The Bus Conundrum – Context Matters

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on

One of my favourite examples of how our minds work (or don’t work) is the Bus brain teaser. In the image below, can you tell which direction the bus is traveling? Not to put too much pressure on you, but most young children get the right answer almost immediately.

School Bus

Did you try and solve the teaser? Well, if you live in North America or Continental Europe, the kids would say the bus is traveling in a left direction. If you live in the UK, the kids would say the bus is traveling in the right direction. Why?

Well, you can’t see the door!! So, logically, the door must be on the “other” side of the bus. And then direction of travel becomes easy to predict, based on which side of the road you drive on in your home country.

Simple, isn’t it??

But I must admit it took me a bit to figure this out.

It is a great example of how our mind works. Our minds draw on our experiences – stored in our memory – and interprets these experiences in the face of the current context. In this case, experience tells the North American that the door is near the front on the “right” side of the bus; and the Brit that the door is near the front on the “left” side of the bus.

Then, given the context that the door is not visible, it must be on the other side of the bus. Add that to your knowledge / experience of which side of the road people drive, it becomes pretty easy to tie experience and context into a decision.

If experience sets the table, then context determines the ambience (sort of like mood lighting). We use contextual cues to trigger our memories of prior experiences. Candle light reminds us of a previously (hopefully pleasant) romantic dinner and we decide and behave accordingly.

This is true in all walks of life – not just logical brain teasers. For example, our experience in investing – in bull market and bear market conditions – serves as the foundation from which we approach investing. Research shows, for example, that people who grew up during periods of low stock market returns (like the 1930s or the 1970s) are less likely to invest in the stock market, while those who grew up experiencing high market returns (like the 1990s) are more likely to invest in the stock market. If the news is full of people investing in crypto-currencies or pot stocks, this contextual cue triggers memories of successful (or unsuccessful) experiences with previous “hot stocks”, which prompts us to decide and act accordingly.

The old saying goes that “we are creatures of habit” – or, I would add, experience. We are also very much the creatures of the context that our minds create.

Like the author Anaïs Nin said – “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

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