The Power of Context

This first appeared on The Telegraph’s website ‘Ingenious Britain’ on 7th March 2013.

You need to know something really important. Context drives behaviour. The way people are behaving in your business is a function largely of the context you have created.

Whilst raising serious ethical questions regarding what should be permitted in research, Stanley Milgram’s controversial experiments are disturbingly enlightening on the role of context in behaviour. Normal people were recruited to act as “teachers” and asked to give an electric shock of increasing magnitude when mistakes were made in a word-matching exercise. The “teachers” were told that the purpose of the experiment was to explore the effects of punishment on learning behaviour. The “learner” was sited remotely and unseen but could be heard to respond through a speaker. The “learner” was in fact an actor and the electric shock lever just a prop. The actor increased his discomfort to screams and pleading as the shock level rose.

If and when the “teacher” asked whether increased shocks should be given, an experimenter present in the room with the teacher instructed them to continue. Some ‘teachers’ on hearing the reaction became really worried about the ‘learner’. They questioned the experimenter and were told that he took full responsibility. The majority of teachers, although suffering psychological discomfort continued with the task. The staggering statistic is that 65% of the “teachers” continued with the experiment to the 450-volt level and no-one stopped before reaching 300 volts. But it gets worse.

It’s the situation

In Zimbardo’s Vandalism experiment conducted in 1969, two 1959 Oldsmobile cars were abandoned in two different areas, of differing community types, one area being the Bronx (a ghetto area) and the other Paolo Alto (an affluent area). The car in the Bronx was stripped within three days, whilst the one in Paolo Alto was untouched for over a week. Zimbardo decided to attack the Paolo Alto car with a sledge hammer to provide an example and found that once the destruction had been started it was difficult to stop. Observers shouted encouragement and finally joined in leaving the car completely wrecked. This shows how the same event (an abandoned car) produces a different reaction (stripped versus left alone) dependent upon context (ghetto versus affluent environment).

What this shows is that behaviour can be changed by changing the context. In this instance the contextual agents are the signs of neglect, disregard for order and lack of enforcement of laws. Therefore the method employed is to prevent the first window being broken, or the first litter from being dropped, or the first display of unruly behaviour. When windows are broken, they are repaired; when laws are broken they are enforced.


Zimbardo’s investigations delved further into the issues Milgram had raised and looked into our capacity to behave in extreme ways. In his much documented Stanford Prison experiment, normal people were ascribed a role as officers in a prison whilst others were ascribed the status of prisoner. A realistic prison setting was used. After 6 days the experiment was terminated due to the extreme humiliation, pain and suffering being inflicted upon the ‘prisoners’. In 6 days the carefully designed context had produced pathological behaviour in normal healthy people.

This shows how ascribed roles and the surrounding environment can influence behaviour. It is worthy of reflection that this and other experiments of Zimbardo offer insights into how bullying in the work place arises and consequently we believe, how it might be designed out. We have all come across examples of people at work whose behaviour is intolerable and yet to those outside of work, their behaviour is supportive, caring and forgiving. Zimbardo investigated the effect of anonymity and de-individualisation in a variety of circumstances. His observation was that aggression increased when people were de-individualised.

In business this is easily observed. We group people into departments, the silos of Marketing, Finance, and Sales and so on, and when they behave with antagonism towards each other we are surprised.


The situation in which people find themselves will drive their behaviour. A messy, dull environment with sheaves of memos posted on notice boards, clutter and mess communicates very clearly to employees what you really stand for – and it may be a long way short of your external brand. If you want people to behave in a way congruent with your brand then the situation in which they work needs to reflect this. It goes beyond the environment. If, for example, we wanted to drive team behaviour we might choose to reward team behaviour.

Context, more than anything else, is the driver of behaviour. As business leaders, we need to think about how we would like people to behave and then what context is most likely to drive that behaviour.
According to Milgram “…The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

Dominic Irvine © 2013 All rights asserted.

If you would like to see an example of how we applied this with one of our clients read this.  Find Dom’s three top tips for change management here and read Nigel’s article on an example of an engaged team here.