for medical advice).

I encounter a more mundane variation on this theme, though in my case with students. A few months ago on a Thursday afternoon, a soon-to-graduate senior sat in my office and asked me questions about his final paper. Once we finished that conversation, he shifted to small talk, asking what I had planned for the weekend ahead. I suggested that I had to get through Friday first, but that nothing too exciting was on my weekend calendar.

He responded by suggesting that back in the day, my weekends must have been more interesting and probably stretched as early as Thursday nights. I assured him that wasn't the case, but he pressed on: "It seems like you would've been a fun guy back in college." I took it as an effort at flattery combined with a misguided attempt to extrapolate my classroom demeanor to other aspects of my life. When I asked what made him think this, he responded that he thought I was accessible and entertaining when lecturing. And so, he assumed, he'd probably see me the same way in other contexts.

But he wouldn't, I assure you. Unless, that is, his idea of "fun guy in college" includes guiding the Nintendo Red Wings through the entirety of a 4-round, best-of-7 Stanley Cup run on the same night as a college-wide semiformal.  For the record, I dispatched of Montreal in 5 games in the Finals.

Indeed, my interactions today with the students I teach provide a consistent reminder of the oft-overlooked power of situations to shape how we see the world around us. I'm quite sure that some of the very undergrads who now ask me to serve as their advisor or tell me how much they're enjoying my class wouldn't have given me the proverbial time of day when I was in college. And that's fine–the characteristics we prefer in a teacher should be different than those we seek in friends. But we often fail to realize this, with my students instead assuming that who they like in the classroom is also who they'd like outside of class.

And so it goes with Tiger.

He's just one more reminder that the politicians, athletes, entertainers, and other figures we're introduced to in the public domain are not people "we know." We have a hard enough time fully appreciating the broad range of capacities possessed by the people who are actually parts of our own lives.  So why would be any more accurate when making similar judgments of strangers from afar?

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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