In understanding people’s behavior, how important is context? Imagine this: you go to a supermarket, pick up some milk, put it in your basket, and go to the checkout counter.

Imagine you are in a supermarket, you put a carton of milk in your basket, and go to the checkout counter. While you are paying for your purchase, the checkout cashier appears bad-tempered and rude. What do you think? Photo.

At the checkout, you feel that the cashier is bad-tempered and rude. What do you think? Is the shop clerk simply a bad-tempered, rude person, end of story? Or could the situation help us to understand the cashier’s attitude? For example, what if the supermarket is very busy, with long queues at the checkout? What if there is a problem with the machinery that the cashier is using? What if the person who went through the checkout just ahead of you was drunk and aggressive? What if the checkout cashier is feeling sick all of a sudden? What if you go back to the supermarket a couple of weeks later and the same cashier appears very nice, polite and cheerful?

In Victor Hugo’s  Les Misérables, Jean Valjean goes to prison for stealing bread. He stole it during a time of terrible economic depression in order to feed his sister’s children. Is he just a criminal, or do we consider the situation to be important? Photo.

Victor Hugo’s famous novel, Les Misérables (1862) deals with the importance of context in understanding behavior.  Jean Valjean went to prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. Jean Valjean does many things that appear to demonstrate that he is basically a wonderful person. However, the police inspector, Javert, can only see Jean Valjean as a criminal. Javert refuses to consider context as important.

Another character in Les Misérables, Fantine, loses her job and becomes a prostitute. She sells her hair and two front teeth in an attempt to look after her daughter, Cosette. Is Fantine a worthless individual, or a selfless, saint-like person who sacrifices everything for her child? Photo.

Inspector Javert is unable to both believe in law and authority and understand Jean Valjean’s incredible kindness. He cannot understand that a person could be both a criminal and a wonderful person. He is unable to properly consider the importance of context. Finally, Javert commits suicide.

Javert cannot understand that, depending on the situation, a wonderful person could also be a criminal. He finally kills himself. Photo.

There is a lot of psychological evidence that Javert’s mental problem is not so unusual. The psychologist Lee Ross showed that people tend to rely on personality as an explanation for behavior. In other words, the cashier is just a rude person. Jean Valjean is just a criminal type. Fantine is just a low-level individual. This tendency to accord too much importance to personality is referred to as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). You may be happy to learn that there is evidence that East Asians are a lot less susceptible to the FAE. In other words, East Asians (perhaps because interconnectedness is given greater importance in East Asian thought) are usually much better at seeing the importance of context than Westerners.

Context Quiz

Try the following Quiz.


Hugo, V. (1862). Les Misérables.

Ross, L. (1977). “The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings.” In L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 173-220. New York: Academic Press.

Featured image: Antoine Watteau [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons