Sunday, November 25, 2007

If you're a Dalit or a woman and want to liberate yourself from social constraints, learning English would be a giant first step

TODAY'S EDITORIAL: Freedom Language 24 Nov 2007
Globalisation is often assailed as increasing inequality across the board. But an interesting study in Mumbai, which deserves to be replicated in other Indian cities, suggests it can decrease gender inequalities and reduce the relevance of caste, a prime factor behind inequality in India. The study, based on a large sample and published in the American Economic Review, showed that access to English education increased the range of choices available to boys and girls coming from urban working-class homes where caste identities are still strong.
Those going to Marathi schools are likely to remain stuck in blue-collar occupations when they pass out, but those going to English schools often graduate to white-collar professions. And that may work in favour of girls. Boys are part of a network that funnels them from Marathi schools to traditional jobs in mills, factories, dockyards or construction. But girls, not being part of this network, can go to English schools and move on to white-collar jobs. Being part of the new economy also opens up choice in marriages. It was found that 31.6 per cent of those who went to English schools had inter-caste marriages, as opposed to only 9.7 per cent of those who studied in the Marathi medium.
Caste distinctions will soon blur if a large number of young people marry outside caste. The practical conclusion from such a study looks simple. If you're a Dalit or a woman and want to liberate yourself from social constraints, learning English would be a giant first step. It's interesting to compare this with the method for encouraging social mobility favoured by politicians: greater reservations for OBCs, a loose category within which all sorts of politically favoured constituents are included. The problem with that is it's a bit of a zero-sum game. To reserve a seat for someone belonging to a quota is to deny it to another, perhaps equally deserving candidate. It also undermines the principle of merit in educational institutions and jobs.
But to learn English is not a zero- or even a negative-sum game. Anybody can learn, and demand will follow supply. Moreover, it allows one to access opportunities in the local as well as global economy. When the Indian economy suffers from a skills shortage, there can't be anything wrong with this. It's been found that higher numbers of those educated in English migrate from their state. That not only weakens caste ties, but labour flows can follow the jobs, which is good for the economy. If it's serious about encouraging social mobility, the government should promote the use of English.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The capacity of empathy is multilayered. We share a core with lots of animals

What Makes Us Moral By JEFFREY KLUGER
TIME Cover Story Friday, November 23, 2007
The Moral Ape
The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it's a quality other species share.
It's not surprising that animals far less complex than we are would display a trait that's as generous of spirit as empathy, particularly if you decide there's no spirit involved in it at all. Behaviorists often reduce what we call empathy to a mercantile business known as reciprocal altruism. A favor done today—food offered, shelter given—brings a return favor tomorrow. If a colony of animals practices that give-and-take well, the group thrives.
But even in animals, there's something richer going on. One of the first and most poignant observations of empathy in nonhumans was made by Russian primatologist Nadia Kohts, who studied nonhuman cognition in the first half of the 20th century and raised a young chimpanzee in her home. When the chimp would make his way to the roof of the house, ordinary strategies for bringing him down—calling, scolding, offers of food—would rarely work. But if Kohts sat down and pretended to cry, the chimp would go to her immediately. "He runs around me as if looking for the offender," she wrote. "He tenderly takes my chin in his palm ... as if trying to understand what is happening."
You hardly have to go back to the early part of the past century to find such accounts. Even cynics went soft at the story of Binta Jua, the gorilla who in 1996 rescued a 3-year-old boy who had tumbled into her zoo enclosure, rocking him gently in her arms and carrying him to a door where trainers could enter and collect him. "The capacity of empathy is multilayered," says primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University, author of Our Inner Ape. "We share a core with lots of animals."
While it's impossible to directly measure empathy in animals, in humans it's another matter. Hauser cites a study in which spouses or unmarried couples underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they were subjected to mild pain. They were warned before each time the painful stimulus was administered, and their brains lit up in a characteristic way signaling mild dread. They were then told that they were not going to feel the discomfort but that their partner was. Even when they couldn't see their partner, the brains of the subjects lit up precisely as if they were about to experience the pain themselves. "This is very much an 'I feel your pain' experience," says Hauser.
The brain works harder when the threat gets more complicated. A favorite scenario that morality researchers study is the trolley dilemma. You're standing near a track as an out-of-control train hurtles toward five unsuspecting people. There's a switch nearby that would let you divert the train onto a siding. Would you do it? Of course. You save five lives at no cost. Suppose a single unsuspecting man was on the siding? Now the mortality score is 5 to 1. Could you kill him to save the others? What if the innocent man was on a bridge over the trolley and you had to push him onto the track to stop the train?
Pose these dilemmas to people while they're in an fMRI, and the brain scans get messy. Using a switch to divert the train toward one person instead of five increases activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the place where cool, utilitarian choices are made. Complicate things with the idea of pushing the innocent victim, and the medial frontal cortex—an area associated with emotion—lights up. As these two regions do battle, we may make irrational decisions.
In a recent survey, 85% of subjects who were asked about the trolley scenarios said they would not push the innocent man onto the tracks—even though they knew they had just sent five people to their hypothetical death. "What's going on in our heads?" asks Joshua Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Why do we say it's O.K. to trade one life for five in one case and not others?" Page 2 of 4 Previous 1 2 3 4 Next 12:16 PM

