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.


Censorship and Debate: a lesson from ancient India

Censorship may not be all bad.  Problem is, it doesn’t work.  True, all minds are not cultivated to the same degree, trained sufficiently or mature enough to approach with suspicion, question before absorbing the import of what is being said, or to suspect intrigue.    But you cannot even censor your own kids: they will find ways to use the words, read the literature, and do the acts you prohibit.  So, where does that leave larger entities that try to clamp down on free speech, thought and expression?

Western systems, since millennia, appear to have considered it prudent to censor thought: Plato, in Republic, goes into some detail about what young minds should be exposed to, and Rousseau’s Emile is premised on this.  But in India, what has come to be called ‘Hindu’ philosophy preferred healthy debate to censorship, which is one of the reasons it  keeps giving rise to breakaway cults and heterodoxies that become strong, individual congregations in their own right.

Nyaya, a precursor of Western Logic, for instance, is among the earliest systematised schools of thought rooted in the ‘Hindu’ philosophy.  It predates the Christian era and was the fountainhead of several treatises on Tarka, which may be loosely translated as reflective analysis or argument.  Tarka, an important scholarly enterprise of ancient India, which was honed as both a science and an art, was instrumental in establishing the claims of one philosopher or philosophy over another, often in an assembly of scholars, laypersons and aristocrats.  The written word was also used to powerful effect at transformational change by following the norms of scientific debate.

Contemporary Indian polity – by which term I mean the nation and its various organs from government to media to the public at large – would do well to reclaim this ancient Indian tradition of logical reasoning and healthy debate to counter what are perceived as deviant opinions rather than try to cow down discomfiting strains of thought with censorship.  Rather than ban a book, film or play, write a book, produce a film or stage a play with an alternative viewpoint.   Don’t take the easy way out and just try to wish away what you don’t like or want with a blanket ban.  The atheist streams have had their space in Indian society: from Carvaka-s of ancient India to Dravidian movements of contemporary times.  No one banned them.  They did not gather steam or drifted away from their moorings because the larger sections of Indian society found greater meaning in non-atheist thought.   If you want your view to prevail, you will take the trouble to give it the contours of reason and substance.

#NewEducationPolicy and #AncientIndianEducation

Ancient Indian Education, in many ways, seems to have anticipated the modern-day instruction idiom.  Some of their ideas, which have stood the test of time, are worth adopting, with adaptations, when formulating India’s #NewEducationPolicy.  Today I would like to discuss the concept of Sravana-Manana-Nididhyasana.

Listening to what is taught (sravana), reflecting on the meaning of what one has imbibed so as to acquire an intelligent understanding of what one has heard, read and discussed (manana), and contemplating on what one has learnt, to apply the learning or make connections with experience (nididhyasana) are compulsory steps to make a student’s learning complete.  Present-day schooling, with its crowded syllabus that demands a choc-a-bloc academic calendar allows little room for manana and nididhyasana.  Consequently, learning is facile and fleeting, far from the holistic and meaningful experience that education is meant to be.

One way to rectify this situation is by adopting a new curricular approach that is choice-based and credit-based, and also freeing evaluation from the constrict of testing for scholarship only through a written exam in academic or bookish knowledge. There should be room, instead, for a student to be tested for skills of multiple kinds: oral, written, presentation, acting, debating, in-class participation, raising questions, etc.  A re-think on the tyranny of grades and marks and substituting it with a credit-based system, akin to that adopted in many institutes of advanced learning could be an option.  This would automatically translate into cogitation and absorption of learning, and make institutionalised learning less mind-numbing and more meaningful.

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’.

Tolerance as the mid-point on a continuum: a tool to manage our differences

In the turbulence of a world order where cultures pull in conflicting directions, how does one move ahead? How can democracies, oligarchies/ authoritarian regimes and fascists ever find common ground? The short answer is, ‘one cannot’. To operate under the illusion that one can is dangerous and unsustainable. One cannot, after all, choose one’s neighbours or direct the contemporary happenings set in motion by co-inhabitants of the planet! It is important to remember this fact as we, the human inhabitants of this planet, negotiate to achieve better lives for ourselves. But we live in a world full of problems: social, ecological, economic … So what does one do if one is not the ‘throw-up-one’s hand in despair’ kind, or the ‘don’t-care-a-damn’ kind?

I think a way may be found if we cultivate the tendency to think in terms of possibilities rather than problems. The former helps place options on a continuum while the latter considers choices as opposites. It is easier to glide along a continuum rather than to jump across a divide.

As we negotiate for a more peaceful, more egalitarian world order, it would be worthwhile to not let Tolerance be faced off against Intolerance and Acceptance against Rejection. Rather, Tolerance should be the mid-point on a continuum that has intolerance at one end and acceptance on the other.  All contesting parties/ positions should count their steps towards a minimum of Tolerance first, before attempting to move towards greater agreement or unanimity.

Cremation, and what it speaks of a person’s conviction


When my father died, we donated his eyes. Some weeks later, the Lions Club, who helped us fulfil this wish of my father, home-delivered a certificate commending him for bringing light into the lives of two persons. My father, like the late #URAnanthamurthy, never shied away from questioning the grey areas in religion. We cremated my father’s mortal remains in an electric crematorium, with no attendant priests; and none of us thought to have any of the prescribed Hindu rituals performed on subsequent days or in the years that followed as we felt it was the best way to honour his memory. My father was not an agnostic, atheist or a follower of any rationalist movement. He died more than twenty years ago when notions like eye and organ donation were still being incubated. [In fact, he would have liked us to donate his organs, or even his body, if it would help medicine or science. We tried, but none then knew how this could be done.]

I recalled my father’s last journey as I read the report of U. R. Ananathamurthy’s funeral. And I felt an injustice has been done to the writer’s memory. It is not my intention to pass judgement on how Prof. Ananthamurthy’s cremation was conducted. All the same, I think an opportunity has been lost to show the world that in death he remained steadfast by what he passionately wrote, spoke and stood for all his life. Would the author of Samskara have had it this way? I wonder.

Flight MH 370: the human side

It is a fortnight since Flight MH 370 ‘vanished’.  For much of the world this is a mystery that agitates or excites the intellect.  In their quest for a ‘closure’ to this mystery, the institutions and agencies involved, the officials, the search teams and the media might consider it justifiable to believe as true any theory that seems logical and rational, and is accepted by a majority of the experts from various fields.  But can the near and dear ones of the fifteen score people on the plane accept any theory, howsoever credible?

People go missing after natural calamities, they go missing on adventure tourism to remote locales.  In such cases it is difficult but not impossible for their families and friends to streamline their emotion and their intellect and to set their hopes at rest: conclude that their loved ones are no more.  But the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight is too eerie for such normalisation to happen automatically.  One passenger’s husband says it is all he can do to lead as normal a life as possible and to ensure his daughter does it too, as it is the only way to hold on to sanity.  Another passenger’s partner says her innermost feelings do not tell her that her beloved is no more and that she believes in the power of positive energy.

Like a protracted physical ailment that one learns to live with, the trauma caused by this incident is likely to leave a permanent, dull ache somewhere in the psyche of the near and dear ones of the missing persons who were on the plane unless there is practical evidence for bearing out the theories regarding its disappearance.  We owe the families a foolproof investigation.