How does context influence our decisions?

While we may think our choices are driven by emotional or logical reasons, studies show that many factors impact what we do and how we perceive reality

Mikel Jaso

Understanding how we make decisions can help us more successfully achieve our goals. We tend to think that we make decisions for logical reasons, or at the very least, that we are able to explain our motives. If we have to choose between different free products, we think that we will choose the one that we like the most. If we’re asked if we would prefer some money right away or a larger sum in a month’s time, we imagine that we would make a decision based on our economic circumstances. We use rationality to explain our motives, arguing we made a decision because it was the best fit for us. Or else we put our decisions down to emotional preferences, because a certain product caught our eye at a restaurant or supermarket. But, we are wrong, at least in part.

When it comes to decision-making, we are a lot more complex than we think. We are not only motivated by rationality and emotion: we are also vulnerable to other factors that we may not even be aware of. One of the most important factors is context. To see how, let’s return to the previous examples, which were the basis of interesting scientific studies. One of the oldest dates back to 1977. In this investigation, different people were presented with pairs of stockings and were asked to choose one as if they were a shopper. All the participants selected the pair of stockings that were on the right. What’s interesting was how they explained their reasons. They didn’t say “because they were on the right,” but rather justified the choice for its quality, texture… Curiously, all the stockings were identical, with the same color and from the same brand. It seems as though we need to justify why we do things with more elaborate reasons than just their position. This is one example of how physical context influences us. Positioning matters – something that businesses that sell products to supermarkets know well.

But context is not just physical, it also has other, more subtle dimensions. In 2004, McMaster University in Canada asked a group of heterosexual men if they preferred to win $2 at once or $15 in a month’s time. When the men had been shown a website with photos of good-looking women before being asked, they chose $2. However, the group that hadn’t seen the images beforehand chose to receive $15 in a month. What happens to us before we make a decision seems to be as important as the decision itself.

Another example of context concerns the people around us, as shown in a study by the University of Chicago. Young men in elementary school are more likely to express greater professional ambition in a survey when they are in a room with girls who are filling out the same questionnaire. However, if there are only other boys, they are less ambitious when it comes to their responses on earning money or being famous. Curiously, this happens even when the results of the questionnaire are not shared and it is a purely personal exercise. We are social beings, so it’s not strange that we would be influenced by the people around us. Even if this happens unconsciously.

Context also amplifies emotions. When faced with different objects, we appear to recognize more scary images when there is unsettling music in the background – just think of how bland it is to watch a horror movie without sound.

Without a doubt, context influences our decisions, our emotions and how we perceive reality. It’s good information to keep in mind when we want to achieve a goal. Often, we focus on what we have to do, the steps to achieve it, and do not always consider whether we are in the most appropriate context or how context could influence us.

Context influences our decisions, our emotions and how we perceive reality, which is good to keep in mind when we want to achieve a goal

Knowing that we should surround ourselves with inspiring people could be as powerful as having a clear action plan. Likewise, if we are going to do a difficult presentation, putting on music that lifts our mood and energizes us could have a very positive effect in lessening our fears.

Identifying whether we are in the best context before making a decision or having an important conversation can help us to minimize any unwanted effects, which can sometimes happen without us realizing it. If we want to ask someone something, such as a pay rise, knowing that we must analyze whether it is a good moment can be as useful as having a good explanation ready. And of course, shopping more intelligently at the supermarket requires us to break with our normal context, and consider products that are not on the route we usually take or at eye level.

Context frames how we move, feel, think and make decisions. It can have a direct influence on us, even if we don’t always realize it. As José Ortega y Gasset wrote in Meditations on Quixote: “I am myself plus my circumstance; and if I don’t save it, I cannot save myself.” If we want to achieve an objective, we must also analyze our context and circumstance, because they will also save us.

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