Another good reason to Think Context: How well do we know how we felt/feel about something?

Imagine this:

You get to do a really repetitive,simple and boring task, then you are given $5 to tell someone, also waiting to do the task, that the task was not boring. Now imagine the following, instead of $5, you get payed $100 to do the same thing….

How does this change how you feel about the task?

“Well,” you might say, “young chap, this doesn’t alter how I feel or felt about such endeavors, after all, I am a gentleman and a scholar who knows that a boring task is a boring task and that’s it. Cup o’ tea?” Well… Actually…

It turns out that if you get payed $5 and tell the other guy that the task was not that bad, you actually start to believe that the task was not that boring, while if you get payed $100 and tell the guy that the task was not that bad, you don’t believe it yourself. The idea behind this is that you get to fool yourself into believing the task was not that boring because you experience cognitive dissonance, since you are holding two psychologically incompatible thoughts. In this case: the task is boring and a “bad reason to lie” ($5) or a “good reason to lie” ($100).

You see, you feel the need to reduce this dissonance to make you feel better about yourself, so that you are “not really lying for $5,” but rather you “actually did not dislike the task that much.”

Think about it…

Yeah Science!

(Festinger & Carlsmith, Cognitive consequences of forced compliance, 1959)

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I think I don’t really know what I mean when I say that “Context Matters”…yet.

Context matters sounds like a banal platitude, a cliché, doesn’t it? Well, it might be…. but… as we are reminded by David Foster Wallace in his This is Water speech, sometimes a banal platitude hides the most important truths, truths that become invisible to us. These truths are so present that we forget about them, just like when you’re wearing your  most comfortable clothes.

Daniel Kahneman writes in an article published in December 2003 in the journal The American Economic Review:

Perception is reference-dependent: the perceived attributes of a focal stimulus reflect the contrast between that stimulus and a context of prior and concurrent stimuli.

I stopped reading that article right at that point. A question popped into my mind that I thought required a little bit more than a dictionary-lookup and a Wikipedia search…

What is the difference between reference-dependent and context-dependent?

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