Status and Social Anxiety

All of us aspire to advance our position in the society, as we derive a variety of advantages by having a higher status. Such benefits include greater influence, perceived competence as well as higher quality of life and well-being. The desire and potential for higher socioeconomic status motivates us to work hard for educational and career progress. 

This aspiration has an evolutionary basis. We exist today at the end of a long evolutionary line of people, only because our ancestors managed to form strong social groups and effectively used these communities to survive. Those who failed to secure group membership did not survive for long, lacking the resources and critical protection that the communities provided. 

Alain de Botton defines Status Anxiety as a nagging worry that we suffer from, about our status in our community. This anxiety results in persistent fearful feelings in us that we are in danger of falling short of the parameters of success as laid down by our own society. We constantly worry that we may be stripped of our dignity and respect. 

Nobody is completely immune to such an anxiety. Botton has an interesting take. He says “Even Bill Gateswill suffer from status anxiety. Why? Because he compares himself to his own peer group. We all do this, and that’s why, we end up feeling that we lack things, even though we’re so much better off than most people.”

Social anxiety is somewhat similar to Status Anxiety and occurs when we fear social situations in which we anticipate negative evaluation of us by others. We may also have a tendency to perceive that our presence will make others feel uncomfortable.

In psychiatry, anxiety disorders include Social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, specific phobias, and the like. Social anxiety disorder is the most common among all of these anxiety disorders. It is ranked, in comparison to all the other mental disorders, as one of the most common disorders, next only to depression and substance use disorder

According to authors Ferda Izgic, Gamez Akyuz, Orhan Dogan, & Nesim Kugu, there is an  increasing interest in Social anxiety because of the higher number of diagnosed cases leading to severe anxiety and depression. This is the reason why, Social anxiety has been included for the first time, as one of the psychiatric disorders within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Ellen Hendriksen, author of the book, ‘How to Be Yourself’, questions the general belief that socially anxious people mostly fear the negative judgment by others of their frailty. She clarifies that this is not really the case. The real fear or anxiety is that the judgment by outsiders may actually turn out to be right, thus exposing their hidden flaws. She calls this process as “The Reveal.” She writes “We think there is something wrong with us, and we avoid in order to conceal it. In our minds, if The Reveal comes to pass, we’ll be rejected, humiliated, or exposed.”  Thus, according to her, Social anxiety is a perception that there is something embarrassing or deficient about us and that unless we work hard to conceal or hide it, it will be revealed and then we will be judged or rejected as a result.

Feelings of insecurity and self-doubt often come and go throughout our life. While it’s perfectly natural to compare ourselves to others, overwhelming sense of inadequacy can be a sign of inferiority complex that is bound to create Social anxiety. The American Psychological Association describes inferiority complex as a “feeling of inadequacy and insecurity stemming from true or imagined deficiencies.” These perceived deficiencies can be physical or psychological and can lead to a range of negative behaviours such as severe timidness or excessive competitiveness or uncontrolled aggression.

The reasons why people develop inferiority complex include growing up in childhood with strong feelings of being under-valued, or being regularly compared unfavourably with other children or experiencing social exclusion during childhood etc.

Media in a variety of forms has thrived for a long time, by presenting glamorized and sanitised versions of lives of high status individuals. Unfortunately, such glamour does attract people to take notice with a mixture of envy and fascination. Fortunately for us, few decades ago, there was then a sense of separation, that these people were living in a different world from ours. This gave some protection from negative comparisons with the glitterati. Our social circles and peer groups made up of family members, co-workers and friends of similar social status to us, adequately provided a more realistic and grounded arena for status comparisons. 

However, in the current age of social media, the way we present ourselves to our immediate peers has come to resemble some of the glamorized and artificially curated forms of representation, which was once limited to only the rich and famous.

Social Media Use (SMU) has skyrocketed in modern society, especially among young adults. Research findings suggest that heavy SMU is likely to lead to Social anxiety and loneliness. Research indicates that socially anxious and lonely individuals appear to prefer and seek out online social interactions on social media.

