What impacts decision-making?

No pollster – save a couple of isolated academics – would predict Donald Trump’s victory at the hustings.  The media gave the findings of the pollsters as much publicity as they could, and they also went all out to influence public opinion in favour of their choice for President. They made sure the public would recall instantly all the reasons why a Trump presidency would be disastrous: fear, anger and recoil was pumped up to hysterical levels to ensure Trump would not  have a smooth ride – or indeed any ride at all – to the White House.  The media, perhaps, did not give credence to Kahneman’s assertion (Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow) that people are not as rational in their thinking as believed and their judgement is less influenced by emotions than by heuristics and biases.

But, do heuristics and biases inform our decisions to the degree that social scientists believe they do?  It is a simple rule of thumb that a person voting to have a good leader steering their country would choose experience in administration over inexperience in governance, a deliberate and considered speaker over a blustering ad hoc talker, a candidate with proven credentials in office, who had the backing of her party, over a maverick who had parachuted on to the political firmament with running battles against his own party bigwigs till voting day. A frenzied media – print and audiovisual – went all out to prejudice the public opinion against their representation of homeo horribilis. And yet, the will of the people seemed to have upended the consideration that heuristics and biases impact thought even more than emotions.

Recent upheavals in the polity of the US and India appear to be opening up uncharted avenues for research into the human psyche. Despite all that he has to his discredit the  American electorate have given a startling thumbs up to a Trump tenure. Despite all the difficulties that they have to personally undergo, the Indian public have voted overwhelmingly for the government’s demonetization initiative.


Passion vs Commitment


We often hear of people being passionate about something.  Not unoften, we also hear of people being committed to something. Is it better to be passionate about something or committed to something?

Passion is synonymous with fervour – a feverish excitement.  Commitment implies an emotion more sedate and steady; it is synonymous with dedication and a sense of responsibility. Passion connotes restlessness; commitment, dependability. Passion is a heightened feeling that seeks an outlet in activity external to the self. Commitment is a quiet force that impels the individual from within. Passion seeks fulfilment, whereas commitment is its own reward. One can be the architect and agent of one’s own happiness in the latter case, whereas in the former, satisfaction is contingent on  external factors.

Interestingly, despite their differences, it seems that commitment could metamorphose into passion, or one could be passionately committed to something. On the other hand, commitment to one cause can come in the way of passion for another vocation and passion for one thing can disrupt one’s commitment to something else.

Mind vs manas:  Religious re-conversion and the conflict within

Inducement and/ or coercion are the natural suspects in any form of religious conversion.  In the case of re-conversion, however, there seems to be a far more potent force – a psychological driver.

In the case of re-conversion or what is called #GharVapasi, literally ‘returning home’, the crux of the conflict seems to lie in the conceptual difference between ‘mind’ and ‘manas’.  As evidence of this, let me give this simple illustration:  If you ask a person to indicate the home of the ‘mind’, the hand automatically points to the head.  However, if you ask a person to indicate the home of ‘manas’, the hand would go to the heart.  The original conversion which has been provoked by inducement or coercion is a move mediated by considerations and calculations of the ‘mind’.  However, the heart, where the ‘manas’ resides, doesn’t coalesce with the culture it is thrust into by the machinations of the ‘mind’.  From this ecosystem of discomfort, where the mind and the manas are not in cohesion, ghar vapasi appears to offer a conflict resolution of sorts.  To term this act as ‘returning to the roots’ may be more apt and provide a better explanation than to call it ‘returning home’.

Those magnificent Indians and their flights of imagination …


From transplanted organs to test tube babies, vaccines to vehicles in space – every modern-day advance in science has been beyond the pale of imagination till it happened.  Any imaginings about such possibilities much before the time of such inventions would have been considered the stuff of fiction.  No imaginings provoked the inventions of modern science. It is politically incorrect and rationally impossible to claim that they did.  But one may be permitted to ask: could the ones who imagined have gone on to invent too, if they had the opportunity to do it or to inspire another?  Surely, the ‘two cultures’ are not all that distanced from each other!  Did not those magnificent mortals who once fooled around with flying machines go on to land Philae on comet 67P, letting their unmanned flying machine wander in space for ten years before it found an opportunity to do what they had imagined it could?  Had mortals never tried to fly, God having decided to make them wingless creatures, would we have vehicles vying for space in space?  While the history of modern science and science fiction can be satisfactorily debated, the same does not hold good for the possibilities and potentialities that prevailed in pre-history of even recent vintage.

