Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment in Psychiatry

Importance of Context

One of the most important contributions of developmental psychology has been the discovery that patterns of behavior, and of process-behavior linkage, vary across contexts. In the context of U.S. society, a child who is teased by peers might find support for retaliating aggressively, whereas the same teasing experience in Japanese society might well cause shame, embarrassment, and withdrawal. Context shapes single behaviors and may also shape patterns of psychopathology.

Most theories of human behavior do not apply equally well across all contexts but are embedded within a particular context. For example, Freud’s broad hypotheses must be interpreted in relation to Western culture, at a particular point in history. Indeed, his ideas about the nature of the human species changed as he saw a world war destroy the society around him. Researchers try to determine which laws of human behavior are universal and which are contextual, and they try to identify the mechanisms through which context influences behavior.

Context can be defined at many levels, from discrete situational features to broad cultural features and from internal states such as mood to external factors such as geography or time of day. Bronfenbrenner’s continuum of environmental contexts forms the basis of his ecological theory (discussed later in this chapter).

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