All posts by Biju Dominic

Mint newspaper articles – ‘Behavior By Brain’

Wanted to update Blog readers on the series of articles in ‘The Mint‘ which I’ve been authoring. The articles, called ‘Behavior by Brain’, take a deep look at news and trends through the lens of ‘behavior’. Articles penned so far are linked below:

Hope you enjoy them. Do let me know your comments.

Irrationality in the face of imminent death

Emirates crash

The video on how the passengers of the Emirates plane that met with an accident at Dubai airport behaved, holds major lessons on how humans behave at times of high risk.

The foremost reaction to any risk by most humans is denial, unless the risk is very salient. Even with the best of information humans are not capable of evaluating the risk levels of most situations. This optimism bias in times of risk can lead to a ‘business as usual’ attitude and resultant behaviours that are inadequate and inappropriate for an emergency situation.

From the video it is clear that many passengers, instead of rushing to the nearest exit and heading for the escape chute, are more focused on opening the overhead lockers and carrying cabin luggage and laptops with them. In that process, they are causing the biggest hurdle for an evacuation process – blocking of the main aisles.  One can hear passengers reassuring each other that nothing critical has happened, and there is no need to worry. The feeling of danger is low in the voices and faces of passengers and there is no sense of urgency in their movements (so much so, that someone has taken his mobile to capture all this!). Then in the 55th second of the video, one hears the voice that is presumably of the flight attendant. In a raised tone, they repeatedly ask passengers to leave their bags and jump out of the plane. Immediately (and finally!) the passengers sense the emergency of the situation that we can hear fellow passengers rushing others to leave the bags behind and get out of the plane as fast as possible. Some are even seeking God’s help. Evacuation now happens at the right pace, in the right manner.

One can be complacent that all the passengers of this Emirates flight got out of the plane in time and that all are safe. But this was clearly a near-miss incident. One cannot be oblivious of some critical mistakes that happened, which could have led to a major disaster. The right behaviour expected of the passengers is – as soon as an emergency evacuation is signalled, all should realise that a dire mishap has occurred, and respond by immediately rushing to the nearest exit, leaving behind their belongings locked in the overhead storage. Instead, in this incident, it is only in the 55th second of the video that people stopped bothering about their bags and laptops and did what was required to do in order to save their lives and the lives of other passengers. The trigger for this change in behaviour of the passengers came from the flight attendant’s tone of voice and the content of the instructions. Which then makes one curiously ponder – why couldn’t have this intervention from the flight attendants happened 55 seconds earlier?

Human beings by nature are overconfident and tend to ignore most risks unless otherwise the proof of risk is very salient. In several situations, more so in emergency situations, the overconfidence of humans should be deflated to generate the right action in them. Merely communicating the information about a risk will not achieve this. Instead, communication about risk should be embedded with right levels of emotions. Humans are driven to immediate action only when there is a FEELING of risk. The first 55 seconds of the video clearly shows that the feeling of risk prevalent inside the airline was inadequate for an emergency situation of this kind.

During emergencies, every second counts. And humans will continue to behave as irrationally as seen here. Therefore, the critical inquiry required from this occurrence is: What can the airline industry learn about human behaviour from this incident? What in the inflight attendants’ training need to be altered, so that they generate the adequate feeling of risk in these emergency situations, which will refrain the passengers behaving either complacent or too panicky? What is the right script and tone of voice should flight attendants use, to initiate the right action among passengers, in emergencies like this? Finally, what is the ideal communication strategy to convey risk  that will motivate humans to take appropriate action even a second earlier?

Why Prohibition will not solve Kerala’s Alcoholism problem


Yet another government, this time the government of Kerala, is trying to solve the problem of alcoholism through the prohibition route. They have taken the first step in that direction by  closing down all bars except the five star hotel bars across the state. Being a Malayalee I know that alcoholism is a big problem in my home state. Given the socialist past of our country we always look up to the state to take care of its citizen’s problems. So when a problem as intense as alcoholism spreads across the state, it is obviously seen as the state’s responsibility to find a solution to the problem. Many an astute politician has understood this and have used ‘finding solutions’ for the alcoholism problem as an  excellent vote catching strategy, more so among the women voters. With elections just a few months away the politicians in Kerala too are not going to be any different.

