The Powerful Influence of Context
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 2017 (re-written February 26, 2021)
The surrounding context influences our conceptual understanding. Memories, beliefs and moods all become the context of new information.
A few years ago, I posted a quote from Helen Keller, "walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light." The message I hoped to convey was that although friendship shares each others struggles, but the joys of connection "is better than walking alone." A reader commented, “I think it is better to stick with your values than abandon values for the sake of friendship.” I re-read the quote under the readers context. The same words could easily convey this very different interpretation. My previous contextual knowledge of Helen Keller's character created my interpretation. We see life through a contextual lens. All our meanings, explanations, and subjection interpretations depend on context.
Subjective Meanings and Context
We constantly formulate complex meanings from the fragments, drawing from the context of personal histories, surrounding environments and individual beliefs. Subjective meanings is so fallible that we must employ extreme caution. Quotes, data, and even observations needs further examination to mediate for context dependent conclusions. Simple ideas bend and form to comfortably fit our existing frameworks of belief. We often miss messages, blinded by our own biases, judging by our own context.
Context dependent situations or statements must be examined against the associated factors of the situation, background, or environment to make a proper interpretation.
Internal and External Contexts
Our interpretation of new in-flowing data is dependent on everything existing at the time of the presentation. This includes exposures leading up to the information, surrounding events happening simultaneously, and most importantly our own history with fragments of similar information.
In the Naked Neuron, Rhawn Joseph, an American neuropsychologist and writer, explains, "If speech were stripped of...body language and vocal melody, it would sound like a monotone and quite boring, and meaning would become ambiguous." He continues, "you would not be able to determine if a person were sincere or sarcastic, insulting or sympathetic, frightened or sad, humorous or humorless" (1993).
Words and solitary observations are not sufficient to accurately process information. Much more is required. Meanings are very context dependent. When we apply our own context, which we always do, the meanings are forced into personalized translations, often supporting contrary and conflicting translations of the actual message. Feeling, motivation, and intent are critical ingredients of context.
"Our state of mind can affect our ability to thoroughly grasp or totally misconstrue a situation."
Sean Cort | Psychology Today
The surrounding external events and sounds prime our mind, forcing a context dependent interpretation. Marketing firms hire well-educated employees familiar with the peculiarities of the workings of our brains. Casinos meticulously design gambling floors to encourage spending, constant ringing slots machines prime our minds, and temp our greed.
George Akerlof, an American economist and university professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, wrote, "Insofar as we have any weakness in knowing what we really want, and also insofar as such a weakness can be profitably generated and primed, markets will seize the opportunity to take us in on those weaknesses"(2016, location 118).
Practiced manipulators write speeches that ignite fear and blind judgment. We swallow faulty arguments because we are primed to accept rather than evaluate. As you read this, I know 'republicans' are thinking of the deceptive 'democrats,' and the 'democrats' are thinking about the deceptive 'republican.'
Our inner context of belief defines, associates, and interprets in a belief supporting manner.
See Search for Truth for more on this topic
The backgrounds surrounding the butterflies in this image challenge our ability to accurately perceive color. We automatically convert information into a context based on the immediate environment.
Our minds are easily primed. In a startling statement, Daniel Kahneman writes, "studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices" (2013, location 925). Priming is frightening. Others prime our minds to manipulate our actions—vote for them, but their product, hate their enemy.
"When context is used as a cue, memories that share contextual elements with the current cue all compete to be retrieved."
Adam Osth Ph.D. | Psychology Today
Kahneman explains each observation is like a ripple on a pond. Each small observed event intertwining with past and present in a complex network that forms ideas and feelings.
Priming isn't a limited function of words—but molding our thoughts from almost everything consciously or unconsciously observed. As Kahneman puts it, "Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words. You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware" (location 891).
Information flowing through our senses from the outside world encounters a new environment—the inside world. The information is translated to create personalized mental representations within our mind.
The process is a collision between memories, contextual beliefs, and current mood.
Memories are much more complex and far less accurate than most believe. We rely heavily on memories, considering them undeniable facts. Yet, they suffer from imperfect processing, retrieval and bias.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, "'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that,' says my pride and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.”
Memories serve our needs.
Dr. Robert DeMoss, a former Clinical Director of a mental health center in New Mexico, explains, "as humans, we have many types of memories, and different types are stored in various parts of our brains. Further, different types of memories house different types of information" (1999, page 113). We form our memories based on our interpretation of social events.
Memories are not transported from our senses to long-term memory like a cinema movie. When we recall an event, we don't scan through files and stream a perfect recreation of the past. A single event may have many components stored in various parts of the brain, recalling is a reassembling of these components and in the process of recall, we take the opportunity to use current beliefs to reshape the memory to fit the current perspective.
