The Importance Of Context

Robert entered John’s house. John pulled out a gun and without warning, shot him.

What do you think of John? Let’s color this with some more context:

Robert had been out drinking and gotten into an argument with John. He became so angry that he told John he was going to kill him that very night. He disappeared into the night to retrieve his weapon. Later, Robert entered John’s house by kicking down the door.  He screamed that he was going to kill John and upon seeing John, fired two shots but missed. John pulled out a gun and without warning, shot him.

Context changes the entire nature of the story. This is how history can be distorted or embellished.  We understand stories by the context of the situation that people are in. The problem is knowing what part of the context to the story is important and what is truly irrelevant.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich tells the story of, well, the Third Reich. While there are certainly some slights in the way he writes (with good reason), but he also includes a lot of detail that seems irrelevant (to me). The author states in the introduction that people didn’t believe there was enough time that had passed from when he wrote the book and when the events occurred — that time was needed to put things in context.  And indeed, time does provide a certain filter as to what is relevant.

Everyday we are inundated with a glut of information, but much of it lacks context and the context can completely change how we understand the information.  This ultimately is why we commit the Fundamental Attribution Error (others act because of their character, we act because of the situation). We know our own context. For example, we know that we were running late to pick up a good friend and that justifies our aggressive driving, but when someone else is aggressively driving it’s because they are a jerk.

Without context, people can be judged just like John, shooting someone for no reason.







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