The explanation is that socially anxious individuals take recourse to the Internet to regulate and compensate for their social fears. They perceive the Internet as a more comfortable platform for socialising rather than face-to-face. Many people may also be using social media excessively, so as to compensate for the lack of tangible social support in their personal physical world.

According to one estimate published in a BBC article, around three billion people, which is about 40% of the world’s population, use online social media. These people are spending an average of two hours every day sharing, liking, tweeting and updating on these platforms.

Social media users more often than not project the best versions of themselves, and sometimes exaggerated images of themselves, because, they have full control over what other people can see and know about them.

Unfortunately, this results in making more than half of users of social media feel inadequate, according to a survey of 1,500 people conducted by disability charity Scope. Given the unrealistically boosted profiles in these media, half of the youngsters surveyed in the age group of 18 to 34 years, indicated that these sites made them feel unattractive.

A study of 1,000 Swedish Facebook users found that women who spent more time on Facebook reported feeling less happy and less confident. The researchers concluded: “When Facebook users compared their own lives with that of others who had seemingly more successful careers and happy relationships, they felt that their own lives are less successful in comparison.”

Exposure to such highly idealised representations of lives of others, generates feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead more happier and more successful lives. This  creates Social anxiety and unhappiness.

Social anxiety disorder emerges from a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition, childhood experiences and unusual brain functioning. People have around 30 to 40 percent chances of developing this disorder if their parents have suffered from Social anxiety disorder.  

Research has identified specific genetic markers for Social anxiety. A gene called SLCGA4 is involved in the transport of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical that can help soothe our nerves and stabilize our moods. Both shortage and excess of serotonin have been linked to Social anxiety symptoms. People with Social anxiety disorder have been found to struggle to produce serotonin consistently and without fluctuation.

“Spotlight Effect” is defined in psychology as the phenomenon where all of us tend to overestimate how much other people are noticing various aspects of our appearance as well as our behaviour. This kind of thinking, unfortunately, causes a lot of Social anxiety. While we may be worrying about what negative things others are noticing about us, in reality, these people are too preoccupied thinking about themselves. 

Research actually shows that we are inclined to think and speak about ourselves 78% of the time. Our brains are also wired to focus and think about ourselves when we are not otherwise engaged in other external activities.

Extensive research has confirmed the connection between negative parenting styles and anxiety disorders, including Social anxiety disorder. The behaviours of parents towards the children that cause real problems later include the following. Excessive control over them, tendency to quickly criticize them for everything, reluctance to show strong affection and finally giving excessive importance to the opinions of outsiders on their children. We need to realize that the child’s self-image and her impression of the world are bound to be shaped by the attitude, words and actions of her parents.

Thus, children and adolescents are likely to become more fearful and less trustful of other people, when they are raised in this kind of environment. Their self-esteem and self-confidence take a big hit due to inappropriate treatment by the parents.

Adolescence is the phase in life when a person begins to detach himself from his parents moving towards own socioeconomic position. It is also the time of significant changes in social behaviours. Adolescents are most vulnerable at this stage and can develop Social anxiety disorder very easily. Thus Social anxiety is common among adolescents with an estimated 5‐16% of them reaching clinical levels.

Social Anxiety, Shyness and Introversion.

Study published in the journal “PLos One” in the year 2020 shows that social phobia is on the rise globally. The survey of 7,000 individuals aged between 16 to 29 years drawn from seven different countries found that 36% respondents met the threshold criteria for having social anxiety disorder. 

An introvert is a person with qualities of a personality type known as introversion, which means that they feel more comfortable focusing on their own inner thoughts and ideas, rather than what is happening externally. 

There is one key difference between introversion and social anxiety. Introversion is a personality trait, not a mental health condition. Introverted people draw energy from within. They dedicate plenty of time to solitary pursuits. Relaxing and unwinding appeal to them. Thus, they prefer to make plans with themselves rather than with others.

