Back to Dialogue

Cognition Corner #6 – The Context Effect

The human mind is riddled with quirks that can skew judgement and perception, regardless of where you stand on the corporate ladder. And in fact, small things (like where you’re standing) can dramatically impact the way you perceive things, as well as your ability to recall them later.

Pros and Contexts

“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
Jean-Luc Godard

It’s been said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But if you agree, take a look at companies like Chipotle, whose sales dropped by double digit percentages due to bad press surrounding food contamination issues. This feels like a “common sense” example because of course hearing about a brand in the context of a health scandal would be bad. But it turns out that the context effect can affect us in ways that are much less intuitive.

People rate commercials more favourably when they air during enjoyable shows. More incredibly, people will give products higher ratings if they are standing on a comfortable floor when they give the rating. If this seems ridiculous – it is. But that doesn’t make it untrue. Context matters, and it probably matters more than you think.

Cues and you

Context does more than cause subtle disturbances in perception and mood – it can also improve cognitive performance. For example, when you learn new information, the context in which you learn it is encoded as part of the memory. You’ll remember information better in the place that you learned it than somewhere else. This effect is significant, and it means that if clients are coming to your office for a pitch, it’s best to rehearse in the room that you’ll be presenting in.

Additionally, you can improve your general recall by deliberately adding context to a memory. You may already use an unrefined version of this technique when struggling to remember something. If you’ve ever backtracked to a previous room because you forgot why you entered one, you’re trying to leverage context. If you’ve ever run through party details to remember someone’s name (“it was near the end of the night…they were friends with Bill and Janet…”) you’re trying to leverage context.

Here’s an example of how to use context more effectively: when you meet someone new, try to attach a unique contextual cue to their name (don’t use a cue that has lots of pre-existing associations like a close friend or familiar place). This could be the song playing at the time or the painting that happened to be next to you. This will create an associative link between the person’s name and the contextual cue. If you can’t remember their name, try to remember the cue. It will make things significantly easier. This is a form of priming, similar to how you’ll often complete C-A-__ as “cat” if I say the word “dog” first and complete it as “cab” if I say the word “taxi” first. But that’s a lesson for another week.

Remember to check this space regularly for future installments of Cognition Corner!





Share this post