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Context and our decision making


As you consider some of these examples, you'll see that your brain is truly quite remarkable. It understands that meaning is dependent on context. And so your brain has evolved to process the context as well as the meaningAnd most of the time, our brain does a reasonably good job. Look at the picture above, with  2 very common strings:

At the top, we have  "A, B, C".

And at the bottom, we have "12, 13, 14".

Notice something? The "B" and the "13" is written in the exact same way in both lines.
Yet our brains were able to automatically interpret the exact same figure in 2 different ways, simply because of the context. 

Here's another example:

Date - context.png

Again, same exact word: "Date".
And again, no problems. With your understanding of context, you are able to assess the different meanings of the same word correctly. You are able to make out, for example:

  • That can and would want to eat one date but not another.

  • You would be out on a date but dating would not go out of date.

  • You might go on a date to eat dates

Think about how awesome your brain really is to figure all these out, pretty much instantaneously. Imagine explaining the above to a new English speaker: without the familiarity of context, it becomes a landmine of potential misinterpretations and confusion. 

Two final examples below, but I'm sure you can think of many others. That our brains can navigate complexity because of context is not a difficult concept. 


Our mastery of context allows us to appreciate sarcasm and irony 


And enables us to understand metaphors and analogies; we are the only species that can feel touched by a non-living Amazon box weathering heavy rain. This whole scene is fictional, it never takes place! But we get it, we get the message.

So we've covered the good bits. We have to assess and make many decisions in life, which is very tiring and energy-consuming. Hence our brains have evolved to assess and make decisions quickly and efficiently. We are able to do so not just through the information itself, but through the context in which the information lies. And our brains turn out to be pretty good at interpreting context.

But there's, of course, the other side, the not so good bits. Sometimes, we place too much emphasis or misjudge the context, which subsequently causes us to misinterpret the information. 

At a simpler level, w have an example like the one below: we are so used to information being used in one context, we transfer its meaning to another. 


"Enjoy a good day ahead" and "enjoy the next 24 hours" means the exact same thing. But because we are used to hearing 24 hours in the context of a countdown to something happening, it puts us into unease. 

It gets more severe in the examples below. Let's take a lok at 

Try This!

What is more likely?

  • Roger Federer loses the first set badly

  • Roger Federer loses the first set badly but comes back strong to win the match

*Disclaimer: I only chose Roger Federer because he seems to be a figure everyone is familiar with. I have no interest if he wins or loses, and if you similarly couldn't care less about tennis, just pick an answer for the sake of argument!

Amazingly, most people would believe that it is more likely for 2nd scenario to happen - that Roger Federer "loses the first set badly but comes back strong to win the match".  Now, this completely violates basic logic, because the second statement is a subset of the first! Statement 1 needs to happen for statement 2 to be true, but statement 1 need not end up as statement 2.

Similarly, people estimated that there are more cases of lung cancer caused by smoking, than the total number of lung cancer cases as a whole. We are so used to the contextual knowledge that smoking cause lung cancer that we overemphasise its effects.


Different forms of this example occur often enough in our daily lives. It is the essence of pre-conceived notions. This applies when we deal with people. Because we have a favourable impression of someone, we think that he/she is likely to be right on other matters. When 2 or more colleagues/friends present a different opinion to a matter, we might already have made up our minds who is going to be correct even before listening to what they have to say. (More on this, at our "pigeonholes" page.)


The context we are exposed to matters as well. Food tastes better in a fancy restaurant. Wine tastes better in a glass than in a plastic cup. The media we are exposed to, be it our echo chambers on social media or Hollywood movies might cause us to develop views on certain races and occupations. For example, species like sharks, wolves, and snakes have been forever vilified even though we are much more dangerous to them then they are to us. 


When we change from one working place to another, meet a new group of friends, travel and explore a new county, join a new social group. or pursue a new area of expertise, the change in context causes us to view neutral matters completely differently. Or we might be able to notice information that we didn't notice before. There are many examples of this; food is an obvious case: for most cultures, eating raw food sounds like a backward step in evolution, potentially dangerous to health and surely untasty. But with the proliferation of Japanese culture, almost every country now has a sushi chain, and raw fish became not only acceptable but desirable. Most of us also consequently developed a better understanding and assessment of various types of fish, of condiments like soy sauce and wasabi, and of chefs who could be trained in ways other than cooking. 

2 final examples that show how easy it is for many of us to make massive misjudgements because of fo the context and not the content, especially if the context if is very salient. 

1) Johnson et al found that people were willing to pay an average of $14.12 to buy a $100,000 life insurance policy covering deaths caused by terrorist acts, but were only willing to pay $12.13 for the for a $100,000 life insurance policy even if it covered all causes of death. Think about the context post 9/11. Would you not also have made a similar misjudgement?

2) As I am writing this in early February 2020, the top news spreading around the world is that of the novel coronavirus. 60,383(59,805) have been infected, with 1,370(1367) deaths so far (these figures will certainly rise in the days to come). 

The context of this virus - a contagious virus, the numbers involved, and the constant media attention has created a climate of fear and paranoia. In many countries, people began panic-buying surgical masks and essentials. Citizens wanted governments to take larger and more comprehensive steps. They felt fearful and frustrated by the insufficient stock of masks, even though it is logistically difficult for everyone to have one new mask per day. Some wanted visitors from "higher risk countries" to be banned from entering their country, only for citizens of these "higher risk countries" to demand the same in return.

But let's just think about this for a moment:

  • 99% of cases occurred in China, with the majority in the epicentre of Wuhan City in Hubei.

  • While ~20 other countries have cases, no country has more than 50.

  • The mortality rate of the virus is 0.2% outside Wuhan; there are 3 deaths outside China. The mortality rate is the same as the common cold. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, many more people have died from the cold.

  • World Health Organisation experts have elaborated that there is no need to wear a mask if one is not ill; indeed a mask is not a particularly good preventive measure. 

Extrapolating a little further:

  • In the regions above, just based on the rate of injuries and deaths from accidents, people are far more likely to die from travelling to the supermarket than from the coronavirus.

  • 9 out of the 10 top causes of death are disease caused by our own lifestyles; ironically, we are much more likely to kill ourselves than the virus. 

You might point out that the fear and paranoia that people felt is understandable and expected (it ticks all 5 boxes of fear - read more in our chapter on fear). And isn't it precisely this paranoia and attention that exerted enough pressure on governments to take sufficient action and prevented the virus from spreading? Perhaps. And I have no quarrels with preventive measures. My argument is simply this: it seems obvious that physical harm or possible death is fear-inducing, and sparks people into panic-buying and general meltdown. But if this was truly the case, why is there no panic or fear for:

  • Our own lifestyle choices? 9 of the top 10 causes of death are health diseases caused by our own lifestyles. We are much more likely to kill ourselves than any virus.

  • In the regions above, based on the rate of traffic accidents, people are actually far more likely to get a serious injury or die travelling to and fro from the supermarket than from the coronavirus.

  • People continue to drink-drive, not wear their seat-belts, or not wear helmets while travelling

  • There is a high incidence rate of people not completing prescribed meditation, even at severe risk to their own health? In fact, behavioural scientists had to experiment with new methods, such as introducing a lottery to entice people to take their medication meant to save them. 

People had good reasons to be stressed, scared, and afraid. But the real crux lies with proportionality -context creates an amplifying effect which causes us to panic in one instance and ambivalent in another. 

More on the coronavirus in this piece here. 

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