DeMoss wrote, "one of the principal characteristics of being human is that we use symbols to interpret the world. However, by reducing events to symbols, be they words or numbers, we alter our perceptions and memories of the very events we are thinking about or remembering" (page 64). This altering continues to adapt memories to fit our everchanging concept of the world.
A chunk of memories are called by the psychological term non-declarative. Non-declarative memories are stored non-consciously and can't be consciously recalled. Non-declarative are called up to guide behavior in contextually similar situations.
DeMoss theorizes that non-declarative memories "pop up" in appropriate times to guide behavior. He explains, "remains dormant except in time of need, and then surfaces as a strong feeling or motor memory to guide behavior" (pages 106-107).
The unconscious retrieval of these events intertwines with current flows of information to create a mental representation. The non-declarative memory is part of the inner context used to interpret information.
Merlin Wilfred Donald, a Canadian psychologist, neuro-anthropologist, and cognitive neuroscientist, wrote that "unconscious systems that dominate the brain allow us to develop...unconscious context of knowledge, a huge reservoir of unconscious or automatic cognitive processes that provide a background setting within which we can find meaning in experience" (2002, page 25).
A religious professor revealingly admitted that he routinely runs into conflicting information that he can't readily explain in satisfactory alignment with his beliefs. He says he puts those unexplained conflicts on a shelf that he hopes one day can be explained. I expect many of us do the same thing; we just do it unconsciously.
Perhaps, sometimes, a better approach is to examine the underlying context that make the information so difficult to assimilate. It just may be the filtering context that needs to be put on the shelf.
We filter conflicting information, deny it, or come up with a cockamamie alternate explanation to relieve the dissonance. Yet, never consider that the information is relevant and legitimately discredits our precious belief.
See Cognitive Dissonance for more on this topic.
Our context of knowledge significantly reshapes incoming information. What we believe we see shapes what we see (or hear, or read).
Our state of mind at the moment of contact with new information also contributes to the perception and eventual storage into memory.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, wrote that a "filter of our mental activities and their representations that shapes our subjective mental life is mood" he further explains that "mood creates an innate clustering of a number of mental activities and biases our interpretations, how we create meaning*, the feeling tone of our inner life, and the way we interact with others" (2012, location 4086).
Our perceptions are far from pure representations of the intended message or untainted recording of new information.
How Do We Protect Ourselves?
First and foremost, we can't change the way our brain functions. If we believe we are clear minded, uninfluenced by the vast underworld of our minds, we are the most vulnerable. Everyone of us are blessed and cursed by the proclivities of perception.
We can protect against these influences by acknowledging their presence. Only then can we adapt for their misguided and self aggrandizing interpretations.
"The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
I don’t present eternal truths. I’m not sure if I know enough of the truth to provide more than probing questions to stimulate thought. I hope the FLS articles encourage momentary questioning, stepping away from generally accepted theories and disrupting ordinary contexts, providing an alternate perspective to consider.
Openness is not a magical solution for more happiness; but the curiosity of openness increases wisdom that subsequently invites greater peace.
Life often appears chaotic. Constant streams of information flail at our senses. Several ‘experts’ claim they have exclusive knowledge to what we 'must' do; they promise to unveil the meaning of life. Yet, each proclamation is contested by someone, equally adamant in their claims. We are tossed and turned with uncertainty.
Sometimes I wish I could be "cocksure" of one thing, as so many appear to be of everything.
Openness to knowledge may require examining information a fresh, free from limiting contexts. With effort, we can discover alternate contexts to widen our perspective.
Khalil Gibran succinctly stated, “the teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.” I don’t self-proclaim to be a teacher of such wisdom, but I hope my continued efforts through writing and research encourage more flexibility and less dogma—a greater openness to the complexity of life.
This is my hope, my purpose; not to debate unknown truths but to challenge the mind heuristics that strangle honest examinations. My articles do not distribute truths that can easily be defined a verse or rhyming jingle, or I can't dazzle with a catchy quote. but I ask for an open mind to explore the contextual intent behind my writing, giving your world new possibilities to explore, experimenting with skills that may improve your lives.
Akerlof, G. A. (2016). Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition.
DeMoss, R. T. (1999). Brain Waves Through Time. Basic Books.
Donald, M. (2002). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness.
Joseph, R. (1993). The Naked Neuron: Evolution and the Languages of the Body and Brain. Springer; Softcover reprint of the original 1st ed.
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; Third Printing Used edition.