The Science of Seinfeld: Top 7 Life Lessons
7 lessons about everything from the show about nothing.
Posted December 12, 2011
I've long believed that those of us who make a living studying human nature should be as well-versed in popular culture as we are well-read in the scientific literature. Admittedly, this belief stems in part from my desire to rationalize a late-night tendency to catch up on Daily Show episodes rather than grade papers. But there's also a sincere sentiment underlying this claim, as our popular media so clearly shape and reflect many issues integral to the contemporary human experience.
As any student who has taken a class with me can attest, my go-to pop culture reference point for the psychology of daily life has long been Seinfeld. Far from a "show about nothing," as it's sometimes called, Seinfeld was actually an analysis of the ins and outs of daily human interaction—of the mundane social experiences previously not deemed worthy of exploration in front of a mass audience.
So in honor of the publication of my first book later this month (a book that one website has already reviewed as follows: "as much Seinfeld as science, Situations Matter is a great book to start a new year on"), I hereby present to you my Top 7 List of Lessons about Human Nature offered by Seinfeld. And if you're wondering why I chose 7 rather than 10, well, then, you have some re-runs to catch up on:
7. The Ubiquity of Social Norms. Seinfeld was a show about norms, not nothing. At its minutiae-focused best, the series was a 22-minute weekly discourse on the unwritten rules that guide social interaction: After how many dates are you obligated to break off a relationship in person? Which calls are too important to be made via cell phone? What's the appropriate way to dip a chip? And so on.
The influence of social norms on human behavior is pervasive, from governing when we're comfortable speaking up versus remaining silent to shaping our divergent expectations regarding the tendencies of men versus women. As Jerry sarcastically but astutely explains to George—who has just objected to the need to bring wine to a dinner party—"The fabric of society is very complex" (clip below). And Seinfeld attracted an audience by exploring those very complexities.
6. We're Not Really Colorblind. I've blogged before on my own research regarding the tendency of contemporary individuals to try to navigate interracial interactions by claiming that they "don't even see color." Quick summary: These efforts often backfire. And they do so largely because the claim that one doesn't notice race rings disingenuous to those who hear it.
Much like the audience laughter after George spends an entire episode trying to prove to his African-American boss that he has Black friends, but then has the gall to tell someone else, "I don't see people in terms of color." While Seinfeld admittedly focused for the most part on the mundane musings of upper/middle-class Whites, when it did touch on issues related to race and ethnicity, it could be unsparing in its portrayal of this demographic's misguided and embarrassing efforts to handle diverse settings.
5. We're Not Always Too Helpful, Either. As #6 illustrates, Seinfeld's depiction of humanity was frequently a less-than-rosy one. The same can be said of behavioral science research, as with the dozens of studies that have documented bystander apathy during emergencies. Being in a hurry, being distracted, being in the presence of other people whom we assume will take care of the problem... there is a wide range of circumstances that render individuals—yes, you and me included—less likely to get involved in the affairs of others.
So it goes on Seinfeld as well. From George knocking down a grandmother in a walker to escape a house fire (clip below) to Kramer, Jerry, and Elaine trying to force-feed cookies to a man who has passed out, the show's characters repeatedly epitomize humanity's ability to perform below expectation just when the stakes are the highest. While the series finale was panned by many, it was quite fitting that the last plotline of the show would hinge on the quartet's brazen indifference to a carjacking, once again focusing on the darker side of human nature.
4. Our Need to Know Why. We people are curious by nature. We're not content merely observing those around us—we dissect what we see and question why others behave the way they do. In short, we often feel a pressing need to know why?, a desire to ponder the appropriate attribution for the actions we encounter. And so we ask ourselves, for instance, does this saleswoman really think I look good in this shirt? Or does she say that to every potentially paying customer because she works on commission?
Much of the appeal of Seinfeld was that, each week, its characters shared our chronic need to ask why? In fact, they often took this curiosity about the human condition to an extreme, derailing conversations and ruining relationships in the name of getting to the bottom of the mundane social mysteries in their midst. As when Jerry spends an entire episode racking his brain trying to figure out why his otherwise dessert-receptive girlfriend, Audrey, wouldn't so much as sample the best apple pie in town on their previous date. Of course, as he learns first (ahem) hand, sometimes such questions are better left unanswered (clip below):
3. Love can be More Mundane than Sublime. We often think of love in mystical terms. We romanticize about soulmates or deem attraction too magical for rational analysis. This sacred view of love was hardly de rigeur on Seinfeld, though. How could it be, with many of the characters changing dating partners only slightly less frequently than they did wardrobe?
Yes, the show's take on intimate relationships was cynical. But it also managed to capture the truism that mundane aspects of daily circumstance play a much greater role in attraction than we give them credit for. Like similarity (Jerry falls for a female version of himself). And familiarity (George grows on a date like an annoying commercial jingle). And the allure of forbidden love (George pretends to be the "bad boy"). Romantic? No. Faithful to the context-dependence of real-life attraction? Yeah, pretty much.
2. Who You are Shapes Who I am. Even our most intimate of thoughts about who we are—our personal identities—depend on context. Sure, the self-help guru tells us to get in touch with our "inner self," but the reality is that who we think we are usually depends on who we're with. Ask a person to describe him or herself and the answer you get depends on a range of mundane factors like where they are, what mood they're in, and who's listening in on their response.
Seinfeld got this. A self-help show it most certainly was not, and it managed to convey the idea that we see ourselves differently when we're with different people. For evidence, look no further than George's famous "worlds colliding" monologue, in which he cites the different person he feels himself to be when with his buddies versus with his girlfriend (clip below).
1. Situations Matter. Simply put, time and time again, Seinfeld captured the conclusion that human nature is context-dependent. That how we think, feel, and act—indeed, who we are as people—varies by situation. And then it proceeded to squeeze every last bit of analysis and humor out of those situations.
In the opening chapter of my book, I argue that in daily life we tend to see other people the same way we watch sitcoms, expecting to encounter familiar characters who act the same from episode to episode. Because when you think about it, although we call these shows "situation comedies," they depend on stable personalities. Most of the time, Seinfeld was no different. But it was also the rare show self-referential enough to pull off a joke suggesting that the eccentric characters we had come to know were actually just products of their immediate environments—namely, that Jerry and Kramer switching apartments would also lead them to switch behavioral tendencies (clip below). OK, so the true impact of situations on human nature may not be quite so drastic (or amusing), but a better advertisement for the power of context is hard to imagine.
So there you have it. Seinfeld as behavioral science. I'm telling you: the study of human nature depends on both scientific method and sitcom. At least, that's my argument when the IRS comes calling to ask why I claimed Curb Your Enthusiasm DVDs as a tax-deductible business expense.
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: