Situation Factors and Relevance
Situation Factors and Relevance
It seems clear that what is relevant about a situation is just those features that it shares with other comparable situations - for example, how much something costs is relevant to a purchase decision because cost is something that mostly matters whenever people buy something.
However, determining which features are relevant about a situation requires us to associate it with some set of comparable situations, but the trouble is determining which situations are comparable depends on knowing which features are relevant. This inherent circularity poses what is called the frame problem (think of it as gathering all the relevant information inside a frame). The frame problem was first really noticed in artificial intelligence, when researchers tried to program robots to solve supposedly simple everyday tasks like cleaning a messy room since humans do it everyday; how hard could it be? Very hard indeed, as it turned out because on closer inspection there are literally thousands of interacting factors which vary from day today and room to room which humans take in a glance.
Having said that, when confronting a particular situation, our brains do not generate a long list of questions about all the possible details that might be relevant. Rather, we simply plumb automatically and usually unconsciously our extensive database of memories, conditions, symptoms, images, experiences, cultural norms, and imagined outcomes, and seamlessly insert whatever details are necessary in order to complete the picture.
In everyday situations this might be fine but outside that frame we might get it completely and utterly wrong because in this process we may insert details that may not be true for a particular situation. For example, students asked about the colour of a classroom blackboard recalled it as being green (the usual colour) even though the board in question was blue. In cases like this, a careful person ought to respond that he can’t answer the question accurately without being given more information. But because the “filling in" process happens instantaneously and effortlessly, we are typically unaware that it is even taking place; thus it doesn't occur to us that anything is missing, so the frame problem should warn us that when we do this, we are bound to make mistakes, and we do it all the time.
In fact, we make the mistake again and again but sadly, no matter how many times we fail to predict behaviour or events correctly, we can always explain away our mistakes in terms of things that we didn't know at the time, so sweeping the frame problem under the carpet, always convincing ourselves that this time we are going to get it right, without ever learning what it is that we are doing wrong. Indeed the more ingrained our belief system the more we are disposed to be uncritical and ignore or explain away everything that questions it. It is this difference between making sense of behavior and predicting it that is responsible for many of the failures of common sense reasoning. And if this difference poses difficulties for dealing with individual behaviour, the problem gets only more pronounced when dealing with the behavior of groups or nations.
For those who want to go further I recommend the excellent book by Duncan Watts called "Everything is Obvious" (its also available as a eBook)