Take the case of coffee, a compulsory aid to scientific endeavour:  We know a little bit of its history.  But it boggles the mind to imagine that out of all the plants that were around, someone should have chosen this one to try brewing a decoction after subjecting the seed to a multiple level processing: stewing, separating fruit from seed, drying, roasting, powdering, decanting after pouring boiling water over the stuff.  Surely, the inventor of coffee did a certain amount of ‘science’ though the chronicles of his experimentation are lost in the mists of myth.  But this is far simpler stuff, it seems than the creation of the laddu – a permanent fixture on the politician’s palate: not only has a particular legume to be processed and powdered.  It has to be subjected to a medley of cooking processes and mixed thereafter with spices in sweetened syrup, which in turn has to be of a particular consistency, and the whole allowed to marinade before being shaped into spheres.  A culinary invention merely, true, but a complex one nevertheless, that might have called for a scientific spirit at least, if not science as it is understood.

When there is so little we can know even about the simpler everyday things of life, how much more distanced may we be from the more complex happenings in the life and times of our myth-makers!

Why am I what I am?

A young person wrote to me recently with this question: ‘Am I just a reflection of my environment?’ It is a question I have visited many times in the past.  But as always, the answers vary with time, getting more nuanced or complex, whichever way you want to look at it, because one changes constantly as one is exposed to newer knowledge and experience.

Alluding to the ‘myriad ways in which people choose to spend their time, [and] the priorities they set to invest [their time] in,’ the correspondent asked how far one’s upbringing can impact one’s thoughts, tastes and principles, and whether such impact becomes impossible to erase after a certain age.

My own feeling, which, as I have already mentioned is in a constant state of flux, is this.  Whether you take the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s constructions of ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ or the Indian philosophical thought’s conceptions of ‘Manas’ and ‘Buddhi’, it all works out to a constant exchange [or clash] between emotions, intuitions and premonitions on the one hand and the compulsion to perform an act on the other.  The former are mediated by System 1 or Manas, according to me, and the latter, by System 2 or Buddhi.  However, whereas the volition or impetus is provided by System 1 or Manas initially, System 2 or Buddhi is providing continuous feedback in order to refine the reflexive impulses of System 1 or Manas.

The choices we make or the priorities we set ourselves are System 2 acts, or acts of the intellect [Buddhi]. Emotion, intuition and premonition, which are System 1 or Manas [Mind] functions, underlie our proclivities towards particular choices. However, as the feedback loop from System 2 to System 1 is perennial, the impact of System 1 on System 2 would certainly have been cultivated over time.  Therefore, to my mind, upbringing or environment can, at best, be a force that starts you off on the journey, no more.  You are what you are because of all that happened to you in the process of becoming – the exposure to experiences which have defined the trajectory of your System 2 responses.

Homosexuality: Natural law, Indian culture, and other ill-considered arguments

A priest asserts that attraction for the same sex subverts natural law and is, hence, immoral. A politician claims that homosexuality is not in tune with a country’s culture – in this case, Indian culture. But are Nature and Culture so easily defined or understood?

Nature is hardly an open book – we are still to plumb even the extent of her mystery, much less attempt to unravel the secrets. And human nature, a mere chapter in the Book of Nature, is one of the abiding mysteries. Physiology, arguably more than any other branch of knowledge, is perpetually deepening and widening its domain, besides also reversing many of its findings as in the case of cancer research in recent times. Under the circumstances, it may not be long before gender, we are told, is no longer just an anatomical distinction; the mind may have to be examined and factored in before a decision regarding gender can be made. Stereotypical understanding of ‘male’ and ‘female’ will then no longer hold. How will the natural law then be interpreted?

As for culture – it is another complex phenomenon. It cannot be straitjacketed in a timeframe or a mindset. It is constantly evolving and yet is anchored in history – there is continuity and change, as well as constancy. It belongs to a community, a nation, a people, and may yet be an extremely personal practice – for culture is both homogeneous and diverse. A culture could live on though all around it is destroyed, and go extinct even in the midst of development. An individual, at any point in history, can become so identified with a culture that they become synonymous with it – indeed become a metonym for it, but no individual, at any point of time, can claim to be the sole voice of a culture, least of all Indian culture which, like a palimpsest, has been layered over and over again through time though the earlier cultures have never been erased.

Defining ‘moral’

Reclaiming the ‘science’ in moral science [an episodic essay… contd.]

A fair definition is crucial to facilitate and further discussion of a concept, a notion, a term, an idea. Therefore, let me begin by trying to define ‘moral’.

Thoughts, words and actions untainted by greed, hatred and/ or delusion are moral.

This definition draws its strength from the commonly accepted notions of what is amoral, and simply negates all amoral possibilities to state clearly what morality is. This could be considered an acceptable technique for a definition, by definition, tries to isolate, identify or locate and characterize a term or a concept for easy recognition and unambiguous understanding. With the natural bias of an author, I shall presume the fairness of the definition and proceed …

Since greed, hatred and delusion are key words in deciding whether or not an intervention is moral, we have to get a comprehensive understanding of these terms before considering ways to re-instate moral science as the knowledge of ‘what ought to be done’.

[More to come in the coming days]