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Context, Your Majesty

Roy Bendor Cohen
December 21, 2022

If there’s one thing I learned while earning my degree in Cognitive Psychology, it’s that context matters. It matters so much because it always exists.

This means that there is no such thing as a universal behavior because behavior depends on context. Surely, patterns do exist. But if you don’t pay attention to the surrounding conditions, then those patterns could disappear, or even worse, reverse!

Let’s start with some context to see how pervasive and layered it can be.  

On Personality

In their book The Person and the Situation, Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett claim that the reason we perceive people’s personality as consistent is because we meet them in the same context (at the office, family events, etc.). We rarely meet people outside the realms in which we expect to see them, and if/when we do, we are often surprised by their behaviors or actions.

On Situations

Furthermore, people interpret any given situation within its context. For example, bystanders will recall whether they saw someone holding a hair-dryer or a gun based on the environment, who the person is, past experiences, motivation, emotion, etc.

On Signals

The meaning of symbols, gestures, words or any other signal is, by definition, defined by its context. The same stimulus can be interpreted completely differently because of this.

To illustrate, read this:

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Chances are you read it as, “THE CAT”. You probably didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the second letter of both words is the exact same because of the surrounding letters (context). This allowed you to read the letter as an “H” in “THE” but as an “A” in “CAT.”

If we apply this to a broader scope, we can understand how people react to very subtle contextual cues, and their behavior could change dramatically based on those cues.

Why Is Context So Important?

If you try to understand your customer, user or employee while ignoring context, then you’ll probably miss the point.

To illustrate, imagine that you’re a restaurant owner and you’re trying to predict a customer’s preferred dish. How would you do it?

Well, you’d probably start by gathering data on her behavior. But it is important not to overlook all the surrounding factors that will influence her preference. For example, it’s useful to ask and answer questions like:

  • Who is she eating with? Is she by herself? Is it a business lunch? Is she with her family or a friend?
  • Is she ordering take-out or dining in?
  • Is it a weekend or a week day?
  • What time of the day is it?
  • What’s the weather like?

In essence, trying to understand behavior without considering context is like writing a movie review without having watched the ending.

Categories of Context

To be able to assess behaviors, pay attention to these categories of context:

  1. Physical Context - Where is this happening? (Referring to the concrete environment).
  2. Cultural Context - What are the social norms of the situation? (The abstract considerations on where something takes place).
  3. Social-Psychological Context - Who are the people in the interaction? What are their roles? Their status? What is the nature of the relationship?
  4. Temporal Context - What is the time of the day/week/year? (This also refers to the series of events that occured before the situation).

Let’s look at one more popular experiment to see how this plays out.

The Good Samaritan Experiment

In 1973, social psychologists Darley & Batson conducted a famous study known as the Good Samaritan.

They recruited seminary students who were told that they were participating in a study on religious education. Their assignment was to give a speech on the parable of the Good Samaritan in a different building. Some students were told that they have a few minutes before the talk starts, and others were told that they were already late.

On the way, they encountered a man asking for help. Darley & Batson measured how many students stopped to offer aid. Surprisingly, only 10% stopped in the "high hurry" condition took the time to help as compared to 63% in the "low hurry" category.

The conclusion was that people in a hurry will be less likely to offer aid than others. Neither the personality test nor their motivation behind being a seminary student were correlated with likelihood of offering help.

This experiment illuminates how much context really matters in guiding humans’ decisions, behaviors and actions.  

Key Takeaways

Context shapes and informs every aspect of life, from business to personal relationships. This fact makes it useful to remember that:

  • It is dangerous to draw conclusions about a specific situation based on literature review and previous research alone without critically looking at the situation within its context. Utilizing previous research is a good start, but conducting experiments in context is crucial.
  • When trying to understand a situation, make sure you focus on contextual, often overlooked, factors. These are subtle cues that can greatly impact conclusions.
  • Context is crucial to understand behavior.
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