Context is everything

I just read a classic paper by Bransford and Johnson that I find really clever. Before going into the findings, I’ll just present the passage presented to subjects in Experiment 1:

Screen shot 2013-11-02 at 8.39.12 PM

Even though the sentences in this passage follow normal rules of English grammar and the vocabulary is straightforward, you probably didn’t understand much of what you read and will have a hard time recalling it. Things might be clearer, however, if you see this picture:
Screen shot 2013-11-02 at 8.41.09 PM

Not surprisingly, the subjects who saw the picture before reading reported better comprehension and recall of the passage upon finishing it than those who saw the picture after. A third group was never shown the picture establishing context, and their comprehension and recall were lowest.

In another experiment described in this paper, the participants read a different passage:

Screen shot 2013-11-02 at 8.48.12 PM

Again, there’s nothing wrong with the English, but it doesn’t seem to say much. After learning that the paragraph is about doing laundry, however, it takes on a whole new meaning. As with the first study, subjects who were told that it was about laundry before reading it comprehended and recalled significantly more than those who were told the topic after reading. Again, those who were never told the topic did the worst.

It’s pretty awesome how just a small piece of context information can give meaning to an entire paragraph. What I love is that it brings out the flexibility of words and the incredible difficulty of grasping abstract descriptions and concepts without mapping them onto concrete realities. Also probably something to keep in mind when we’re writing things that we want people to understand – they need context!

2 thoughts on “Context is everything

  1. This reminds me of an improv game we used to play, in which we were given a stock set of lines that didn’t have much meaning in themselves, but the scene (context) changed everything. We’d do the scene over and over again with different relationships, different setting, etc. Fascinating!

    1. Cool comparison! On that note, maybe games like charades and Pictionary are entertaining because once we learn the context (what our partner was trying to depict), their actions/drawings often seem obvious.

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