Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pyramid of choices

There is a gift  giving culture in Mumbai during Diwali time which I was unused to when I first started working there. One day a gift of two shirts from a company was sent home - one for me and one for a colleague. Both of us were making the Prospectus for the company for a Public Issue.We were uneasy about the whole thing and wondered if there was any quid pro quo expected but we couldn't figure out what it could be since both of us were at a junior level and couldn't have influenced anything.

We wondered whether it would rude to return the gift to the company. We finally decided to to keep them unopened and see what happens.  Over the subsequent days we met the company officials several times in connection with the Public Issue but they never mentioned anything about the gift, not even to ask whether we liked it or not and we gradually concluded that our trepidation was unwarranted.

At the other end of this scale of inducements lie scams of thousands of crores that one regularly hears about in the news. How does one progress along this scale probably without even realising it? The authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) explain this process through the metaphor of 'The Pyramid of Choice'.

Imagine two young men having similar attributes and clustered close together on the moral landscape. They have similar attitude towards, say, cheating - they think that it is not a good thing to do, but that there are worse crimes in the world. (As an aside, here is Dan Ariely on dishonesty.) During the exam, the two men are faced with the same temptation to cheat. One yields and the other resists.

Their decisions a hair's breadth apart and could easily have gone the other way for each of them.Now the question is: How do they feel about their actions a week later?The one who cheated will feel that it is not a big crime - everyone does it, it is no big deal, after all it was important for his career...The one who resisted the temptation will feel that cheating is more immoral than he thought - actually such people are disgraceful and should be permanently expelled from school,  we should make an example of them...

By the time they are through with their self-justifications, they are far apart from one another and are convinced that they have always felt this way. From the book:
It is as if they had started off at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart; but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now stand at opposite corners of its base.The one who didn't cheat considers the other to be totally immoral, and the one who cheated thinks the other is hopelessly puritanical. This process illustrates how people who have been sorely tempted, battled temptation, and almost given in to it - but resisted at the eleventh hour - come to dislike, even despise, those who did not succeed in the same effort.It's the people who almost decide to live in glass houses who throw the first stones. 
This  process applies to most important decisions involving moral choices, for eg., whether to sample an illegal drug or not, whether to take performance enhancing drugs or not, to indulge in paid news or not, to take 100 crore bribe or not...All these big actions happen one step at a time. Most people believe they are incorruptible but once you accept the first small inducement and justifies it, you have started your slide down the pyramid.

If you had lunch with the businessman about a contract, why not discuss it on the golf course? What is the difference?Then why not go with him to attend a conference in London?What's wrong with that?From London, why not go to Paris for a week's holiday?After all, I am going with a friend. By the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, having accepted and justified ever-larger inducements, the public is appalled at the scale of the corruption. The authors write:
When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are  benefits and costs of both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made.But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route.
 This process blurs the distinction that people like to draw between"us good guys"and "those bad guys".  Often, standing at the top of the pyramid, we are faced not with a black-and-white, go/no-go decision, but with a gray choice whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice.This starts a process of entrapment - action, justification, further action - that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original  intentions or principles.
In the Milgram obedience experiment, if people had been asked to apply the maximum shock initially, many may have refused to comply. But since they are asked to increase the shock step by step, it becomes easy to to justify one's actions at each step and ending up far away from one's initial position.

This metaphor illustrates why I am not so hot about Anna Hazare type movements. In Pakistan, Imran Khan says that he will end corruption in 90 days which is extremely naive. If successful, it will punish people who are already at the bottom of the pyramid but this won't stop  corruption. That will happen only if many people at the top of the pyramid (which is where most people are initially) don't feel compelled to slide down its slopes and easily justify their actions.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cognitive dissonance - II

When you hear discussions about economics, politics, climate change, GM crops, etc., people will keep espousing the same views that they have held for years. As John Kenneth  Galbraith said, ' I react pragmatically. Where the market works, I'm for that. Where the government is necessary, I'm for that. I'm deeply suspicious of somebody who says, "I'm in favor of privatization," or, "I'm deeply in favor of public ownership." I'm in favor of whatever works in the particular case. 'It is rare that people will publicly repudiate their long-held views and say, unlike Mark Lynas, 'I am sorry, I was wrong.' It takes too much emotional energy to do so.

I would not have believed before reading this book that it was possible for an innocent man to be made to confess to a crime he did not commmit. But the book shows how it happens. The Innocence Project is a record of people in the US who have been wrongly convicted. In The Central Park Jogger Case,  five men confessed to a rape they did not commit. They were acquitted years later when the real culprit was found.

I have heard many discussions on TV about the evidence against various people for the crimes they have been accused of committing. But I don't recall hearing a discussion about people being wrongly convicted due to reasons other than malice. With a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, it would be naive to think that this does not happen.

It is not surprising that people who have been religious for a long time find it very difficult to give up their faith and perform incredible mental gymnastics to justify their beliefs. (For instance, see this video of Dan Barker speaking of the time when he was an Evangelical Christian. Even people as dangerous as the Salafis of Egypt manage to convince themselves that they are doing good by violence and murder.) Their view of themselves as good people (which is often true) is at odds with many things in their holy books and they come up with bizarre explanations to reduce their dissonance.

The brain is often erroneously compared to a computer. And memory is erroneously compared to the RAM with incidents in our lives being stored and retrieved on tap. But that is not the case.Memory is a self-justifying historian that resorts to confabulation, distortion and plain forgetting to preserve our core self-images. (Slate had an 8 part series on memory manipulation.)

