It shouldn’t be a surprise that context is everything when it comes to perception. Win the the 10 million dollar lotto and then have your car run over by a Mack truck (assuming no one was in it) and you probably laugh it off and go buy your dream car. Context changes how you perceive the event.
I had two reminders of the effect of context last Friday. First, I was on my way to a meeting and listening to an NPR show. The host of the show was interviewing Gary Marcus, NYU psychology prof and author of Kluge (a book on the mind). Though parts of his interview annoyed me greatly, he talked about contextual perceptions by pointing out this research tidbit (my words not a quote).
If researchers ask individuals (a) if they are happy, and (b) how many dates they have had lately they get one set of results. If they reverse these questions, the answer to the happiness question is clearly influenced by the answer to the dates question. I may in fact be happy until you remind me that I haven’t had any dates lately.
Second, at my meeting we were discussing perception of change in clients. Imagine this scenario:
You are working for 6 months with a man helping him to accept responsibility for his addictive behavior (you can substitute addictive with just about anything that needs change). The change has been painstaking but he has indeed begun to see his self-deception and begun to stop blaming his past for his present behavior. About this same time you hear that his wife would like to come in to a session. You invite her and when she comes with her husband you ask him to tell his wife what he has been learning. As he does you see her roll her eyes and smirk. You check in with her and she is absolutely livid. From her vantage point he hasn’t changed a bit. Sure, he’s not drinking anymore, he’s not beating her up, but did you know that he’s become rather obsessed with work, he still doesn’t call to tell her that he’ll be late and he won’t stop overspending each month. And worse for her, now he wants to have sex (in the past he avoided her) all the time. You acknowledge he has lots of work to do but you also realize she feels threatened to admit he has begun to change. If she does, maybe he’ll stop…
Notice how context influences our perceptions. If you think someone has come miles and miles in personal growth you likely get pretty excited. If, however, you focus on how far they have to go, your perceptions will be a bit more pessimistic.
Now here’s the challenge. How do we stop believing that our context is the only context for viewing experiences? It takes openness and empowerment and ability to see two things at once without demanding that one view overpower another. As Christians we must live in this bifurcated life. We are sinners…saved by grace. We are maturing…but never arriving. We are mistreated…and protected by God.