The importance of context

One thing writers do a lot is read. I write crime novels but I don’t limit my reading to that genre. This week I finished the first draft of The Holiday, the second Inspector West novel, and rewarded myself by rereading The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo.

This is one of those ‘wake up call’ books that challenges the way we look at the world, especially in the arena of foreign affairs, that the ‘High King’ and his advisors should have on their reading list – even though it was published in 2009.

An interesting experiment
Within the text there is a summary of an experiment conducted by psychologist Richard Nisbett and two graduate students, Hannah Faye Chua and Julie Boland, in 2004 at the University of Michigan (UM).

The experiment involved 50 graduate students from UM: 25 Western students, who had been raised and educated in the USA, and 25 Chinese students, who had been raised in China before coming to study in the USA.

The subjects were shown a series of pictures on a screen. While they looked at the pictures their eye movements were recorded, and then they were asked to recall what they had seen. The images were composed of a large object in a complex background; for example, a horse in a field of flowers, a tiger in a forest.

Apparently, there were some interesting results
The recorded eye movements showed that the Western students focused almost exclusively on the object (the horse or the tiger), while the Chinese students focused almost exclusively on the background (the field or the forest).

When quizzed on what they had seen, the Western students named the object (horse, tiger) and had little recall of the background, while the Chinese students could recall the backgrounds (field, forest) in detail, but not the specific object that was immersed in any of the backgrounds.

This finding poses an interesting question about the way in which we (Westerners) see the world, as it suggests we look at the ‘object’ in front of us but we are blind to the details surrounding it. We see the object or event but not its context.

When we see an event, like the situation in Crimea, but do not see the wider picture or the context of that event, we risk reacting or responding based on what we think is going on, and not what’s actually going on.

This is not only applicable to relationships between nations. It also applies to our everyday relationships as well. For example, you see the angry young man ‘demanding’ money from passengers on the subway, but you don’t see the structurally created poverty of the circumstances of his life, and you react according to what you see.

What does this mean if you’re a law enforcement officer dealing with people in the street or a teacher dealing with a young person going ballistic in a classroom?

What does it mean if you are the angry young person on the subway looking at all those ‘rich’ people, who have a whole different set of circumstances outside your awareness impacting their lives, ignoring you?

Scary stuff.

The context is important
That’s why it’s important to slow down and consider the bigger picture before responding – whether you’re a president, a policeman or a passenger on the subway.

Seeing things out of context, or not seeing the context in which an event is unfolding, can lead to disaster. Think of the global financial crisis – created by bankers not fully understanding the context within which they were playing.

What is the context of your life? Are you aware of it?

Give yourself a break. Look around the edges of any event to appreciate its context, before you respond.

Thanks for dropping by, Peter