Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The problems of conformity

In The Invisible Gorilla, there is an analysis of why the tiny nation of Georgia provoked a war with its big neighbor Russia over two provinces whose rebels were being helped by Russia. Georgia's leaders actually believed that they would quickly defeat the second largest army in the world. In the conflict that followed, they were overwhelmed by Russia in one week of fighting. How did they get this overconfidence?

Mikhail Sakashvili was elected president of Georgia in 2004 when he was only 36. He stocked the government with his loyalists who were also in their thirties and lacked military experience but agreed with him about containing Russian activities in the rebel provinces. Thus many like-minded people could 'take a set of opinions that none of them held with great confidence individually and aggregate them, by deliberating among themselves and reinforcing one another's public statements, into a high-confidence conclusion'.

The authors describe an experiment which shows confidence in groups. They gave 700 people true/false trivia tests.As usual, people thought they knew more than they did, having an average of 70% confidence in their answers while they actually averaged only 54% correct answers. Then 3 different types of 2-person groups were formed - groups with 2 high-confidence members, groups with 2 low-confidence members and groups with  1 high- and 1 low- confidence member.

You will think that groups will be more accurate and suffer less from the illusion of confidence. But the results showed that groups had similar results as individuals but they had become more confident. Confidence had increased most for groups with two low confidence people. This experiment showed how in the case of Georgia, though the decision-makers may not have been individually confident, when in a group 'their confidence could have inflated to the point where what were actually risky, uncertain actions seemed highly likely to succeed.'

One of the authors once asked a US government official about how they made group decisions. The agent said that the members went around the room, each giving his or her opinion, in descending order of seniority.The authors write:
Imagine the false sense of consensus and confidence that cascades through a group when one person after another confirms the boss's original guess...The very process of putting individuals together to deliberate before they reach a conclusion almost guarantees that the group's decision will not be the product of independent opinions and contributions. Instead, it will be influenced by group dynamics, personality conflicts, and other social factors that have little to do with who knows what, and why they know it.
Till some years back, I had tended to agree with the conventional view that it is good to have a strong, stable government at the centre with a comfortable majority. But now I think a coalition government with its pulls and pressures, threats and sulks is better, especially in a diverse country like India. It may look chaotic but prevents build-up of pressure for long periods. Like in a pressure cooker, it is better to let off steam at regular intervals.

There was an attempted coup recently in Turkey which was thankfully put down by the civilian government. But then, quite predictably, the more dangerous course has been adopted. There have been large-scale purges and like-minded people have been appointed in various positions. But, as Karl Popper points out in The Poverty of Historicism, '...this attempt to exercise power over minds must destroy the last possibility of finding out what people really think.' So one shouldn't be surprised if something unexpected crops up somewhere down the line.

There is a story about Socrates where he is told that he is the wisest man in Athens to which he responds that it is not true because he doesn’t know many things. He then goes around the city interviewing people and finds that he is indeed the wisest man – he at least knew that he didn’t know many things; the others didn’t even know this.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - III

 “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”  -  John F. Kennedy

I came across an account of another experiment in Nudge in which the task was a bit more difficult than in Asch's experiment. Here people were kept in a dark room and a pinpoint of light was placed some way in front of them. The light was actually stationary but appeared to move because of an effect called the autokinetic effect. The people were then asked to estimate the distance the light has moved.

When asked individually, the answers varied significantly, which was not surprising since the light was stationary and the answers were random guesses. But when people were formed into groups and asked to give their answers in public, there were big conformity effects. The individual estimates converged to a group norm and over time this norm proved sticky and the individuals in a group were strongly committed to their group norm.

In some experiments, a confederate was planted unbeknownst to the other members of the group. This confederate could nudge the group estimate if he spoke confidently and firmly. If the confederate's assessment was much higher than the group norm, the group estimate was inflated and if the confederate's estimate was very low, the group's estimate would fall. Thus consistent and unwavering people, whether in the public or private sector, can move people in their preferred direction.

