Tag Archives: behaviour

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.

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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Is the end of one-child policy, beginning of a new experiment?

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As per the recent NY Times article, one of the biggest human experiment “One-Child Policy” has come to an end.

The policy came into effect in the 1970s as a response to the concern that the population growth was impeding economic growth. The reversal seems to be a response to a new problem – aging of the population.

The ethics and rationale behind such government interventions have been and will continue to be debated in the public policy and macroeconomic circles. But lets view this problem from a different lens – dealing with a wicked problem.

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Are we better off living in California?

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It’s a question my wife & I have been debating since we moved to Chicago in January.

Of course, the weather is the primary trigger. Talking to our friends doesn’t help either. Folks living in bay area continue to boast about the near 70 F temperatures. Each call typically starts with a mention of the cold temperatures in Chicago. And at the end of each call, we dream of living in a warmer place.

But when we start talking about happiness, there is an interesting pattern to most conversations. Whether it is the high cost of living or the lack of public transport, it seems the favorable weather conditions in California are balanced out by other factors. So in terms of overall life satisfaction, we are not very far off from our friends. In fact, we are probably as satisfied.

This raises the question: will we be more satisfied if we move?

Turns out, the question has been researched already. In this paper, Kahneman and Schkade refer to a research they conducted with students in Midwestern and Southern California universities. Students were asked to give a satisfaction rating to life overall as well as to certain aspects of life. Each student provided a satisfaction score for themselves or someone similar to themselves in both the regions. The data was analyzed for both self and other conditions.

Both groups of students rated that the Californians are likely to be more satisfied than Midwesterners. Satisfaction with climate tend to account for this high score. However, their own overall life satisfaction score was almost the same. And it gets even more interesting. Climate-related aspects were rated as more important for someone living in another region than for someone in one’s own region. In essence, a midwesterner believed that climate has a small part to play for her own life satisfaction but a larger part for someone living in California. Similarly, a Californian believed that the relatively warmer climate has a smaller significance for her life satisfaction but much higher significance (likely negative) for someone living in the midwest area.

How do we explain this discrepancy? The scientists believe that this is largely due to the effect of Focusing Illusion. When a judgement of a category (life satisfaction in Midwest vs California) is made by focusing on a subset of that category (life satisfaction due to climate conditions), we tend to overweigh the subset’s relative value to any other subset. In other words, we tend to ignore other aspects of life satisfaction such as job, travel, housing etc and end up deciding based on one single parameter. This is exactly what the students did and this is probably what my wife and I are doing.

In our case, we are conveniently ignoring the geographic location of Chicago that makes it far easier to travel within United States as compared to California. Something that can be very important for our consulting jobs.

Clearly, we should do a better job in evaluating this decision. Will this awareness of Focusing illusion help us do that? I don’t think so. I will probably rationalize my preference for California to the fact that I grew up in a tropical climate and still pursue the ambition to move. After all, this susceptibility to our evolutionary biases is what makes us human. 

 

Why do we still discriminate?

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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. 

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