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Our brains lead us to self-deception

Your Mind's Effect on your Money, November 14, 2007 By Craig L. Howe " - Home of th... (Darien, CT United States) - See all my reviews
Controlling one's emotions is a major key to successful money management. No one who has withered under the emotional pressure of making split second investment decision will argue that it is not.
Financial writer Jason Zweig combining concepts in neuroscience, economics and psychology to explain how our biology drives us toward good or bad investment decisions. He argues our brains lead us to self-deception. We are loath to admit our lack of financial knowledge. We overestimate our ability to perform. We believe we're smart enough to forecast the future even when we have been explicitly told that it is unpredictable. Our impetuousness leads to mistakes of action rather than inaction. In short, although we see ourselves as rational beings; we make irrational investment decisions.
His book blends tales from his visits to neuroscience labs with stories of investing mistakes. From them he pulls lessons and counsel on how investors can make more profitable investment decisions. They are: 1. Take a global view. 2. Hope for the best: expect the worst. 3. Investigate; then invest. 4. Never say always. 5. Know what you do not know. 6. Past is not prologue. 7. Weigh what they say. 8. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 9. Costs are killer. 10. Eggs go splat.
Another that should be added to the list is The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. More general in its approach, it cites many of the same studies. Schwartz, a Swarthmore College professor, cited research from psychologists, economists, market researchers and decision scientists to make five counter-intuitive arguments: We would be better off if we: 1. Voluntarily constrained our freedom of choice. 2. Sought "good enough" instead of "the best." 3. Lowered our expectations about decision's results. 4. Made nonreversible decisions. 5. Paid less attention to what others around us do.
Thoroughly researched, Your Money and Your Brain needs to be studied by anyone seeking to make wiser and more profitable investment decisions.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

16 basic human psychological needs

There are actually 16 basic human psychological needs that motivate people to seek meaning through religion, said Steven Reiss, author of the new theory and professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University.
These basic human needs which include honor, idealism, curiosity and acceptance can explain why certain people are attracted to religion, why God images express psychologically opposite qualities, and the relationship between personality and religious experiences.
Previous psychologists tried to explain religion in terms of just one or two overarching psychological needs. The most common reason they cite is that people embrace religion because of a fear of death, as expressed in the saying ‘there are no atheists in foxholes,” Reiss said.
”But religion is multi-faceted it can’t be reduced to just one or two desires.” Reiss described his new theory which he said may be the most comprehensive psychological theory of religion since Freud’s work more than a century ago — in the June issue of Zygon, a journal devoted to issues of science and religion.” I don’t think there has been a comprehensive theory of religion that was scientifically testable,” he said.
The theory is based on his overall theory of human motivation, which he calls sensitivity theory. Sensitivity theory is explained in his 2000 book Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate Our Action and Define Our Personalities (Tarcher Putnam).
Reiss said that each of the 16 basic desires outlined in the book influence the psychological appeal of religious behavior. The desires are power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility... Home Blog Contact Us