What is even more interesting is that the group's judgments became thoroughly internalized so that people would stick to them even when they were reporting on their own or when participating in other groups that gave different judgments. The initial judgement also had effects across 'generations'.Even when the group members changed and the person who was originally responsible for the decision was long gone, the judgement tended to stick. Different types of experiments have been conducted to determine conformity effects. The authors write:
Consider the following finding. People were asked, 'Which one of the following do you feel is the most important problem facing our country today?' Five alternatives were offered: economic recession, educational facilities, subversive activities, mental health and crime and corruption. Asked privately, a mere 12 percent chose subversive activities. But when exposed to an apparent group consensus unanimously selecting that option, 48 percent of people made the same choice!
In a similar finding, people were asked to consider this statement: 'Free speech being a privilege rather than a right, it is proper for a society to suspend free speech when it feels threatened.'Asked this question individually, only 19 percent of the control group agreed, but confronted with the shared opinion of only four others, 58 percent of people agreed. The results are closely connected with one of Asch's underlying interests, which was to understand how Nazism had been possible. Asch believed that 'conformity could produce a very persistent nudge, ultimately generating behaviour...that might seem unthinkable'.

As a species, we seem to be predisposed towards believing that the most confident are also the most knowledgeable.Decisive, aggressive, confident, assertive, strong, etc are adjectives to be viewed with caution when used to describe political leaders. A political candidate who 'looks Presidential' or 'looks Prime-Ministerial' will get votes irrespective of his level of knowledge.

Election time is about making tall promises and bringing large crowds who will cheer at the proper prompts. Colourless, boring politicians are safer than flamboyant ones. (See talk by Prof Apurvanand on 3Ds: Demagogues, Demigods and Democracy.The talk is in Hindi.) As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:
Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups  trump the disadvantages of being alone.  It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.  Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes.  This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - II

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth - Einstein

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Hofstede's Dimensions devised by the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. The most interesting of these dimensions is 'Power Distance Index' (PDI). PDI was a measure of a society's attitude towards hierarchy and authority. It was measured by questions like: 'Are employees afraid to express disagreement with their managers?' and 'Are power holders entitled to special privileges?' There is a quote from Hofstede's text Culture's Consequences about low PDI countries:
Power is something of which power holders are almost ashamed and they will try to underplay. I once heard a Swedish (low PDI) university official state that in order to exercise power he tried not to look powerful. Leaders may enhance their informal status by renouncing formal symbols. In (low PDI) Austria, Prime Minister Buno Kriesky was known to sometimes  take the streetcar to work. In 1974, I actually saw the Dutch (low PDI) prime Minister,Joop den Uyl, on vacation with his motor home at a camping site in Portugal. Such behaviour of the powerful would be very unlikely in high PDI Belgium or France.
You can generally divide power distance into high power distance and low power distance. If you belong to a culture displaying high power distance, you will tend to view power as a reality of life and believe everyone has a specific place in the hierarchy of power. You will expect that power will be distributed unequally. You will more easily accept autocratic and paternalistic power relations. If you are a subordinate, you simply acknowledge the power of your superior based merely upon his relative position in the hierarchy of authority.

It doesn't take much thinking to conclude that India is a high PDI country. You won't find the behaviours described above in India even if there was no security risk. The 'lal batti'  culture is widespread and leaders love to announce their arrival with a lot of noise. Their power will be indicated by the number of cars in their fleet. Getting Z plus category security is regarded as a status symbol. Prostrating before political leaders or greeting them with huge garlands is a common sight.

In a group decision making process, the members are thrown together to deliberate and reach a conclusion. The thought is that each member will give an independent, unbiased opinion. In a high PDI culture, group dynamics will guarantee that this will not happen. The authors of The Invisible Gorilla note that 'group processes can inspire a feeling akin to "safety in numbers" among the most hesitant members, decreasing realism and increasing certainty'.

