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Contextual biases – why nothing exists in isolation

Contextual biases – why nothing exists in isolation

I’ve been at Ocado Technology for around a year, and one of the things I was brought in to do was to spread my knowledge of psychology. To that end, I’ve decided to set myself a challenge to start writing blog articles that highlight interesting psychological research and case studies, offering an insight into the ins and outs of human behaviour – and how they relate to the world of software development.

I also hope to inform those working for technology companies why learning about the human condition is so relevant to our work life. After all, whether you work in tech or the arts, education or business, you always need to communicate with people, and the more understanding we have of human behaviour, the better prepared we are to succeed and enjoy our work.

Nothing exists in isolation:

“For me, context is the key – from that comes the understanding of everything”  Kenneth Noland

The above quote from Kenneth Noland is perhaps one of my favourite commentaries on the human condition. For me, it holds such truth as to how we interact with everything in the world around us and, of course, within us. There are many ways in which behavioural economics and psychology categorise types of context and the effects they have on our decision-making; today I want to focus on contextual biases to give you a taster of just how strong an effect a choice’s surroundings can have on how it is received.

Let’s have a look at a few examples of this phenomenon before we get into more detail. How many times have you been to see a movie that has been hyped up to a crazy level (either by friends, reviewers, or yourself internally) and ended up disappointed? I bet more than a few times. Yet objectively these movies aren’t always bad.

Another – sillier example – is this: imagine a world in which I’m on Tinder… yes, for anyone who’s met me this would be laughably out of character, but let’s assume a parallel universe AJ is on Tinder or a similar app that requires a choice to be made very quickly on appearances. If the below is the run of pictures from left to right that a prospective partner sees, I’m likely (I’d hope) to do well:

AJ Scenario 1: Mr Bean to AJ

In this parallel universe, AJ probably gets a date. However, imagine if – again from left to right – the prospective partner sees this line-up:

AJ scenario 2: Kit Harrington to AJ

In this (slightly less favourable) parallel universe, AJ sits alone on his sofa, eating ice cream and sobbing along to every word of Celine Dion’s ‘All By Myself’.

Humour aside, what’s going on here? Neoclassical economic theory argues that the value we place on a certain option is a based solely on the choice itself rather than the context in which we are making that choice (that would be the purely rational approach after-all). In both these examples, however, we have fallen foul of anchoring; a cognitive bias that alters the way we place value on a certain instance based on where our expectation is initially set. In the top line-up, the anchor sets a low bar, which helps parallel universe AJ out because he is (hopefully) an improvement on the line from a purely aesthetic perspective. In the bottom line-up, however, the anchor sets a high – swoons a little bit – attractiveness bar that does parallel AJ a lot of damage.

Anchoring is one of the most robust cognitive biases (Furnham and Boo, 2011), as no choice in the world exists in a vacuum so everything is susceptible to the context around it. Anchoring is the reason why it’s so hard to get over your first impression of someone, why films you’re really excited for tend to disappoint, and why I’m not on anything like Tinder.

Why does this matter to you here at Ocado Technology, and to a greater extent to everyone in the world of work? Well, in short, being aware of anchoring and not falling foul of it at a bad moment matters to you at all points in your life. The next time you think about a decision you’re making, contemplate what that decision would look like without the other options surrounding it. Does your decision stay the same? What if you theorised some currently unavailable alternatives? What does your decision look like now?

During the working day, you can attempt to account for the effect of anchoring in a range of scenarios. Next time you go to pick the next task off your backlog, consider whether it is really the right thing to do for the workload as a whole. Could you  merely be finding yourself manipulated by the context of the other tasks around it? When drawing up a strategy with your team, consider whether you would make the compromises you are making given alternative choices. You may well come out with the same answer; after all, context plays its role and is unavoidable at times, but it may offer that all important wider perspective.

Anchoring is just one of many ways in which our decisions are swayed by the context around them, so it’s always worth trying to take a step back, seeing the wood for the trees, and really appreciating what’s driving you to make the choice you’re thinking of making.

AJ King, Organisational Scientist

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