Blacks and Jews are the most persecuted peoples in history

One Cosmos Under God Robert W. Godwin
Now, what do blacks and Jews have in common, culturally? Yes, they are the most persecuted peoples in history. That might come up later. We're not talking about that for the moment. What else?
Well, I can only speak as an outsider, but the Jewish wedding I attended last Saturday night once again reminded me that Jews have their own whacked-out version of the groove, and that it is as earthy and over-the-top as any black gospel performance before an audience of fervent worshipers, or by some R & B combo playing at 2:00AM before a crazed black audience on the "chitlin' circuit" in 1962.
Let me put it this way: I am very white. But I probably didn't realize the extent of my whiteness until I married into a Jewish family. Interestingly, being that they are largely secular Jews, they have no idea just how Jewish, which is to say ethnic, which is to say, non-white, they are. But for me, it has been an ongoing culture shock. (By the way, when I say "white," "non-white," and even "black," I assume you realize that I'm not talking about race, much less, "genetics.")
As I was watching the celebrants dancing with insane abandon to the bone-jarring rhythm of hava nagila -- which must have gone on for half an hour -- one thought came to mind: the idea of my parents ever engaging in such a frenetic celebration devoid of cerebration is literally inconceivable. Way, way too white.
But to see the men of all generations holding hands in a circle while kicking and jumping to the pounding beat -- true, they had the grace of a sleep-deprived and disinhibited Jerry Lewis lurching around the set at around hour 23 of the telethon -- but that's not the point. It was the complete absence of self-consciousness combined with the complete and joyous bypassing of the mind and immersion in the senses.
As we touched on yesterday, there has always been a certain life- and body-denying strain in Christianity. While it's not necessarily intrinsic, you have to admit it's there, a sort of distrust, sometimes verging on disgust, toward the human body and toward sensual pleasure in general. I constantly encounter this attitude among saints and mystics that I otherwise revere. In fact, it is also often present in Eastern religions as well -- is if physical pleasure is in the realm of "maya," and is to be shunned and transcended... posted by Gagdad Bob at 11/20/2007 08:33:00 AM 23 comments links to this post

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Most people don’t bother to make a pension plan.The child will take care of the parent because they are one and the same