The authors describe an experiment to determine how group processes work. What was found was that the people who assumed leadership roles were not more competent than others. They just had more dominant personalities and thus spoke first. And in 94% of the problems (It was a math test), the group's final answer was the first answer that anyone suggested. The first answer will be given by the most dominant personality. The authors write:
So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater self-confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of your ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers.The illusion of confidence keeps the cream blended in. 
In The Poverty of Historicism, Karl Popper quotes Lord Acton's Law of corruption: 'You cannot give a man power over other men without tempting him to misuse it - a temptation which roughly increases with the amount of power wielded, and which very few are capable of resisting.' This is especially true in high PDI societies. We should be careful about what we wish for. We might get it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - I

 'When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.' - Eric Hoffer

Thanks to the education system, I knew nothing about the findings in social psychology till some years after my stroke. (It takes time to detox oneself from some myths of an MBA education). And after a while, the assumption of economists that humans are rational agents started sounding like fiction. But I came across some economists like Robert Frank who says that decision making is often not rational. He says (quoted in The Emotional Brain): 'Many actions, purposely taken with full knowledge of their consequences, are irrational'. He likens many behaviours to Borges' description of the battle over Falkland Islands between Britain and Argentina - 'two bald men fighting over a comb.'

One of the powerful influences on human behavior is social conformity. We think that we make independent decisions that are not skewed by the opinions of others but that is a vain assumption. Advertisers will say that everyone is buying  their product. Politicians will say that everyone is supporting their party. They know that conformity  is a powerful instinct in humans. Politicians and advertisers have a better idea of human behaviour than economists do. The power of social influences varies in different situations.  The authors of Nudge describe its power in one such situation:
In the American judicial system, federal judges in three-judge benches are affected by the votes of their colleagues. The typical Republican appointee shows pretty liberal voting patterns when sitting with two Democratic appointees,and the typical Democratic appointee shows pretty conservative voting patterns when sitting with two Republican appointees. Both sets of appointees show far more moderate voting patterns when they are sitting with at least one judge appointed by a president of the opposing political party.
In Chronicles of our Time, Andre Beteille mentions Alexis de Tocqueville, a great 19th century writer on democracy, who viewed heroes in a democracy with misgivings. He said that there was no proper place in a democracy for heroes because when they arose, they would sooner or later turn into despots. Strong and charismatic leaders secure instant and unquestioned devotion among his or her followers and sooner or later start expecting similar devotion from everyone. Hence Ambedkar's warning in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly:
The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions". There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O'Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
In the 1950s a social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted experiments to get an idea about the level of conformity in people. He was trying to understand why so many good,  law abiding Germans unquestioningly followed Hitler's murderous policies. In the test people were asked to match the length of a line with three comparison lines as shown in the figure below:

When people were asked to make a decision on their own, they invariably gave the correct answer since it was an easy test.But when in a group, the answer was often influenced by what others said. When everyone gave an incorrect answer, people erred more than one-third of the time. This conformity effect was present even when the other people present were strangers and there was no particular reason to please them. One-third may sound like a small number till you realize that the winning party in Indian elections often gets only one-third of the votes.

Such conformity experiments have been conducted in many countries and the results have been similar. The authors of Nudge write, 'Unanimous groups are able to provide the strongest nudges - even when the question is an easy one, and people ought to know that everyone else is wrong.' Elections often give surprising results because people vote individually in seclusion and in this situation, their decision often differs from what they say in a group.

In this connection, also see Milgram's experiment and Stanford prison experiment.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

More episodes regarding nurses - II

The people in the world can be broadly divided into 2 classes - those who keep spectates in a safe place and those who don't. (Immediately Jaya reminded me about the famous dialogue in the movie 'HUM'.) Unfortunately for me, nurses belong to the latter category. Since I am heavily dependent on sight  I am very particular about where my glasses are kept. In the beginning, the nurses will be careless about where they keep my glasses. This would be so even if a table is right next to them where they can conveniently keep the glasses.

They may,  for example, remove my glasses for wiping my face and keep the glasses on the chair or on the bed on which I am lying. These are horror choices as far as I am concerned. Someone might sit on the chair without realizing that glasses were kept on it. I might cough suddenly and knock the glasses off the bed. Once, when sitting on the wheelchair, a nurse kept the glasses on my hand of all places while wiping my face. I was afraid that I might cough and the glasses might fall to the ground. I was trying to sit as quietly as possible with my blood pressure rising all the while.There are times when Fate is best left alone.