Laurie Helgoe, is a clinical psychologist, educator and author of “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength”. She explains that “the introvert will be the one at a meeting who stays quiet much of the time and then when she speaks, she really has something to say. This is because introverts like to work a thought or problem through to completion before sharing a response.”

Introverts have the wonderful ability to sit down, pay attention and actually remember what others tell them. Even if only in appearance, introverts have the ability to exert extreme control over their emotions. In her New York Times best seller book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”,  Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts. 

Elias Aboujaoudewho is an expert on Anxiety disorders, distinguishes between Shyness and Introversion. He says “An introvert can be described as someone who requires alone-time to recharge, whereas a shy individual is someone who is often excessively preoccupied by other people’s perceptions and evaluations of him”.  

Psychiatry professor Asim Shah puts it: “Shyness is a form of anxiety. Introversion is not a form of anxiety.” Bill Gates is quiet and bookish, but apparently unfazed by opinions of others on him. Thus he is an introvert, but not shy.

We also need to realize that Social anxiety is different from shyness. Shyness can make socializing quite difficult, but it does not disrupt life to the same extent as Social anxiety. Social anxiety is persistent and overwhelming and may affect everyday activities, such as shopping for groceries.

Shyness is a feeling of nervousness or discomfort, usually caused by fear of social situations. Shyness is often linked to low self-esteem and is characterized by excessive self-consciousness, negative self-evaluation and negative self-preoccupation. These three characteristics of shyness require a sense of self. A sense of self does not begin to develop until about the age of 18 months, which suggests that we are not born with shyness. Research shows that shyness is influenced by social experiences, especially those with our parents. Overprotective parents make the children feel too shy and make the development of social skills more difficult for them. 

Social anxiety in kids starts between the ages of 8 and 15. Children can usually hide these feelings in the beginning and parents and teachers may not notice that anything is wrong.

Social anxiety may be experienced by them in small things like answering a question in the class or eating with friends in the cafeteria. They are scared of these kind of situations because they feel that they may accidentally do something embarrassing or offensive. 

The kinds of situations that can cause social anxiety in kids will be different for various kids.  One child might see her friends whispering and laughing which she will interpret negatively, as if her friends are laughing at her. Another child might want to ask the teacher a question but will refrain from it because she is afraid that the question may sound stupid.

Intense competition for higher status drives people to display conspicuous status symbols by way of expensive and branded goods. 

There is substantial evidence that status consumption, defined as the motivational process by which individuals strive to improve their social standing through the conspicuous consumption of consumer products that confer and symbolize status’ increases under conditions of greater income inequality.

Research indicates that people in more unequal societies spend more on status goods. They also work longer hours and tend to land into debt.

Women invest more time and attention in trying to enhance their appearance, again if they happen to live in economically unequal environments. These attempts to enhance their looks is driven by Status anxiety.

Research by scientists at the University of Melbourne, Australia, found that women assigned to economically unequal societies chose more revealing, sexy outfits for their first night. They did so because they were anxious about their social status.

Humility is the ability to both view ourselves accurately as individuals possessing certain appreciable talents but also as having some not-so-complimentary flaws. This accurate self-evaluation results in displaying behaviours that are devoid of arrogance but without compromising self-esteem. It is unfortunate that humility is not acknowledged as a wonderful and valuable trait that needs better appreciation.  

There is a wrong conception in some circles that people with humility have low opinion of themselves, have low self-esteem and also lack self-confidence. There is more than enough evidence that exactly opposite is the truth. 

A growing body of research suggests that people who are more humble tend to enjoy better physical and mental health than individuals who are less humble. Humble individuals have been found to have higher life satisfaction and self-esteem. This is coupled with less depression and less anxiety.

Importance of emotional skills in early years

We feel angry when we are stuck in traffic. We feel disappointed when we fail a test. We feel irritated when we are hungry. We feel happy when our work is appreciated. We feel sad when a known person passes away. As humans, we are all prone to emotions with various triggers creating a variety of emotions. Emotional Regulation techniques enable us to manage and control these feelings.

