Category Archives: non-conscious behaviour

The Science Of I’m Sorry

The Science Of I'm Sorry
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How an apology helps to restore relations.

Many of us have been raised to think that anger is a bad thing. Something that should be avoided at all costs. In this post we discuss how it may be a good friend, to be nurtured and cultivated and when and how it may be avoided when things go south.

First a few words about emotions in general. There was a time when emotions were considered a distraction, things that prevent us from being rational, thinking objectively, making good decisions and executing them. Thanks to the many studies in recent years that all has changed. We now have a fair idea of the role of emotions in decision making, planning, even sticking to those plans and decisions and updating them where necessary.

At the core, all emotions (fear, happiness, disgust, anxiety, surprise et. al) play an important role to help us to survive and thrive. And this implies taking decisions in our self interest. Personal to us as an individual or to a community depending upon how we identify ourselves belonging to a particular group in a given context (Self Identity).

Now coming back to the topic, Anger is one of the most studied emotions by behavioral and neuroscientists. It’s easy to synthesize and measure anger in a lab. There are a few things research tells us about anger.

1. The word Anger covers a vast spectrum of emotions of varying intensities ranging from mild irritation to annoyance, aggression all the way up to hostility and then fury and rage. Unlike some other emotions like disgust, Anger is not a learnt emotion. Not something we learn as we grow, but we are very much born with it. Even a 5 days old baby who is playfully waving its hands and legs, if you try to hold its feet and pin it down even for a few seconds would show all the classic symptoms of anger. It’s face becomes red, heart beat goes up and the other physiological and neurochemical changes that may be measured in a lab.

Milder forms of anger such as aggression are very much useful and provide the much needed strength and motivation to overcome obstacles. Anger is an emotion that starts to impair our sense of risk and pain by releasing natural painkillers and other suppressants into the system. That is why a hurt player or a wounded soldier would sometime get aggressive, perhaps even be considered a daredevil (in hindsight) and do something quite dramatic in the face of all odds, fighting and winning against more powerful opponents.

But when the intensity of anger crosses into the domain of hostility, fury or rage, there is a complete breakdown of our sense of risk, pain, physical and mental awareness. And that is, when bad things start to happen.

2. The underpinnings of anger lies in our sense of fairness. An obligation or desire to set right what has been wronged. Anger cannot arise or sustain without the presence of a retribution component to punish the perpetrator for the undesirable act, which we think was unfair or did not fit our moral code (however convoluted or illogical that might appear to someone else). The tendency is to punish the agent sometime physically; sometimes just cognitively by inducing the emotions of sadness, shame, guilt, even fear. The objective: to prevent a repeat of any future such transgression.

3. Anger is always directed towards an intelligent agent. Someone who we think is capable of thinking and taking independent decisions; individuals, groups of people, governments and like. We may love food or watching movies or fear electric shocks or be disgusted of inanimate things but we cannot be angry towards just things, events or experiences.

Imagine you are in a hurry rushing through a store and suddenly an elbow thrusts you in the abdomen, As you recover, one can sense some anger rising towards this person. Then suddenly you realize, Oh! it’s not a person but just a mannequin to display clothes. We don’t start to exhibit our anger towards the mannequin. Immediately the focus of our anger shifts to the irresponsible worker who pushed the mannequin out there. Now sometimes it may appear as if inanimate objects etc. were being harmed or abused, but the real anger is directed towards the perpetrator with some intelligence (who we think caused the act).

Now this is also interesting and a topic of debate among behavioral scientists. Where and how would anger be directed towards in the case of a mishap in Artificially Intelligent systems: self driving cars, robots etc. Who would be blamed? The inanimate (but now intelligent) car, the creator (programmer/engineer), the owner or the Government which allowed them.

4. The dissipation of anger follows an inverse exponential decay path. The intensity of anger reduces slowly at first and then
much sharply as in the graph  below.

Inverse exponential decay of emotion
Courtesy International Handbook of Anger

Anger and other emotions are like a chemical storm in the brain. Imagine a bucket filled with water and some colored sand-like particles which is then stirred vigorously. Left to its own it would take some time for things to settle down before calm is restored.

Now the question that arises. How does an apology fit into this picture?
We all know that an apology on the part of the offender generally helps to dissipate anger. But how so?

Let’s think from the perpetrators point for a second. What does a sincere apology actually do? Isn’t it just another way of saying that normally I am a good and moral person, but this particular act that bothered you was not so. Therefore a sincere apology, in a way, helps to separate the agent from the act. Once the agent is cleared of the act, anger subsides much quickly.
Roger Petersen and Sarah Zukerman in The International Handbook of Anger describe the process as follows. When offenders apologize, anger, the desire for revenge, and levels of punishment are hypothesized to diminish. The causal processes are fourfold. First, by exhibiting the emotions of sorrow, sadness, regret, shame, or guilt, the offender demonstrates to the victim his/her humanity which enables the victim to overcome stereotypes brought on by anger. Second, the apology produces a separation between the offender and his negative action; the offense is shamed, but the perpetrator is not. In this way, the perpetrator’s inherent self-worth is redeemed and s/he becomes potentially worthy of restored relations and reconciliation with the victim.

The above graph for the decay of anger now becomes something like the one below. Doesn’t disappear altogether immediately. The chemical storm in the brain takes a while to settle down.

Courtesy International Handbook of Anger


To conclude; Anger is a spectrum of emotions, aimed at an intelligent agent, to preserve self identity in case of a transgress and very much essential for survival. The higher intensity emotion destroys our ability to reason. Unless provoked continuously it comes down on its own following an inverse exponential curve. A sincere apology and explanation separates the agent from the act and accelerates the process of restored relations.

