Category Archives: the emotional brain

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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How Emotional is Behavioral Economics?

Behavioral Economics is garnering more and more attention everyday. As it should be – the brain subscribes heavily to heuristics and mental models in order to process information efficiently. Our preferences are highly malleable and are usually constructed on the fly – which is why any field studying descriptive decision making would be incomplete if it didn’t take into account the effects that the decision context and decision frames have on our choices. Which is all very good for Behavioral Economics.

Daniel Kanhneman, Richard Thaler, Senthil Mullainathan, amongst many others drive this field and are creating a massive shift in thinking across several domains in classical economics – savings, investment, wealth, losses, gains. The definition of Behavioral Economics is wide. “It studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences.” However, whilst the definition mentions ‘Emotional’, the reality is that the literature on Behavioral Economics falls painfully short when it comes to Emotions. System 1 & System 2, Prospect Theory, Choice Architecture, Choice Bracketing, Heuristics and Biases – whilst talking about how human beings are ‘economically irrational’ and the role of emotions in decision making, barely scratch the surface of the nuances of the Emotional System. Which is a pity, because Emotions do not merely play a role in Decision-Making, they guide the decision-making process. There are no decisions that are devoid of emotions, even ones that might seem extremely calculated and ‘rational’. We’ve written about the omnipotent role of Emotions before, here


The brain is continuously appraising our larger context, the surrounding environment and stimuli, and basis these appraisals – which could be non-conscious, or completely deliberative, the emotional system responds – determining action tendencies, and ultimately actions. These emotional responses clue us in on the values we attach to things and our motivations. People with damaged emotional circuits are severely hampered in their ability to make even the simplest of decisions. The essence is not in the simplicity of emotions as we colloquially understand but in the complex determinants of emotions. In understanding the role that aspects like Individuals Goals, Relevance to Decision Maker, Self-Image, Sense of Control, Ability to deal with the Outcomes play. The handles that these provide in explaining decision making, understanding behavioral outcomes and influencing preference changes are invaluable.

Lets talk about Investing – To Buy or Not is driven by  two dominant emotions that come into play and drive all decisions. The ‘Fear of Losing’ and the ‘Fear of Losing Out. Fear all the same. With all its positives and ramifications when fear has only cognitive underpinnings. Whilst Behavioral Economics talks about this aversion to loss, the emotions behind it – the aversion/avoidance that are driven as a result of Fear and anxiety are not detailed. Whilst felt Emotions are a huge driver of decisions, Anticipated Emotions are an even stronger influencer – anticipation of gains, losses, happiness, sadness, loss of control are very very powerful and are strong elicitors of Preference Reversals. Again, a lot of the Heuristics and Biases that Behavioral Economics talks about are driven fundamentally by Uncertainty – another powerful emotional mediator. Our decisions might not maximise economic utility, but are most often maximising emotional utility.

For Behavioral Economics to become more powerful and impactful, therefore, there is an immediate need to place emotions at the centre of this conversation so one is able to see the source of heuristics that drive our behavior and then work on one or more dimensions of the emotional determinants to influence decision making and behavioral outcomes. At FinalMile, studying these emotions is central to our process. We use insights/learnings from Cognitive Neuroscience as well as Behavioral Economics, to design our EMGRAM framework which allows us to make sense of the Emotions associated with any problem Context.

– Written with Anurag Vaish


Why do we still discriminate?



Growing up in a socialist economy comes with its unique set of experiences. One particular experience that stands out in my memory is the struggle to get through the engineering school admission after Grade 12th. Like any struggle, this too is filled with mixed emotions – anxiety due to the uncertainty of the future and frustration due to not always getting the top choice. 

But there was one more emotion that I experienced that day. As I look back, it seems extremely unreasonable today, however, it was totally justifiable at that time. It was the feeling of anger, a feeling mainly directed towards the groups that were given special reservations at most colleges under the Affirmative Action policy in the Constitution. Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) are the primary beneficiaries of this policy and they qualify since they were traditionally marginalised and underrepresented in most professional communities. 

These reservations are also extended in certain jobs particularly ones that are part of the State and Central government machinery. While this policy has been criticised due to multiple problems, it has helped a large number of people by giving them opportunities that otherwise would not have been within their reach. But the feeling of anger amongst those who are not eligible seems to be present in both the education as well as the professional communities. 

This feeling has an interesting parallel to one experienced in western countries in their dealings with racism. In the book Appraisal Processes in Emotion Ira Roseman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University, explains the change in the form of racism from the traditional “old fashioned racism” to a more “modern” form of racism. Most surveys indicate that in the United States, white racism towards blacks has come down significantly. Usually, this refers to the traditional form of racism where white racists would look down on blacks, consider them unworthy of respect and intellectually inadequate and would exclude them from their groups. These behaviours are usually associated with the emotion of Contempt, a feeling for someone we consider lower in status. However, the modern form of racism is has moved from Contempt to Anger. This feeling comes from the attribution of negative acts such as those related to safety (burglary, shooting, etc.), exploitation of public resources by relying on welfare payments, etc. The behaviours associated with this kind of racism are usually around being hostile towards the other group, criticising their actions and believing that they deserve more severe punishment as compared to the rest of the society – essentially justifying lack of fairness towards the black community.

Now, if one looks at the history of the marginalised groups in India, one can see a similar pattern. Untouchability, which is now banned in the country, was openly practised in the society. The underlying emotions here are probably a mix of disgust and contempt. And these usually arise due to the same attributions as what we observed in the traditional form of racism – this group is low and unworthy of sharing our physical space and hence, excluded from most public forums. Over the past few decades this discrimination has gradually subsided, especially in the urban parts of the country. The differences in the stature of the so called upper and lower castes have come down. However, the special treatment in the education and professional forums has given rise to anger. The Indian society is still scarce on opportunities due to its significantly large population. So, the special allocation of resources takes away what is already insufficient. This gives rise to the discontent against the minority groups. 

Is there any value in understanding these nuances of discrimination?  

There are probably still enough parts of the country where untouchability exists. We are currently living in a society where we need to deal with both the old form and the new form of discrimination. The usual approach to handle discrimination is to develop interventions that embed equality in society. While this works when there is contempt, this may not be a good idea while dealing with anger. In fact the more equal we believe all groups are, the more hostility we will feel against the group that is blocking our resources. 

We need a different kind of intervention here. The book referred earlier offers an interesting example. Two different groups of boys had frequent altercations and felt both contempt and anger against each other. These two groups were then placed in a situation where they had to cooperate in order to achieve a common goal. By the end of the exercise, new friendships were formed decreasing the intergroup hostility. 

The key idea is to move from a situation where we believe that the goal of the other group is inconsistent to our own goals. This is what the army does where group learning is a significant part of training. By creating more avenues where citizens can come together to target a common goal can help us manage these negative feelings that are held amongst the different societal groups. 

Image Source: Here