Context sensitivity

Posted: April 2, 2005 at 8:26 am in cognition, people

I’ve talked about the importance of context to cognitive subroutines before, but I wanted to pick up on it again this morning. I’ve just spent most of the last three weeks in New York City, living a very different kind of life in a different place. I walked almost everywhere I went, I was going to shows almost every evening, etc. And I was curious if, when I got back, whether it would feel weird to be back after having spent that much time living a different life. And the answer is no.

This is fascinating to me. If we only had one set of responses, I think three weeks would be long enough to start shifting those responses to a new paradigm. But that didn’t happen. What I think happened was that the old routines didn’t really apply in New York (things like the impulse of hopping in a car to get anywhere, or the idea that I should buy things in bulk), so I developed a new set of New York responses. As soon as I got back to my old life in Oakland, with its set of environmental inputs, the old routines were re-activated. But the thing that’s really interesting to me is how seamless it felt. It didn’t even occur to me that one set of behavior patterns should feel out of place until I asked myself the question whether it felt weird to be back.

I think this demonstrates the real power of context, that our environment controls how we respond so smoothly that we don’t even notice when our behavior patterns are wildly different. We think of ourselves as having a central core of behavior (and to some extent we do), but it’s amazing how easy it is to alter that behavior by changing the environment. The obvious examples are things like the Milgram experiment, where just by having a white-coated person in authority tell them to, people were willing to shock an unseen patient into unconsciousness. But it shows up in all aspects of our lives. We behave differently at work than at home. We behave differently on vacation.

This is why I think Lakoff’s work on framing is so important. By changing the frame, we change the context, and people respond differently without even realizing it. Our behavior changes utterly seamlessly. Our consciousness papers over the gaps and makes it all seem consistent, even when it manifestly isn’t.

It starts to get pretty disturbing when you think about framing as a form of brainwashing. Framing’s goal is to change what people think, by changing their view on an issue. This is what I don’t like about Lakoff’s work, that he suggests that we must fight frames with frames. I think he might be right, that such a battle may be our only option, but I’d love it if we could teach people the self-awareness necessary to understand frames, understand context, and be dispassionate enough in their observation of themselves to see how their behavior changes in response to such frames. I know it’s a pipe dream, though. Most people have a strong sense of themselves, believing in their continuity from moment to moment. Our consciousness is wired to preserve that illusion (which is an interesting question in itself – why should our consciousness do that? What benefit do we get from not seeing ourselves as a set of context-activated cognitive subroutines? And how did our consciousness get so good at explaining away all the little inconsistencies of our unconscious? I’m thinking specifically of the way that people have been hypnotized will rationalize their behavior even when it is ludicrous. Wow, this is a long parenthetical. Um, anyway).

While I think this line of thought is a little depressing, that we are nothing more than automatons responding thoughtlessly to our environment, there is one upside – it answers the question of how we change ourselves – we change the environment. I mentioned this before in the setting of social identity, but it is perhaps more widely applicable. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to modify my behavior for a long time, so maybe this will help. Perhaps to write more, I need to join some sort of writer’s club. Certainly joining an ultimate frisbee league did wonders for my physical fitness. Would going back to grad school help put me in the frame of mind necessary to pursue work on social software?

On the other hand, I don’t want to take this line of reasoning too far. I do believe there is a central core of tendencies that shapes how our unconscious cognitive subroutines develop. No matter how often I get plopped into a loud bar or party environment, I don’t think I will ever suddenly morph into that cool dude who is utterly smooth with that situation. The cognitive subroutines are already in place to respond negatively to that set of inputs. To change that behavior would require a lot more than more exposure to that environment.

I suppose it’s possible to do a slow morph, though. I mentioned this in the case of physical activity, but perhaps it’s all about taking small steps, and changing one’s response a little bit at a time. I’ve already taken a bunch of steps along this path, I think. I’m far more comfortable in dinner party conversations and the like than I was a few years ago. I can even survive in a bar or club like environment for a couple hours now, when I would have fled instantly several years ago. Continued exposure is starting to change my reactions. This is a case where the strategy of tossing somebody in the deep end to teach them how to swim is ineffective, I think. There’s too much to process for that to work effectively. But by slowly changing the environment from one of comfort towards one of challenge, the cognitive subroutines will also be modified slowly, such that by the end, it will seamlessly handle the challenging environment and the person will be stunned at how easy it all seems. I think we’ve all had that feeling when we’ve learned something new, when we finally get it right – we say “Wow, that’s easy!” with a tone of pleasant surprise. We never would have imagined that we could learn it, but by building up the behavior step by step, when it all comes together, it does seem easy.

There’s some interesting stuff here. Who knew all this would come out of my initial question of “Does it feel weird to be home?” One thought is that I need to spend more time blogging. Just sitting down and starting writing, even with only a vague thought to start with. The exercise of developing an idea is one of those things that I need practice on, and the only way to get better at it is to practice and to continue to develop my comfort with it. Heck, one of these days, I may be able to turn myself into a real writer. Tomorrow maybe I’ll get into some of my initial thoughts on Latour’s book. Or maybe I’ll talk about something entirely different.

2 Responses to “Context sensitivity”

  1. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Media manipulation || January || 2007 Says:

    [...] I’ve mentioned this before (also here), but what I’d really like to see is more training done in the area of media literacy, of teaching people how to see the frames and either ignore them, or at least distrust the sources that rely on framing. One of the things that really bothers me is the last item in that list above – that our citizens may actually be influenced enough by the media that advertising will overwhelm their ability to vote for their interests. That’s a truly depressing thought. And, unfortunately, bombarding them with propaganda using those techniques, even in the name of good, will only reinforce their herdlike mentality and inability to think for themselves. [...]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || The Role of Context || April || 2007 Says:

    [...] I believe in the power of context to reinforce behavior. When we’re in a Metro station commuting to work during rush hour, we behave in a certain way, regardless of what other elements are introduced, even if they’re utterly fantastic. We perform the same sequence of events each morning, we walk to and from work by the same paths, we eat lunch at the same places, etc. It’s only when we are ripped from our accustomed environments that we even examine our own behavior. [...]

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