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)



Writing as a freeing exercise prior to a technical phone interview

“El Dinosaurio” by Augusto Monterroso

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

That, right up there in italics, is the world’s shortest story. 

When one thinks of writing a story, a short story, or any story whatsoever, we probably do not think of the above.

If we were to write those words, in that order, all of a sudden, we probably would just consider it the first part of something, a sentence that is neither here nor there, maybe even a possible ending. But, a full story? In just ~66 characters? 

Now, I would like you to consider this: Was Monterroso able to create this short story, a complete short story in 10 words,  because the cultural context had developed in such a way that it was accepted by its peers as a short story? Had this story been written by, say, Shakespeare, do you think it would have counted as a short story? What if it had been written by an old Babylonian priest? (Assuming that a Babylonian priest would know what a dinosaur is/was or maybe substituting the word dinosaur by lizard or alligator or some other animal known to such hypothetical priest)

My own, personal, answer is… I don’t know.

One possible way to view reality is via semiotics: the current state of affairs that we call the world is composed of a series of symbols whose meanings change constantly, via paradigm shifts – I am totally abusing Kuhn’s original interpretation – the old symbols being replaced by new ones, and probably becoming a mystery to us, in other words the whole signifier/signified/sign/symbol thing.

I can always play around with the idea that I understand what Leibniz, or Mercator for that matter, meant by infinitesimals, but my mental constructs are already “infected” with other parasites that make the – original – concept of infinitesimals nothing more than philosophical ramblings. I cannot change this. (See also limit)

 Now, I am not saying that it is not possible, all I am saying is that through my experience I have found that it is impossible for me to exactly know what was meant by infinitesimal in Leibniz’s time. What I think I am trying to say is that his contemporaries might have had a clearer grasp of what the concept meant for Leibniz himself than we will ever have. The accumulation of – more accurate, more precise – concepts via science – and, by all means, science is awesome – has created a context that permeates everything else. No way to go back really.

 Can you think of  a way?

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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