Leaders Know the Role of Context and Memory

Picture this:

A man nervously fumbles through his wallet. He’s about to buy a large coffee, which costs $3.19. “Oh, oh, oh,” he started nervously, looking around and shoving his hand into a deep pocket. “Looks like I don’t have enough money.” He laughs in an unusual way.

What’s going on?

We can all look at the same event and see different things.

I might see someone who has dementia, especially if I have a parent with dementia.

Or perhaps I might see a potential criminal, especially if I have lived in a high-crime neighborhood or been the victim of a theft.

I will probably, though, see an embarrassed person, because I can totally relate to not planning ahead.

Everything we see we process through a filter that includes the context of the moment and our own memories triggered by the situation. This is natural. An extended quote from Clark N. Quinn:

“Our cognition isn’t principled, but instead emerges out of the interaction between our memory and our current context… Our thoughts about a dog will be very different after an experience with a cute cuddly one versus one that lunged at you through a fence…Much of what we think we perceive is actually filled in by our memory…We need to account for how our brains complete things and how we may respond in different situations, including those that we might rationally comprehend as essentially the same situation.”

Learning Science for Instructional Designers

We need to learn to pause, though, because we might be confident about our assessment even when we’re wrong. And that can affect the way we react to people.

In the example above, what are the outcomes if…

  • The man has dementia, but we treat him like a criminal?
  • The man is embarrassed, but we treat him like he has dementia?

How to apply this?

  1. When you have an intense reaction to a situation, pause to see if the context or your memory are playing a role.
  2. The next time a colleague does something confusingly wrong or inappropriate, get curious about what parts of their memory or context could be playing a role.
  3. If you hear someone you know say something harsh or judgmental, ask them about what past experiences they’ve had to elicit their response.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

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