Let us first understand the difference between emotions and feelings. Emotions are seen as preceding feelings. Emotions happen automatically based on external or internal triggers. Our feelings are reactions to these different emotions that we experience. Interestingly, emotions can have a more generalized triggers across all people but feelings are more subjective and are influenced by our own personal emotional experiences and also our specific personal interpretations of these experiences.

Emotion Regulation (ER) capabilities allow us to modulate and manage our emotional experiences. Emotion Regulation includes awareness of onset of emotion. It includes our ability to understand and accept these emotions. It also covers our ability to apply appropriate strategies or skills to manage these emotions. Finally, it encompasses the skills to control our impulses as otherwise we are prone to rush-in and respond to negative emotions in very unhealthy ways. 

According to research findings, when children and young people develop good social and emotional skills, it leads them to success not only in their school years but also during their whole lifetime. It is therefore somewhat unfortunate that sufficient attention is generally not paid to strengthening these important social and emotional skills in the early years. We need to appreciate that regulating emotions is an aspect of emotional competence which needs to be fostered and developed at an early age.

Research shows that early emotional development is nurtured by our close relationship with our primary caregivers. Thanks to mirror neurons, even infants, very early after birth, try to imitate the facial expressions of others. 

Let us examine the growth path of Emotion Regulation during our lifespan. The preschool years, defined as the ages of 3 through 5, are the critical years for the development of Emotion Regulation. During this time, growth in brain’s various executive functions not only enables pre-schoolers to suppress unacceptable behaviours but also to regulate attention to contextual surroundings and hold information in working memory. These new skills provide children with new means of navigating emotional situations, which are then combined with increased understanding of emotions. Children also learn typical social norms for emotional expression. They also recognize that others may have different emotional experiences from their own, and appreciate that their own expressed emotion need not match their inner experience. Each of these processes is important to the development of Emotion Regulation. It is during the preschool years that these foundational processes are developed good enough for the children, to shift from employing automatic reflexive strategies to thoughtful regulation of emotions.

Thus in the first year of life, children develop basic emotions of joy, fear, anger, sadness, surprise and interest. More complex self-referential emotions such as pride, shame, compassion, envy, embarrassment and guilt , which require appropriate evaluation of emotional stimuli, are developed towards the end of the second year of life. This development goes hand in hand with children’s increasing language development, which allows them to identify and express their feelings.

Interestingly, social referencing ability is acquired by the child  from the age of about nine months. Thus, in an unfamiliar or ambiguous situation, the child can “read” from the facial expression of the caregiver to get clues to evaluate the situation and then to adjust her own behaviour accordingly. Between the ages of two and five, children are continually improving their ability to use self-contained regulation strategies. This is a shift away from depending on external cues. The child learns to regulate her feelings and the associated expressions, more and more independently, quickly adapting them to social demands.

Simply put, self-regulation is the difference between a two-year-old and a five-year-old, where the latter is more able to control her emotions. 

This ability of self-efficacy is an important milestone in the child’s emotional development. We need to recognise that age-appropriate emotion regulation is key to future successful psychological development. This assumes importance since difficulties in emotion regulation are central to child psychopathology. Infants who are unfortunate to have had no stable, consistent caregivers are unable to regulate their emotions. 

According to the World Health Organisation report of 2021, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis. This is mainly due to the breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-ups or chronic pain and illness.

Hence, it is essential to start teaching children the skills necessary for Emotion Regulation at an early age, so that they may learn how to manage the stressful triggers and develop into resilient beings.  Early training prepares them to manage stresses and strains on a daily basis, as they become older. 

Inability to control one’s emotions can manifest in a variety of ways, including temper outbursts and breakdowns, violence, withdrawal, anxiety, low self-esteem and academic difficulties. 

Parents need to be aware that giving-in to tantrums or going overboard to accommodate their children when they get upset and burst out, is counterproductive. Such a compromise will come in the way of kids developing self-discipline in managing their urges. Psychologist Matthew Rouse warns “In those situations, the child is basically looking to the parents to be external self-regulators. If that’s a pattern that happens again and again, and the child gets used to ‘outsourcing’ self-regulation, then that’s something that might develop into a habit.”

