Tag Archives: human brain

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.

Are we better off living in California?



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?



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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Can Brazil still win the World Cup?


Brazil lost it’s star player in the game against Colombia. Some say they may have lost the world cup as well.  But does Brazil still have a upper hand over Germany today? Can playing at home give them the much needed edge? We believe it does. 

What constitutes this home advantage? Is it just the extra adrenalin flow when you the hear the roar of thousands supporting you? Or is there something sinister about it? Do referees who are suppose to be impartial tend to contribute to this home team advantage? 

Chicago Booth Business School has analysed several studies in this area and have come to some startling revelations. Yes, the referees have a bias towards the home team. The biases were clearly evident when it comes to taking that crucial decision as to how much injury time gets added to the game. 

Referees add extra time at the end of a match to make up for the time lost due injuries, substitutions or any other interruptions that could happen in a match. For the players, the coach and more so the fans the importance of the amount of time added to the game depends on the context at the scheduled end of the game. If  either of the teams are leading by a large number of goals at the regular 90 minutes of the game, nobody is really bothered about how many extra minutes get added to the game. But  if your team is trailing by a goal you will be happier if more injury time is added to the game. But if your team is leading by a slender margin of just one goal you will want the match to end as soon as possible. So the less the injury time gets added to the game the happier you are. 

Studies by Canice Prendenergast of Chicago Booth Business School and Luis Garicano and Ignacio Palacios Huerta of London School of Economics are showing that referees add on an average 2.93 minutes of injury time. But the crucial question is whether this average is affected by any bias. The surprising truth this study show is that the referees are biased while deciding the duration of time that gets added to a game. These researchers found that referees add 35% more than average time to a match when the crowd want the match to continue longer and add 29% less than average time when the crowd want the match to end earlier. If either of the teams are leading by a large number of goals, the added injury time is close to the average time. 

What  causes the referees to make these biased decisions? Blame it on the social pressure exerted by the home fans. The size and noise generated by the home crowd is a  key determinant that influences referees decisions.  It is also interesting to note that when match has few spectators or when the visiting fans are large in number, the tendency of the referee to take these biased decisions decrease. This was confirmed by a study by Per Pettersson-Lidbom and Mikael Priks of 21 Italian League matches which were played with no spectators. The authorities had asked the teams to play in front of empty stadiums due to the previous unruly behaviours of the spectators of those clubs. The studies confirmed that when there are no fans in the stadium, referees don’t display any bias.  

Now, we cannot play the game without fans. There may be less extreme solutions too. Studies in Germany show that when the football field is surrounded by a running track, there by  creating larger physical distance between the fans and the referee, the tendency of the referee to take biased decisions decrease.     

A soccer referee is assumed to be an epitome of unbiased behaviour. But the above studies are showing that even they are susceptible to behaviour biases. So this soccer world cup is not just a showpiece of human athleticism, but also a stage that displays the frailties of human behaviour, of the fans, players, coaches  and surprisingly that of the referees too. Lets see if Brazil is able to exploit these in the next game.


Andhra Bus Accident: A tale of different narratives

Blog Andhra Bus Accident

A tragic accident involving a Volvo bus happened on the Bangalore – Hyderabad highway today. 44 passengers are feared killed. The bus driver, the helper and five passengers managed to escape death.

So, how did this accident happen? Since morning, we have heard multiple narratives of the accident across different media channels. Initially, it seemed like the bus hit an Oil tanker that resulted in the bus catching fire. Later, a channel reported the bus driver’s statement that the primary cause was a tyre bust which resulted in the bus skidding onto the side of the road.

After a few hours most channels reached a consistent narrative. The bus was being driven at high speeds and while overtaking another car it hit a culvert that impacted the fuel tank. The fuel tank burst into flames which soon swept over the entire bus.

Was the press irresponsible or misleading? Or is there are a larger issue at play?

As humans, we have a high degree of curiosity. We want to know why and how the accident happened when in the immediate term we should be worried about rescue and relief. This curiosity means, we are always searching for a story that makes sense, one thats logical and mostly, one that is a good story. This pushes us towards a narrative which is a significant problem with most investigations. People look for a narrative first rather than going about it objectively and this narrative kills objectivity and truth.

Once people get into a story telling mode, their reporting is influenced by a number of biases. The narratives also tend to be swayed by the stories mentioned by others around. The driver’s themselves tend to explain traffic accidents by reporting circumstances of lowest culpability with credibility (Baker’s Law). In addition, our own interpretation adds another layer of subjectivity. Remember Chinese Whispers?

Using a scientific approach to investigations can help us overcome this issue of subjectivity and reach an accurate diagnosis of the incident. Paul Meehl, an American psychology professor, in his 1954 book “Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence” argued that mechanical methods of data combinations can make more efficient decisions about patients’ prognosis and treatment as compared to clinical or subjective methods. These mechanical methods can use a combination of data, checklists and even clinical judgments to predict the outcome.

The idea is to move from a pure intuition based judgement towards a more objective and systematic way of diagnosing the incident. The system needs to ensure that we come to the narrative at the end of accident investigation rather than lead it. In one of our recent work on Road Safety, we have worked on designing an accident investigation system that avoids bias reporting. The new process captures all the accident elements objectively before arriving to the final prognosis. This system is now being used for future investigations.

We know that media’s job may not be to conduct accident investigations. However, they can also follow simple rules such as not releasing driver’s version immediately and avoid such varied narratives of the same tale.

The key issue is that if we get lost in the narrative and end up drawing wrong inferences, we will be learning wrong things and addressing wrong problems.

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