Context is More Important than Disposition

“Always design a thing by considering it in its larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”  – Eliel Saarinen

We all know the importance of context in decision making, but often ignore it’s critical role in shaping the uptake of new products and ideas.  To give a trivial example, most of my cooking habits were formed when I left home and started at university, and reflect my budget, the equipment available in the hall where I first stayed and above all the tastes of those I was living with (we used to cook for each other much of the time).  [By the way, this reflects badly on me rather than my mother who had tried to interest me in cooking earlier.]

When I look at what I eat now, I am sure these contextual influences shaped what I choose to eat 20 years later.  While at university, I conducted research into the role of context in shaping choice of foods and drinks, and found them to be a far stronger driver than general preferences or liking.  However much I like drinking wine (and I enjoy it more than other drinks), it’s not something I drink very often.  Likewise I remember a quote (and I can’t remember where or who) comparing liking for chocolate with liking for hot tea – chocolate is always rated higher for liking, but most of us drink tea much more often than we consume chocolate (most, but not all!).

We have talked about the importance of context here and at on several other occasions, and a recent article by Jonah Lehrer looks at the role of context relative to personality traits.  Psychologists have developed several systems for conceptualising and measuring personality (for example Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), and HR departments have embraced them enthusiastically as ways to evaluate “underlying” dimensions of individual behaviours.  However, although such traits are measurable and consistent, they are usually poor predictors of real behaviour.

He discusses Walter Mischel who published a landmark study of personality in 1968 which argued that individual behaviour is highly inconsistent across different situations, and cannot be predicted from personality traits.  His research revealed that situation cues were the key to understanding individual behaviour, and that such behaviour was not consistent across different situations with different meanings.  For example, two individuals with equal levels of aggression, might react in violent ways in very specific and different situations, and therefore the underlying personality trait had no value in understanding their behaviour.

Mischel developed an interactionist model of behaviour based around “if-then” scenarios which formed consistent patterns of behaviour within contextualised personality signatures.  These signatures were validated empirically, showing that the context (the “if”) was a very good predictor of individual behaviour.  A huge study of genetic variation in Australia backs this view of personality.  Based on more than 5,000 adults who were profiled across a number of personality traits, the traits were analysed against more than one million genetic markers and found nothing that would help predict variations in personality trait.

Jonah Lehrer’s conclusion is that humans are inconsistent, and are not the same person across different situations (he cites Hamlet as a great example of this).

More importantly, these conclusions imply that general predispositions to brands, products and services have poor predictive value unless embedded within a specific and relevant context.  Context is the framework our brain uses to understand the importance, relevance and desirability of any specific behaviour, based on previous experiences and outcomes.

To understand the consumer we need to fully understand their situation.


The Personality Paradox by Jonah Lehrer, Wired Magazine, August 2010

Personality and Assessment by Walter Mischel (1968)

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