We are all witness to many children growing up without learning to control their urges, with disastrous consequences when they become adults.

Author and psychotherapist Fran Walfish has useful suggestions on effectively handling emotional anger or frustration of children. She advises us to combine clarity, kindness, empathy and firmness while managing the situation. She reminds us that, as trivial as they may seem, children are always entitled to their emotions. Instead of pointing out, for instance, how absurd it is for them to get angry even though they have already been warned that their screen time is coming to an end, we need to validate their frustration. We need to be empathetic towards our child and show that you do understand how hard it is for them to get off the screen. This empathetic approach when coupled with frequent praises for completing the relatively hard-to-do tasks, will yield the right results on the longer term. 

Adolescence constitutes a high-risk phase of life keeping mental health in mind, as most psychiatric disorders begin before the age of 25. Epidemiological studies, both in the context of the United States and Europe, indicate high rates of mental health disorders during adolescence, with anxiety disorders as the most common condition at 31.9%, followed by behavioural disorders at 19.1%, mood disorders at 14.3% and substance use disorders at 11.4%.

Research shows that there are major changes in brain architecture that occur during adolescence. In particular, during early and mid-adolescence between 11-15 years, brain systems that seek rewards and process emotions are more developed than cognitive control systems which are critical for good decision-making and future planning. This means, that self-regulation which leans on the thinking part of the brain is “out of balance” with the emotionally part of the brain which has developed faster. Knowing fully well that adolescents are likely to take poor decisions during adolescence which may have long-term negative consequences, there is clear need for us to actively support and guide them during this period. This is especially important for youth with history of adverse childhood experiences. For this group, interventions during adolescence and young adulthood may reduce the risk of mental disorders and build more resilience.

We need to appreciate that stress is one of the biggest challenges that youth face in all relationships, either at school or at home or at work. Any triggers that cause ongoing high intensity stress, can overwhelm existing skills and capabilities of youth. This can create toxic effects that negatively impact their development and produce long-term changes in their brain architecture. Ongoing, overwhelming experiences of stress can physically change the wiring of the brain to rely more heavily on emotional reactions than on reflection, reasoning, and decision-making. 

Given this vulnerability, it should come as no surprise that most common mental health disorders, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and anxiety have their onset during adolescence. 

In an ideal Emotional Regulation growth path, a toddler who throws tantrums will grow into a normal child who learns how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without throwing a fit. He will then grow into a healthy adult who is able to control impulses, while sensing uncomfortable feelings within him. As an adult he will develop skills of self-regulation which requires taking the critical pause between a feeling and an action. This intentional pause gives time to think things through, to make the right plan and then only act. 

Adverse life experiences such as abuse, neglect, family-conflict and homelessness, radically impact the development of Emotion Regulation capabilities. Most mental health disorders emerge between late adolescence and young adulthood.

Two Emotion Regulation strategies are most prominent and well used. They are cognitive reappraisal which is referred to as ‘antecedent-focused’ strategy and the other is expressive suppression referred to as ‘response-focused’ strategy. 

The first type is aimed at modifying the emotional meaning and impact of a situation. This reappraisal is done in four ways.

Situation selection: Person can choose to avoid the emotional situation by not getting into it or by disengaging from it. As an example if socialisation with a certain group raises uncomfortable emotions, then he can stop getting into these social gatherings or move away from one.

Situation modification: Person can change the emotional situation with the aim to influence the internal emotions. As an example, in a tense discussions scenario where tempers are getting frayed, he can bring some humour or laughter.

Attentional deployment: Person can shift focus away from the emotional scenario. This can be done by distraction. 

Cognitive change: Person can change the emotional meaning of the situation. One method is to modify the significance assigned to an event, so as to reduce its emotional impact. As an example, we can tell ourselves that  “I know this is not easy, but I will give it a try and get over any difficulties. I am sure, I can find a way to solve the problem.”

As the antecedent-focused strategies are implemented before the occurrence of full-blown emotion, they are generally more effective. The impact of emotion is less as they allow for early intervention in the emotion-generative process. 