At such times, I keep signalling to the nurse to call Jaya (not when the glasses are on my hands!). When Jaya comes, I tell her what happened. She will explain to the nurse where to keep the glasses and that I will not let them do anything till I see that the glasses are kept safely. The nurses are told about this when they initially come home but they never take it seriously till I finally throw a tantrum.


A new nurse came at around 6 p.m. As usual, the agency said that she was an experienced nurse who had looked after many bed-ridden patients. She asked about my paralysis and Jaya gave a quick overview of what had happened. Jaya then asked her to have tea but she said she didn't want anything. She didn't eat anything for dinner either saying she was feeling overwhelmed after seeing my condition and didn't feel like eating anything. The claim that she was an 'experienced nurse' was beginning to ring hollow.

But she slept soundly and there was no sign of her waking up the next morning. Jaya gave my feeding, then decided to do my sponging herself. She finished at around 8 but there was still no sign of the nurse getting up. By this time we were getting worried since she had been lying motionless. Then she turned over to the other side and went back to sleep which was some relief for us: she seemed to be ok.

She finally got up at around nine and headed straight for the bathroom and from the sounds she appeared to be taking a bath. At that time, Jaya called the nurse's office and informed them about the happenings. They were also surprised that she had got up so late and said that they would speak to her. After some time she received a phone-call presumably from her office after which she went out of my room which I thought was for having her breakfast.

After a while Jaya came and told me that the nurse had left. I was surprised because nurses always say goodbye to me before leaving so I was not expecting it. Jaya filled me in on the missing details. Apparently, she was going with her airbag without telling anybody. My father-in-law asked her where she was going but she kept quiet. He called Jaya to whom the nurse said that she was leaving. In spite of Jaya's repeated queries she refused to say anything else. Finally, Jaya asked her if she wanted to be dropped at the bus-stand to which she replied no and left.  Throughout the time she had been here she did not have anything to eat or drink.

Monday, June 20, 2016

More episodes regarding nurses - I

When they first arrive, most nurses will be intimidated by the sight of my condition and will wonder whether they will be able to do the job. They will be relieved to know that Jaya will be with them at every step till I feel confident that the nurse can do the job on her own. After a week of learning the various procedures and getting to know my communication methods, the nurses start becoming more confident. The problem is that many then quickly traverse to the other end of the spectrum and become over-confident.

They take longer to call Jaya and try to find out what my dumb charades could mean. But their guesses would naturally be confined to what I had indicated in the week or two since the nurse had come while this will be a new issue.. So they will rarely be able to guess the problem and finally they will have no option but to call Jaya to whom I will dictate what needed to be done.


Many nurses think that all movements are voluntary whereas most of my movements are involuntary, This sometimes causes misunderstanding. For instance, my hands will keep bending at the elbow in response to cough, itch, pain, laughter, etc. The nurse will straighten them and in a few minutes they will again become bent. When this happens a few times, the nurse will say in exasperation, 'I am listening to you so why can't you listen to me? You are becoming stubborn! Keep your hands straight like this.' Of course, the advise will be in vain. I will feel like saying, 'It is my hands that are disobedient, not me!'


Many nurses, once they get used to me, seem touchy when I call Jaya. They think I am complaining to her about them. Actually, I will just be telling Jaya to show the nurse an easier way of doing something (which they will eventually ignore but I will try telling them anyway) or it may be to tell them to avoid some movement that was causing me some pain. In most such instances, I will have no option but to convey such instruction via Jaya.

Perhaps they have no other word to express this and they will sometimes ask me, 'Any complaints to Jaya?' After we realised this problem, we started using another tactic. I will wait for Jaya to come into my room when the nurse is not present and tell her the problem. She will tell the nurse later in some roundabout way about it without letting on that I had told her about it. But in the case of some pain, I will call Jaya immediately.

Many times when I ask a nurse to call Jaya, she will say, 'Why call her? You can tell me what you want.' I will start getting irritated and rail silently, 'It should be obvious to you that I am not able to convey it to you which is why I want you to call Jaya. This does not require rocket science, does it?' It is a bit unfair but it is said that in anger, you will make the best speech that you will regret. I escape this fate since I can't make that speech. Sometimes  the reason for calling Jaya might have nothing to do with the nurse - maybe I just want to remind Jaya about a bill that has to be paid, which I will obviously not be able to tell the nurse.

