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The Context Effect


Explanations > Preferences > The Context Effect

Inference and context | Decision and context | So what?


We do not always behave in the same way in different situations because our current context is a significant part of the inference and decision process.

Inference and context

What does a gun mean? By itself, it is a shaped piece of metal. In the hands of another person it becomes a threat, such as when you meet someone in a dark alley. But what if you were in the bank and someone had a gun? Would you dive for cover? Not if it was a security guard. When we are inferring meaning, we first recognize individual things and then place them in their context to get a broader understanding.

We thus have whole sets of meaning that are used for different contexts. In work we watch out for the bosses and focus on achieving defined objectives. Other people are seen as colleagues or threats. At home, the meaning is more about relaxation, eating and hobbies. Other people are not threats and there is generally more love around the place (and love at work may seem rather odd).

Decision and context

The decisions we make and the preferences we apply when making them are also very context-dependent.

At work, I may be very risk sensitive and plan my days carefully, whilst in my sports I may take significant risks. A person may be quiet and introspective at work, they might be exuberant and bouncy when out with their friends. Parents know this: a child who is naughty at home is often as good as gold in school (the reverse can be true, too!).

Contextual conditioning

Conditioning theories point out how repeated actions lead to triggered behaviors. The context in which these things happen may also be a part of that triggering sequence. When I pick up my dog's bowl in the kitchen, she gets a lot more excited than if I walk around the garden with it.

Preferences may also thus be learned within a context and hence be associated with that context. When out clubbing with friends, my risk preference increases significantly as they reward me with laughter and respect when I 'make a fool of myself' on the dance-floor.

So what?

Just because someone is introverted at work, it doesn't mean they are introverted at home or elsewhere. Before you appeal to their preferences, calibrate them for the context in which you are working.

See also

Inferring meaning, Formulating intent

Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning


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