The second type of regulation is response-focused Emotion Regulation which occurs after the emotion is fully experienced. Suppression is the most common form of this regulation. This refers to holding one’s emotional reaction in check while experiencing that emotion. As an example we may suppress the sad feelings in us after the death of a close friend or we may feel frustrated inside about our job but may suppress outward expression of the feeling. The downside, however, is that people who tend to adopt avoidance and suppression in response to negative emotions are more likely to experience psychological problems. Conversely, individuals who are able to reappraise problematic emotional events and take positive actions to deal with them are better at adapting to the vicissitudes of life. 

Regular physical activity and good sleep have also been shown to reduce the level of our emotional distress thus improving our emotional control. 

Sleep and Emotion Regulation have an impact on each other. Disturbed sleep reduces our capacity to effectively engage in understanding our strong  emotions. It limits our ability to clearly think through potential courses of action to control the situation and then to effectively implement the decided strategy. Similarly, poor Emotion Regulation can negatively impact sleep. For example, when every day emotional triggers are not adequately dealt with, pre-sleep arousal gets heightened. This results in our taking lot more time to get to sleep. It also results in a decrease of the duration of REM-sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) and affects the density of our sleep. Thus, good sleep quality appears to be important for effective Emotion Regulation and good Emotion Regulation appears to be important for good sleep quality.

Suicide is a major public health issue, with an estimated 800,000 people worldwide dying as a result of suicide each year. WHO report of 2014 says that the number of suicide attempts as opposed to completed suicides, may be closer to 20 times this figure. Most of the theories for suicidal tendencies point out to maladaptive responses to intense negative emotions or lack of effective Emotion Regulation. A research study suggests that some individuals are unable to tolerate the experience of psychological pain. In response to this, they turn to suicidal thoughts as a way of coping with and escaping from this pain. This is essentially due to their lack of skills to regulate their internal emotions.

According to escape theory of suicide, individuals wish to die when they feel overwhelmed by acute and unbearable emotions that prevent them from resorting to any regulation strategy. This intolerable emotional state, which is perceived as uncontrollable, leads patients to think of suicide as an effective way to escape these feelings.

Emotional Dysregulation happens when our brain is unable to properly regulate the signals related to our emotions. Without this ability, it is similar to the situation when the TV volume-control is stuck at a painfully high level. In effect, Emotional Dysregulation occurs when our very loud emotions are out of control, creating feelings in us of being overwhelmed, uncomfortable and in great pain.

Emotional Dysregulation in the age group of 5 to 12 years are outwardly visible when these children indulge in excessive arguments or resist and refuse to obey instructions or display high levels of aggression etc. Emotional Dysregulation in the age group 13 to 19 on the other hand, plays out in actions like refusing to engage in healthy activities or displaying risky behaviour or arguing with authority or showing physical aggression etc.

Emotion Dysregulation is conceptualized as difficulty or inability in several areas. These areas include the inability to monitor and evaluate emotional experiences and adapt to their intensity and duration. It also includes inability to modulate emotional reactions in order to meet situational demands. The Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS) is a well-validated and extensively used self-report instrument for Emotion Regulation problems.  The self-report scale measures responses in the following areas.

1. Nonacceptance of emotional responses

2. Difficulty engaging in goal-directed behaviour

3. Impulse control difficulties

4. Lack of emotional awareness

5. Limited access to Emotion Regulation strategies

6. Lack of emotional clarity

This tool is especially useful in helping patients with Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Substance Use Disorder. It helps to identify areas for intervention and support on how to respond to their difficult emotions. This scale takes a holistic and integrated view of Emotion Regulation, including the problems associated with the modulation of emotional arousal, the awareness, the understanding and the acceptance of emotions and finally the ability to strategize and act in desired ways.