For a while, I will maintain a forced smile and try to indicate with vigorous movements of my head that there is no option but to call Jaya. Some nurses are stubborn and will persist in telling me that I should tell them the reason. I will start getting impatient and this makes clonus set in after which things are outside my control. My muscles will start stiffening and it will look as if I am having fits. The beneficial aspect of developing clonus is that the nurse will call Jaya immediately without waiting.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Strength in simplicity

This is the time of bluff and bombast - A 'path breaking' budget that will 'transform' India, a policy is a 'game changer', an agreement is 'historic', a product will 'revolutionise' communication', some product will 'change the world' (Steve Jobs said that about all his products), something will be a 'landmark' decision...I heard an anchor in a Malayalam channel called Kappa TV, which most people wouldn't have heard of, say, "When we were conceptualising this remix, we didn't know the impact it will have on 'the whole nation'".

Every state will have a much-hyped investor summit where huge investment promises will be made but one will never hear about the actuals. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that one has to shout and make tall claims in order to be successful. There is an emphasis on bright-siding everything irrespective of what the reality indicates. I was thinking about this culture of what Arun Shourie called, 'Jo hyperbole so nihal' while reading Gandhi before India by Ramachandra Guha.

In 1909, Gandhi spoke to a mixed gathering of Indians in London where he shared a platform with Savarkar. At that time, the Indian freedom movement was divided into two camps: moderates and extremists. Moderates believed in incremental, constitutional change while extremists wanted rapid change with violence if necessary. Savarkar was in the extremist camp and Gandhi was in the moderate camp. Ramachandra Guha describes how a student remembered the meeting 40 years later:
Savarkar was 'by far the most arresting personality' at the meeting; for 'around him had been built a flaming galaxy of violent revolutionism'. Gandhi, on the other hand, seemed shy and diffident; the students had to 'bend their heads forward to hear the great Mr. Gandhi speak'. His voice and speech were of a piece with his manner - 'calm, unemotional, simple, and devoid of rhetoric'.
A friend of Gandhi said that in  Johannesberg itself, there were 'several of his countrymen whose elocution, natural and unaffected, is far superior to his', that he spoke in a monotonous voice, he 'never waves his arms' and 'seldom moves a finger'. A shy, soft-spoken man who was an indifferent public speaker with speech devoid of rhetoric could move more millions than any other person in India's political history without the aid of arms or an army backing him. I think there is a lesson in it somewhere. (Watch this talk by Dr. Apoorvanand Jha - explaining the relevance of Gandhi's strong anti-majoritarian stand in his final days. The talk is in Hindi.)

Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance to unjust laws made him ' a strategist of slow reforms, of protesting by stages, of systematically preparing himself and his colleagues rather than spontaneously  (or, as he would have it, haphazardly) rushing into confrontation.' This is in sharp contrast to what is popular today: a person who is aggressive, has a no-nonsense attitude, takes quick decisions...In other words, in order to be successful, one is supposed to be a pain in the neck.

Another friend says that while a student in London, Gandhi learnt that 'by quiet persistence he could do far more to change men's minds than by any oratory or loud trumpeting'. He was one of those rare individuals who was reflective as well as firm when he finally took a decision. And importantly, he had high moral standards. His followers were sure that he would be the the first to do what he asked others to do. Guha quotes an admirer, the Chinese Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiabao:
Compared to people in other nations that have lived under the dreary pull of Communism, we resistors in China have not measured up very well. Even after so many years of tremendous tragedies, we still don't have a moral leader like Vaclav Havel. It seems ironic that in order to win the right of ordinary people to persue self-interest, a society needs a moral giant to make a selfless sacrifice. In order to secure 'passive freedom' - freedom from state oppression - there needs to be a will to do active resistance. History is not fated. The appearance of a single martyr can fundamentally turn the spirit of a nation and strengthen its moral fibre. Gandhi was such a figure.
PS: During his first visit to the US, Modi made a big splash. Listening to the audience reactions after one of his 'rock star-like' appearances, I heard a gushing NRI say, 'It was like listening to Gandhi.' I almost had a heart attack.