When the average Indian middle class home gets a visitor, the person most traumatised would surely be the child of the house. Because the child’s performance would form a significant part of the guest entertainment schedule. It may start with reciting the legendary ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ and gradually move to the child displaying some raunchy Bollywood dance steps. If the child is learning to play any musical instrument or singing, it becomes completely traumatic for both the guest as well as the child. Usually then, it’s nothing less than a full recital performed in front of the guest. Children in India have the highest display value and ‘performing’ kids are always a source of pride for the parents.
But is it a typical Indian trait or is it an universal phenomenon? To get an answer, just do a search on YouTube. There is surprisingly high number of Indian posts where a child is performing something beyond the ordinary. The one I remember clearly is a little 2 or 3 year old rattling off the capitals of all the states of the US. Why would some parents force a child to memorise all state capitals and why would the proudly put it up for display?
The Indian obsession of putting a child on display has its roots in the way we have culturally looked at our progeny. Children are new improved versions of the parent –– they don’t and can’t have an identity of their own. The expectation of ‘extended self’ is so much that most people don’t bother to make a pension plan. It’s almost a given that the child will take care of the parent because they are one and the same.
The display value has got nothing to do with the child––it’s got everything to do with their parents. Most metro urban professionals measure their success by two factors –– where do they live and which school their children go to. When the father, most probably taught in a vernacular medium, waxes eloquent about his child’s fees in a Cathedral or Bombay Scottish School, he isn’t talking of the child. He’s talking about himself –– his graduation from a school somewhere down the hierarchy to a school of societal recognition and approval. When he’s asking the child to sing, dance or memorise state capitals he’s putting his own skills to display.
The child as a form of self-expression of the parents, essentially denies the role of child as an individual. The famous nexus between the grandma of the house and the child happened because both of them were denied their individuality. One was a form of responsibility and the other was an expression of achievement. Advertising, for many years, have leaned heavily on this concept of a ‘display’ kid. Most kid products were targeted at parental competitiveness. The visual vocabulary had clich├ęs like trophies , ‘outsmarting’ other kids, winning competition etc. etc. This is, of course, the most expected ‘child product insight’ as viewed by an adult.
But what happens when children find an ally that can help them express their individuality and connect to a child-only world? The first impact is felt by the parents. Remember the ‘Pokemon’ mania? Most parents found the creepy looking characters extremely putting off but at the same time they couldn’t deny the force. They would have been comfortable if they understood it from the Disney-like wholesomeness––but here they had to accept something their ‘extended self’ was doing which they didn’t understand. They tried to resist it for as long as they could––but then finally gave in to the social pressure that was created by Pokemon. Most parental conversations were centering around Pokemon––desperately trying to measure each other up driven by a sense of inadequacy.
There is a recent urban phenomenon that has been jargonised as ‘kidfluence’. It’s the unabashed acknowledgment of the parent that their kids’ opinion counts. Some people have mistaken it as an indication for an increased acknowledgment of kid individuality by parents. That’s fundamentally flawed. It’s a reverse expression of vicarious living. Over last 10 years, popular culture has grown more complex and intellectually challenging. Try playing a new age computer game and you’ll know exactly what I mean. (The good old book reading was far simpler and less taxing.) So has been the consumption culture––it’s not only complex and layered, it’s fairly new to us as a society. Children have the capacity to interpret and adjust to these complexities better and Indian parents are using that to live vicariously through their children. The age old boasting of a child’s academic performance is now getting replaced by the ‘phenomenal dexterity with the mobile phone’ or ‘unbelievable savvy with gaming’. It’s just a change of form for the ‘extended self’.
Indian parents are far from giving up their legitimate demand on the child as a form of their own self-expression. Only change is that You Tube has replaced the neighbourhood discussion and the ‘performance’ for a visiting guest is upgraded to a reality show on the national TV. (Partha Sinha, Regional Strategist, Publicis Asia)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Near-worship of emotions and feelings at the expense of reason and thought

EGO-STROKING MADNESS from Dr. Sanity by Dr. Sanity
For years now, pop psychology and the ego-stroking madness of the self-esteem gurus have mesmerized the culture at large with their theories about how exceptionally vulnerable children are to not feeling 'special'. .
Specifically, there are three delusions that underlie the teachings of today's self-esteem gurus. This triumvarate of contradictions includes the hyping of
(1) self-esteem (increasing your self-worth without having to achieve anything;
(2) hope (achieving your goals without any real effort) and
(3) victimhood (it's not your fault that you haven't achieved anything or made any effort).
In a previous post, "Self Esteem Is Not Necessarily Good For You" I stated:
Our cultural focus on enhancing "self-esteem" has resulted in the near-worship of emotions and feelings at the expense of reason and thought; on emphasizing "root causes" and victimhood, instead of demanding that behavior be civilized and that individuals exert self-discipline and self-control--no matter what they are "feeling".
In discussing the elevation of victimhood to an exalted status -- both for individuals and groups; another post of mine pointed out:
[...] those searching for an expedited pathway into the exalted status of Victimhood. Becoming a victim --as we all have learned from famous TV stars, prominent politicians; religions, races, and even nations--is an advantageous state of being in many ways, several of which are:
  • -You are not responsible for what happened to you
  • -You are always morally right
  • -You are not accountable to anyone for anything
  • -You are forever entitled to sympathy
  • -You are always justified in feeling moral indignation for being wronged
  • -You never have to be responsible again for anything

As you can see, these are some heavy-duty privileges; and they are not given to just anyone. This list is not exclusive...

Most people confuse "self-esteem" with what I will refer to as a "sense of self". It is the latter--not the former, that is so often screwed up in the angry, violent, grandiose, and generally narcissistic people in the world. If you have a healthy "Self", you are likely to have a healthy self-esteem--which is not the same at all as a high self-esteem.