It is not that people are deliberately lying. The memory automatically deletes embarrassing actions of the past. The authors quote Nietzsche: “Memory says, 'I did that.' Pride replies, 'I could not have done that.' Eventually, memory yields.” The authors of autobiographies may remember incidents a bit differently from what actually happened. "If mistakes were made," say the authors, "memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else." The contents of political memoirs have to be read with the same skepticism as what the writers of Yes Minister/ Yes Prime Minister (my favourite television series) said about Jim Hacker's diaries:
We believe that these diaries accurately reflect the mind of one  of our outstanding national leaders; if the reflection seems clouded it may not be the fault of the mirror.Hacker himself processed events in a variety of ways, and the readers will have to make their own judgement as to whether any given statement represents 
(a) what happened
(b) what he believed happened
(c) what he would like to have happened 
(d) what he wanted others to believe happened
(e)what he wanted others to believe that he believed happened. 
As a general rule, politicians' memories are less reliable about failure than successes, and about distant events than recent ones.
People in privileged positions often look down upon those who are less privileged. They are wont to say that their success is due to hard work and that luck has nothing to do with it. The curious aspect is that when those who are on the other side of the fence find themselves in a position of privilege, they think and behave in the same fashion that they had despised earlier. The authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) write:
All of us are unaware of our blind spots as fish are unaware of the water they swim in, but those who swim in the waters of privilege have a particular motivation to remain oblivious. When Marynia Farnham achieved fame and fortune during the late 1940s and 1950s by advising women to stay at home and raise children, otherwise risking frigidity, neurosis, and a loss of femininity, she saw no inconsistency (or irony) in the fact that she was privileged to be a physician who was not staying at home raising children, including her own. When affluent people speak of the underprivileged, they rarely bless their lucky stars that they are privileged let alone consider that they might be over privileged. Privilege is their blind spot. It is invisible; they don't think twice about it.; they justify their social position as something they are entitled to. In one way or another, all of us are blind to whatever privileges life has handed us, even if these privileges are temporary. Most people who normally fly in what is euphemistically called the 'main cabin' regard the privileged people in business and first class as wasteful snobs, if enviable ones. Imagine paying all that extra money for a short, six- hour flight! But as soon as they are the ones paying for a business seat or are upgraded, that attitude vanishes, replaced by a self-justifying mixture of pity and disdain for their fellow passengers, forlornly trooping past them into steerage. 
'It is a good Divine that follows his own instructions', said Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Not many are that wise. What it all boils down to is that, in spite of the splendid achievements of many individuals down the ages, we are not much more than flawed primates recently descended from the trees which had made Bertrand Russell remark," It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."  Here is Carol Tavris talking about her book at Point of Inquiry.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cognitive dissonance - I

Mistakes were made (but not by me) is a book about cognitive dissonance and the effect that it has on decision making in various fields like medicine, criminal justice etc. It is a term coined by Leon Festinger to explain the behavior of the members of a doomsday cult when their prophesy failed. Cognitive dissonance occurs when an individual holds two views that are opposed to each other. He then goes through various mental hoops to reduce the dissonance he feels between these views.

 All of us try to reduce cognitive dissonance all the time. For instance, we will use office time to surf the net. But we want to think of ourselves as good, ethical human beings so we come up with self-justifying reasons - we are not paid enough, everybody does it, anyway the boss doesn't appreciate our handwork...The difference between the self-justifications of most of us and those of powerful people is that the latter has big consequences. Dissonance theory has some disturbing implications:
  1. Severe initiation rites increases  the loyalty of a member. So if a person undergoes severe ragging before getting into a group, his loyalty to the group increases.
  2. If we come across any information that is consonant with our views, we will view it positively. If the information is dissonant, we will view it as biased or sloppy. The confirmation bias ensures that even absence of evidence is evidence for our beliefs.
  3. People become more certain of something that they have recently done if it is irrevocable. So, asking a person who has recently purchased an expensive item whether you should buy it is not a good idea.He will be highly motivated to persuade you to buy it.   A person who has jut spent a  lot of money on something is unlikely to say that it was a waste.
  4. The escalation of  brutality by perpetrators will be more if victims are helpless than if victims are  armed and able to strike back. When I see scenes like these, this is the explanation that occurs to  me. Such penchant for cruelty is shown in the Stanford prison experiment. It is sobering to think that given the right conditions, I could also behave in the same way.(Here is a You tube video about the Lucifer effect. Warning: A little bit of it is NSFW.)
We often hear from powerful people about say, police reform, military purchases, etc. They will rarely admit that they made a mistake. The first impulse will be to deny any mistake for the obvious reason of protecting one's  job, reputation and colleagues. But there are powerful internal reasons for such denial: they would like to think of themselves as honourable, competent people who would never commit the errors that they are accused of.They thus convince themselves that conditions were different back then, funds and staff were insufficient, situation was more complicated than realised...Admitting to the error would be very difficult because it would be antithetical to their perception of themselves as competent individuals.

When the atom bomb was exploded, Einstein said, “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking ... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” The problem is that this way of thinking is hardwired into our brain.

Neuroscientists have shown that biases are built into the way the brain processes information.Self-justification is not the same as lying. It is lying to oneself. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. It minimises our mistakes and is the reason why everybody can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite himself. (There is my excuse for the hypocrisies that you have seen in this blog - I don't  know that they exist! But I can see the hypocrisies in others' statements every other day!) The authors write:
The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting delusion that we,  personally, do not have any. In a sense, dissonance theory is a theory of blind spots - of how and why people unintentionally blind themselves so that they fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behaviour or their convictions.Along with the confirmation bias, the brain comes packaged with other self-serving habits that allow us to  justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic and unbiased....We assume that other reasonable people see things the same way as we do.If they disagree with us, they obviously aren't seeing clearly.