Continue reading Why Prohibition will not solve Kerala’s Alcoholism problem

How Catholic Church manages Hyperbolic Discounting

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Human beings have a fundamental problem – we are unwilling to connect the future with what is required of us in the present. The future is uncertain. Instead of inspiring caution, our brains’ typical response to this uncertainty is to sharply reduce the importance of the future in our decision-making, an effect Behavioural Economists call ‘hyperbolic discounting’. We discount larger future gains for the sake of smaller, but more immediate ones. Consequences which occur at a later time, good or bad, tend to have a lot less bearing on our choices the more distantly they fall in the future – even when one’s life is at stake. One of the large global initiative most affected by hyperbolic discounting bias is the conservation of environment.
Continue reading How Catholic Church manages Hyperbolic Discounting

The bigger tragedy of the Germanwings disaster

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Just as you were about to hand over the appointment letter to a new employee who has passed all the qualifying tests with flying colours, he says ” sir, I just want to disclose that I am  on medication for depression for the past few years”. What will be your reaction? Will you hold back the appointment letter pending further enquiries? Or will you still hand over the appointment letter irrespective of his new revelation?

The Germanwings disaster has grabbed  everyone’s attention. It is a rare event, laden with lots of emotions and very many facets of the disaster continue to be intriguing. The narrative of the disaster  has a common refrain – the co-pilot was suffering from depression and taking medication for the same, he did not disclose this medical condition to the airline authorities, the  weird behaviour of the co-pilot could be attributed to his depression etc.

Depression, the biggest healthcare problem

Thanks to this spectacular nature of Germanwings disaster the mental illness of depression has shot into limelight. According to World Health Organization 350 million people today live with the problem of depression. By 2030 it will become the largest contributor to the global burden of disease. Across the world fewer than half and in some countries fewer than 10% of those affected receive treatments for this medical condition. When people do get treatment, many a time it is inadequate.

World wide a sense of shame is attached to mental illnesses and so many are hesitant to admit that they suffer from a mental illness. Those taking medication for mental illnesses like depression are uncomfortable about disclosing it even to close relatives. The whole world of mental illnesses exist in an atmosphere shrouded in shame and cover-ups. In such an  atmosphere most people will delay going to a doctor for treatment or do not adhere to the whole course of medication. But there  is no doubt that to build a healthy world, it is imperative that more and more people who suffer from depression seek medical help.

Wrong narrative of the tragedy

The narrative of the Germanwings disaster helped highlight the mental illness of depression. But it has also done lots of damage. Instead of highlighting the widespread nature of depression among the whole population, the focus of the narrative was far too much on the individual pilot. More than making the possible inadequacies in the treatment of depression as the villain, depression itself is being painted as the villain. Although the co-pilot was some one who was aware of his illness and was taking medication for the same, the focus is on the point that he did not disclose his medical condition to his employers. There are few observers who are now talking about psychometric tests that corporates should use to identify those suffering from depression. No discussion is happening as to what corporates should do when they come across employees suffering from depression.

In this atmosphere of vilification about depression, those suffering from this illness will be looked at with suspicion. This in turn will make many who suffer from depression to hide their illness and in many cases delay seeking medical help. Such an environment that encourages hiding one’s  depression problem could spell disaster for the health of the world.

We need a narrative that shows that depression is the most common health problem in the world. Stories of people who are involved in very responsible jobs even though they are under medication for depression should be highlighted. To manage the global health catastrophe emanating from depression we need to have an atmosphere where one could freely discuss about one’s metal illness much like the way we discuss about one’s cholesterol or diabetics problems.