A healthy self-esteem is one that can handle a realistic appraisal of one's own particular capabilities. The psychological defect that leads to so many problems in today's world is not a lack of self-esteem, but a defective or distorted sense of one's SELF. The excessive self-esteem you see in a bully comes from a distortion of reality that person has with regard to their self. It was once widely believed that low self-esteem was a cause of violence--and you see that idea reflected today in the platitudes and rationalizations of terrorism-- but in reality violent individuals, groups and nations think very well of themselves.

Do you really suppose that people like Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, Bin Laden or Kim suffer from poor self-esteem? On the contrary. Exaggerated self-esteem; a belief that one is far more capable, intelligent or gifted than reality would indicate, is one of the hallmarks of a pathological narcissist or psychopath.

The cultural focus on enhancing a child's "self-esteem", instead of helping that child to appreciate his or her own strengths, weaknesses, and limitations (i.e. at the expense of reality) , has resulted in the near-worship of emotions and feelings at the expense of reason and thought; on emphasizing "root causes" and victimhood, instead of demanding that behavior be civilized and that individuals exert self-discipline and self-control--no matter what they are "feeling".

But the real victims of all this hype are our children, because these foolish notions, without a scintilla of scientific evidence and only becaue it makes some people feel good about themselves, have become the pop psychology dogma of public policy in education.

The psychological nonsense promulgated by the well-meaning and destructive self-esteem gurus only serves to reinforce the inappropriate grandiosity of young children; even as the "we are the world" antiwar, anti-capitalist, environmental doomsayers reinforce their malignant and self-serving idealism. (Both are discussed here)

Between the two influences unleashed on the vulnerable minds of our children, is it any surprise that by the time they get to college, kids are either dysfunctional self-absorbed narcissists, naively malignant do-gooders, or completely and irrevocably cynical about the pervasive indoctrination and anti-intellectualism they have been subjected to in their educational careers? As a writer in the LA Times said a while back somewhat understatedly, "Gen Y's ego trip is likely to take a nasty turn". Yes, it is --along with the society they will inherit.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Violence is not primordial

That's the new book from Randall Collins. The main argument is that people are not as predisposed to violence as we might think. Collins cites a wide array of evidence, from military behavior in the field to, most intriguingly, video studies of the micro-expressions of violent perpetrators. People are more naturally tense and fearful, sometimes full of bluster but usually looking to avoid confrontation unless they have vastly superior numbers on their side. The prospect of violence makes people feel weak and scared. The greatest dangers of violence arises from atrocities against the weak under overwhelming conditions, ritualized violence enacted in front of supportive audiences, or clandestine terrorism or murder.
"Violence is not primordial, and civilization does not tame it; the opposite is much nearer the truth."
Similarly, most political violence does not follow from centuries-old grudge matches, but rather from recently fabricated, dynamically dangerous social ritual interactions. Violence can appear on the scene rapidly but it can vanish as well, so there is hope for Iraq. In reality most violent encounters end almost immediately, contrary to TV and the movies. Someone runs away or a single punch ends the struggle. The actual gunfight at O.K. Corral took less than thirty seconds, whereas the famous movie scene extends for ten minutes. In combat it is just as dangerous to be a medic as a soldier, but medics experience far less combat fatigue. Collins argues this is because killing is in so many ways contrary to human nature...
I don't agree with everything in this book. I think Collins too quickly downplays the importance of evolutionary biology (most fights are between young males), and it is not always clear if he has a systematic theory or instead a catalog of causes of violence. Here is the book's home page, including chapter one. Here is a page on Collins. Here is an interview with Collins. He is now working on a theory of sexual interactions. Quite simply, Collins is one of the most important writers and thinkers today.
I know many of you have a bit of book fatigue from MR, but that is because it has been such a splendid year for the written word. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory is one of the most important social science books of the last few years. I'll go even further and say the same is true for any random one hundred pages you might select from the volume; it is also a wonderful for browsing. It's due out January 10, you can pre-order at the links.