Monday, July 29, 2013

Superstitions, traditions and learned paralysis

Personal superstitions are common. Various sportsmen at the top of their professions have some superstition or the other. Rituals that seem illogical may have played a role in the development of complex societies. Peanuts are necessary for landing the Mars rover. Even self-confessed atheists have irrational behaviors. I heard Richard Dawkins say that one of his prized possessions is a 1st edition copy of On The Origin Species. It is after all a book. Perhaps you would like to invest in a superstitious fund.

Being a fan of Rahul Dravid, I used to watch every ball that he faced if he was batting in the nineties (if I was in front of the TV at the time) for fear that he might get out if  I looked away. Not that it helped - he still was dismissed in the nineties 10 times. (Or maybe it did - now you know why he got 36 centuries!)

I get to hear plenty of superstitious talk - about performing a ritual if some venture is successful, about meeting an astrologer about my recovery, about going to some temple if a wish is granted...I don't say anything because it probably helps them feel good. If you dissuade them from carrying out these long held beliefs, it will keep playing on their minds which will negatively impact their performance giving rise to the familiar 'I told you so'.

The power of the mind cannot be ignored  as evidenced by the curious placebo [You tube video] and nocebo effects. Anyway rational arguments are only going to lead to wastage of time without convincing believers. In Very Good, Jeeves! after trying to make peace between two warring females, Bertie Wooster muses:
It was rash. Looking back, I can see that. One of the first lessons life teaches us is that on these occasions of back-chat between the delicately-nurtured a man should retire into the offing, curl up into a ball,and imitate the prudent tactics of the opossum, which, when danger is in the air, pretends to be dead, frequently going to the length of handing out crepe and instructing its friends to stand round and say what a pity it all is. 
I had learned long back that there was nothing to be gained by charging into battle like Genghis Khan. What I had to do was to 'imitate the prudent tactics of the opossum' and if you allow me to indulge in a bit of self-praise, I will say that I do it quite well even though I will privately think that I am listening to crap as I am being given the familiar arguments.

The power of the mind is all fine but if you become a slave to too many superstitions, then you become mentally paralysed and unable to do anything. Anybody can say something and derail your plans. Various stultifying social customs like the caste system have a similar effect giving rise to the Rooster-coop effect discussed in The White Tiger. The protagonist of the novel, Balram Halwai says:
"Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion. These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.” 
I saw an example of being in such a mental trap in a nurse who had come some time back. When this nurse used to come to the front hall, she used to sit on the floor. In spite of repeatedly telling her to sit on a chair, she always sat on the floor.Perhaps she had been coached from childhood on some sort of 'master-servant' relationship where her place was on the floor and she was unable to break out of her conditioned prison. Changing such a mind-set is difficult but not impossible.

In this talk, Robert Sapolsky discusses how various rituals paralyse people. My favourite line in the talk: "If you get it [schizotypalism] just right then for the next couple of millenia people won't have to go to work on your birthday."

PS: In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
One of my favourite cartoons shows a fortune-teller scrutizing the mark's palm and gravely concluding, "You are very gullible." 

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