#30in30 – What you see is what you get

The Context Effect relates to how our brain processes the information we perceive in our environment. It describes how when we are confronted with environmental influences we often include them subliminally in our decision making. Our brain often processes information pertaining to our surroundings in a “top-down” way, which means that we first perceive each scenery as a whole and then begin to dismantle it into several sub-systems which are again disassembled into their own constituent parts. This is often useful, for example in reading bad handwriting because our brain initially perceives the whole word first before beginning to read each letter. This way, it usually takes fewer letters to understand a word as it would take if our brain processed the letters step by step and assembled the word in the end.

Applied to the process of jurisdiction the Context Effect affects juries and judges because in each of them the finder of the judgment may be susceptible to this specific bias. Imagine a situation wherein the jury or the judge are confronted with a person accused of high treason after terrorist incidents. The facts may be uncertain. But due to the prior events, the jury or the judge are more likely to apply a stricter standard for the exculpation because their brains are still affected by the terrorist acts that occurred beforehand.

Often Self-Awareness helps us to avoid the Context Effect. A study about general life satisfaction for example showed that people are less susceptible to this bias if made aware of the prior incidents or current circumstances that influenced their decision. People were asked how they evaluated their satisfaction with life on sunny and rainy days. Even though the weather first affected their behavior, the results evened out to an almost even distribution when the weather conditions were pointed out to participants.