Nudging Accurate Road Crash Investigation

Around 400 people lose their lives on Indian roads every day. In order to reduce this death count and improve road safety, we need to identify the root causes and then determine solutions. Accurate data capture is critical for this.

The road incident data in India is collected through local police and recorded in FIRs (First Information Report) at the police stations. The investigation reports from the local police stations are sent to the State Governments, who in turn send their report to the Central Government. The police data is used in publishing annual reports of ‘Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India’ and ‘Road Accidents in India’ by two government organizations, National Crime Records Bureau and Ministry of Road Transport and Highways respectively.

Data collected by the police could be subjective as it depends on how the police personnel interpret and ascribe reasons for the incident during investigation at the site. A motor vehicle collision could happen due to faulty road design, pedestrian’s fault, driver’s fault, poor visibility and many other reasons, but more often than not, the driver is blamed. To address this bias and to make crash investigation more objective, an effective and efficient data collection system should be in place.

The route patrolling team (RPT) is usually the first responder for incidents on national or state highways. They record the details of the incidents – the people involved, vehicles involved, cause and type of the incident, date and time of the incident, etc. Because of their ‘first responder’ status, many a times, RPT data forms the basis for the police report. For our Road Safety projects, we designed Crash Investigation Form for the RPT (route patrolling team) with a goal of making the form more objective.

To illustrate the problem of subjectivity, let us look at some examples from our Road Safety projects.

While interacting with a truck driver involved in an incident, the driver revealed that he lost control as he was blinded for a second due to glare of headlights in the opposite lane and rammed into the median opening structure. The RPT classified the cause of this incident as ‘driver was sleepy.’

In another incident, the car driver (admittedly over-speeding) said that in order to avoid running into an auto trying to cut across at the median opening, he turned his vehicle and rammed into the highway guardrail. While investigating the incident, the RPT concluded the reason as ‘driver was over-speeding.’

In both these incidents, the actual causes were ignored – glare in the first incident and a vehicle trying to cut across at high speed in the second incident. We realized that many a times, the RPT interpret the cause of the incident and prepare the report accordingly rather than objectively recording the information, resulting in skewed data and misrepresentation of the incidents.

We redesigned the Crash Investigation Form to nudge the RPT to capture the details in sequence and to hold off analysis of the cause of the incident till the very end of the report. Collecting details like ‘position of the vehicle(s)’ [Fig 1] before and after incident and ‘vehicle damage status’ [Fig 2] is crucial in identifying the cause of the incident and person responsible for the incident.


Fig 1


Fig 2

Also, capturing incident details is a monotonous process due to which the person collecting data might fail to focus on specific details resulting in skewed data. We designed the Crash Investigation Form with visuals [Fig 3] to make the data collection process more engaging, self explanatory and easy.    

Fig 3

A new incident recording format for the police has been approved and introduced recently by the Transport Research Wing, Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, Government of India. This report is intended to minimize subjectivity while recording the incident details and to arrive at the actual cause of the incident by capturing the technical details like road surface and traffic control systems in place at the incident site. Will this new format aid the police personnel in accurate collection of crash data and minimize subjectivity?

To begin with, it could be difficult for few police personnel to understand and remember terms like ‘staggered junction,’ ‘four arm junction’ ‘paved/unpaved surface,’ etc., (even though workshops are planned to train the police) while filling the details at the incident site. The process to arrive at the ‘cause of the incident’ in the new format could have been more analytical by capturing details like ‘position of the vehicle(s) before and after incident’ and ‘vehicle damage status’ – this is very crucial as solutions/preventive measures depend on the cause of the incidents. The text-heavy report could also have been made easier with illustrations to aid data-capture and reduce monotony. All these aspects might eventually result in incorrect data collection negating the purpose of designing a new format.

For an unbiased and accurate data collection, it is imperative that the Incident Recording Form should be comprehensive, yet easy to understand; visually more engaging; and follow a sequence in data collection with an objective approach in determining the cause of the incident.

P.S.  Only few sections from the Crash Investigation Report designed by us have been published here for reference.

Paris attack and the problem of categorization

Blog - Paris Attack

The Paris attacks have been a major shock and we are understandably upset. Most of us have been reminded of some of the earlier acts of terror such as the 26/11 attack in Mumbai or even 09/11 in New York. It also reminded us of the mixed emotions (fear, anger and despair) that we felt during the attacks.

 Since the earlier attacks were also targeted at civilians, we consider this act in the same vein. However, this Atlantic Article – What ISIS really wants suggests that, maybe, this attack is different. The article refers to the origin of the Islamic State from al-Qaeda, the formation of its leader al-Baghdadi, its strong belief of being a key agent of the apocalypse and many other qualities. But the most important point that it tries to make is that ISIS is not like al-Qaeda or any other organization that we tend to categorize as terrorists. The author suggests that we seem to have misunderstood jihadism as monolithic or of a single kind which it is not.

We can probably call this a problem of categorization or essentially mis-categorization.

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Getting emotional about razor cartridges

How do you feel about these two Gillette razor blades? Do you like one over the other? Which one would you use?


Though they may seem very similar except for the very obvious color choice, I feel that there will be a big difference in the way the two are used. The key is the color.

The one on the left, designed for Gillette Fusion razors, was launched earlier. The one on the right, designed for Gillette Fusion Power razors, was an enhancement to the product line. Thoughtfully or not, the designers have hit upon a great idea.
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