Negative emotions can be described as any feeling which makes us feel miserable and sad. These emotions make us dislike ourselves as well as others thus reducing our confidence and self-esteem. Typical emotions that can become negative are hate, anger, jealousy, rejection, fear and sadness. Some examples. “ I get jealous when the girl I like goes with the other fellow”. “I am angry that I do not do too well in my tests”. “ I am afraid that my girl-friend will ditch me, as I do not measure up to her expectation”.

Based on research in the areas of clinical psychology, health psychology and psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), a clear relationship has been established between negative emotions such as anxiety and sadness on the one side and inflammation in the body on the other side. When we fail to regulate negative emotionsproperly, we create biological wear and tear on our body that can increase the risk for morbidity and mortality. 

The field of Emotion Regulation has largely focused on intrinsic ER or regulation of one’s own emotions. But recent research has started investigating extrinsic ER which is a process where a person influences the emotional state of another. This action is done consciously and voluntarily with an intent to regulate the mood of the other person. This kind of Extrinsic Emotion Regulation (EER) is very common between couples and is referred to as Interpersonal emotion regulation (IER). It is based on the premise that people not only regulate their own emotions but also seek to influence, affect, or modify other people’s emotional experiences which improves the quality of their relationship.

Some people are better equipped in regulating the emotions than others. These people are credited with possessing higher Emotional Intelligence (EI), which makes them aware of both their internal emotions and the feelings of others. While it may appear for the outsider that these persons with higher EI are just “naturally calm,” in actuality, they do experience negative feelings but do not express them. They have just developed coping strategies that allow them to self-regulate in difficult emotional situations. 

Infants have limited abilities to regulate themselves at the beginning of life. When babies are upset, they depend heavily on their primary caregivers to cope and restore their emotional balance. They learn how to communicate and manage their feelings based on the caregiver’s responses to their negative emotions​. Coregulation with parents is like teaching children how to ride a bike. 

Coregulation is an interpersonal process of managing emotions in which participants continuously adjust their responses in a coordinated pattern to co-create and maintain a positive emotional state. Coregulation is important because it is a way for parents to help their children develop emotional self-regulation.

It therefore becomes important for caregivers such as parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors to first focus on their own capacity for self-regulation. To successfully co-regulate, caregivers will need to: 

·  Pay attention to their own feelings and reactions during stressful interactions with a child, youth or young adult. 

·  Pay attention to their own thoughts and beliefs about the behaviours of others. 

·  Use strategies to self-calm and respond to children effectively and compassionately. 

Caregivers greatly benefit when they take recourse to deep breathing and self-talk. When a caregiver responds calmly to a child, youth, or young adult, it greatly helps to keep the young person’s feelings under control.  It also acts as a model of Emotion Regulation skills for the child to imitate. 

All about Rituals

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or may be followed as the tradition of a community. The term ritual usually excludes all actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers.

The rites and rituals of both the past and the present societies have made use of a variety of symbols and modes of practices. Some involved special gestures and words, some used recitation of fixed texts and many others had special music, songs or dances as a central theme. Some rituals had processions, most went for special attire, and many gave importance to consumption of special food, drinks and much more. Religious rituals also used their own specific set of artefacts.

Practice of rituals is a common thread that has linked humanity through the ages, regardless of ethnicity, culture or religion. These rituals have enabled us to build well-bonded families and cohesive communities. They have supported us to express ourselves in times of both joy and sorrow. Most critically, they have helped us to create and sustain our own specific identities. 

Rituals unlike individual habits are conventional behaviours that are socially stipulated. It should therefore come as no surprise that rituals follow predefined set of sequential actions that are characterized by rigidity, formality and repetition. Such rituals are embedded in systems that have a certain meaning and symbolism. 

Research identifies three elements that constitute a ritual. The first element is the formality and repetitive nature of  the behaviour, occurring in fixed succession. Second element is the requirement for ritualistic behaviour to have a symbolic meaning. Lastly, the ritualised behaviours are mainly symbolic in nature and not expected to have any meaning without the symbolism. The 21-gun salute during a military funeral service is very symbolic across the world in bestowing the highest honour to a fallen comrade. Without the symbolism, this ritual would be nothing more than a group of soldiers firing into the air. 

