Why Does Context Matter?


If you’ve been reading our blogs for some time you know that we center our approach to human performance around the idea of “context”.  Context is at the heart of the science of Human Factors, also referred to as “ergonomics”.  Human Factors involves understanding and integrating humans with the systems that they must use to succeed and context is central to that understanding.  To say that we are a product of our environment is accurate, but far too simplistic for those attempting to be more intentional in changing performance.  A practical way to look at context is to think of the world around us as composed of pieces of information that we must process in order to successfully interact with our environment.  These pieces of information include the other people, physical surroundings, weather, rules, laws, timing, and on and on and on. The breakdown in this process is when it comes time for us to crunch that data and react to it.  Our brains, at the time of this writing, still have the edge on computers in that we can intentionally take in data rather than passively waiting for something else to give us the data, and we can then decide how we behave with respect to that data where a computer is programmed to behave in predictable ways.  However, at times, that unpredictability could also be a weakness for humans.

The two most glaring weaknesses in processing the data are topics that we have written about just recently (Hardwired Blog and Cognitive Bias Blog).  The first of these can be explained by staying with our computer analogy.  For those of you that understand computer hardware, you would never spend your money on a new computer that has a single core processor, which means it can only process one job at a time.  While our brains aren’t exactly single core processors, they are close.  We can actually do two jobs at a time, just not very well and we bounce back and forth between these jobs more than we actually process them simultaneously.  Due to this, our brains like to automate as many jobs as possible in order to free itself up to process when the time comes.  This automatic (System 1) processing impedes our more in-depth System 2 processing and while necessary for speedy success, it can also lead to errors due to failure to include relevant data.  In other words, while living most of our lives in System I is critical to our survival, it is also a weakness as there are times that we don’t shift into System II when we should, we stay in automation.  Unfortunately we are also susceptible to cognitive biases, or distortions in the way we interact with the reality of our context.  You can read more about these biases (here) but just know that our brains have a filter in how we intake the data of our context and those distortions can actually change the way our brains work.

So what are some examples of how context has shaped behavior and performance?

- Countries that have round-a-bouts (or traffic circles) have lower vehicle mortality rates because the accidents that occur at intersections are side swipes rather than t-bones.

- People that live in rural areas tend to be more politically conservative and those in urban areas tend to be more politically liberal. The reason is that those living in smaller population densities tend to be more self-reliant and those living in higher population densities rely on others, in particularly, government services.

- People who work in creative fields, (artists, writers, musicians, etc.) are more creative when they frequently change the environment where they do their work. The new location stimulates the executive center of the brain.

- Painting the holding facilities of people arrested under the influence of alcohol a particular shade of pink has proven to lower violent outbursts. *Read the book “Drunk Tank Pink”, it’s genius.

- A person that collapses due to acute illness in a street is less likely to be provided aid by other people if that street has heavy foot traffic. The fewer people that are around the more likely one of those people will provide aid.

- As a hiring manager, I’m more likely to hire a person whose name is common and which matches my age expectation.

- School yard fights increase during the spring time when the wind blows harder causing the children to become irritable.

These are all examples of how the context around us can change our behaviors and performance.  If we can start looking at our context in more intentional ways and engineering it to be more conducive to high performance, we will ultimately be better at everything we do, at work and home.