top of page

The Context of Context

Imagine seeing an ad for a movie that contained this blurb from a reviewer you respect: “A small masterpiece!” Impressed, you buy your ticket and a huge bag of popcorn and proceed to be miserably disappointed in the film.

Question #1: How would you feel if you later found out that the reviewer had in fact given the movie a lukewarm review, and what he actually said was that the opening credit sequence was “a small masterpiece in dementia?”

You’d probably feel cheated because the quote was used out of context.

Question #2: Why did you buy that large popcorn when it was much more than you actually wanted or needed?

It’s also about context. Too little context can be deceptive, but sometimes too much context can be problematic as well.

Out of context = misinformation

In the case of the movie quote, we did not have the proper context to understand the meaning or intent of the reviewer, but it is much easier to assume the reviewer’s opinion was positive than to look up the actual review. And of course, our lizard (brain) totally wants us to take the easy route.

We are also more likely to ignore context when the out-of-context statement agrees with what we already think or feel (confirmation bias).

Unfortunately, media "news" organizations frequently use out-of-context quotes and videos to paint negative pictures of persons and ideas they oppose. It helps them drum up outrage among their readers and viewers and that outrage translates to views and clicks (views and clicks = $$$).

On the flipside, we know that context can sometimes distort our perception and cause us to make poor decisions, like buying too much popcorn.

Buying logic

In an earlier article on the Decoy Effect, I described a study which showed that if people are given an option between two sizes of popcorn, they will often pick the small size. But when those same options with the same prices are presented with an additional medium option that is priced only slightly lower than the large, more people buy the large one because it is now perceived as a bargain. (As expected, few people choose the medium.)

In this case, context skewed the perception of value. A rational choice would be to consider each option individually and try to gauge how much popcorn you actually want. If the small was preferred over the large when only two options were presented, logically the addition of the medium size should have made no difference. The only change was the context.

Evaluating context is a subconscious shortcut to aid decision making. Usually it is quite effective and helpful, when the context is relevant. Have you ever read a handwritten letter and had to figure out some of the words based on the context of the rest of the sentence? It’s a handy tool to have.

But sometimes irrelevant contextual cues can subconsciously alter how we perceive the information. For example, the comfort level of the floor a shopper is standing on affects their perception of the quality of the product they are considering. A job candidate with a resume that uses a font that is easier to read than others may be perceived more positively.

So - more or less?

How do we know when we need more context vs. less context? In a word…relevance.

If you are given a small amount of isolated information which may have a larger context relevant to that, seek out that context to fill in the missing information. A good clue – if the information was presented in an effort to persuade, it may need additional context for a more complete picture.

However, if you are making an assessment, perhaps for a purchase or reviewing candidates for a position, it is better to filter out the noise of irrelevant information and try to make the environment as homogeneous as possible when reviewing all of the options or candidates.

Think well, be well!

- Steve Haffner


bottom of page