Rituals play a very important role in human communities for a number of reasons.

First, rituals have the power to reduce individual and collective anxieties, especially when facing uncertainties or crisis situations. Research has established that by praying or singing together, we feel emotionally connected and supported by each other. This reduces the anxiety levels of all the participants.

Second, rituals act as support structure for people to get together and celebrate important milestones of either the individual, the community or the nation. Births, graduations, marriages, deaths, independence days, festivals – are all marked by rituals and traditions across the globe. These events provide a time and place for people to gather and renew their bonds with friends, family members, fellow members of the community or the country. Rituals serve as powerful signals that promote trust within the social group in which they are practised. 

Religious rituals are in one sense the behavioural underpinnings of a religion. We can see many rituals that are performed across all religions on certain occasions even though they may use different sets of artefacts and gestures. 

Rituals around grief and death are ubiquitous. Historical records show that communities have been effectively using rituals while dealing with grief and loss. End-of-life (EOL) rituals serve an important purpose as they enable people to express and share their ongoing grief and also maintain connections between the dying persons and their friends and family. 

We may not realize, but one of the most enduring and significant family ritual is the family meal. When individuals sit down with family members and share a meal together, they engage in an experience that reaches out to all the human senses: sight, smell, touch, taste and the sounds of familiar voices. Family meals furnish a meaningful, regular opportunity to be involved in an experience that is shared among family members and also serves as an occasion for sharing important information and thoughts. 

An article in Journal of Family Psychology’  claims that family routines and rituals play an important role in the health and well-being of today’s families.  They act as a relief mechanism to reduce the stresses and strains of today’s busy life. Longitudinal research done over 50 years finds that family routines and rituals are powerful tools for de-stressing and bringing some modicum of stability.

Family rituals also help to bring families closer, teach kids important life skills and help them feel safe and secure. Rituals enable elders to pass on cultural traditions and important values to the others in the family. Many rituals involve lot of fun creating happy memories of  shared moments for the family members to look back upon.

Couples also engage in many happy rituals during their life together. Such rituals have been shown to improve the quality of the relationship. For example, partners who engage in simple positive rituals such as sharing mealtimes or celebrating milestones, tend to have greater intimacy, improved relationship satisfaction and stronger commitment to each other. 

On the surface, there are astonishing differences between rituals associated with different populations over human history. The rituals make use of different substances, different practices and different artefacts. Yet, there are striking similarities in all these rituals. All of them include procedural repetition, multiple procedural steps, time specificity and high levels of procedural detail. Typically, religious rituals incorporate presence of supernatural agents. Given the ubiquitous nature of these rituals, we must accord them the right importance while describing human socialisation. 

According to Andrew Newberg,  associate director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, rituals lower cortisol, which in turn lowers heart rate and blood pressure and increases the immune system function.

Even though rituals have no direct influence over the physical world, they provide a sense of control by imposing order in the chaotic everyday life. It is of little importance whether this sense of control is illusory. What matters is that it is an efficient way of relieving anxiety.

One of the most powerful actions that we can take for improving our mental health is to start each morning with a mood-boosting ritual. Such a ritual may involve exercise, meditation or positive affirmations. It is also a great idea to step outdoors into the sunlight which can put our minds at ease and increasing the production of serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone which regulates mood, sleep, memory, and other thinking functions. 

Research reveals that rituals which involve coordinated movements make the participants trust each other lot more. This is attributed to the increased release of neurotransmitters that are  associated with bonding. By aligning behaviour and creating shared experiences, rituals forge a sense of belonging and common identity which transforms individuals into cohesive communities. 

When measurements were taken during fire walking ritual, it revealed an astonishing level of synchrony in the heart-rate activity of the fire-walkers on one side and their families, their friends and other spectators of the event on the other side. When researchers mapped the social network of the firewalkers, they saw that the degree of synchronicity was directly related to the level of their social proximity. Thus a fire-walker’s heart-rate patterns resembled those of his wife much more closely than those of his friends. Similarly, those of his friends were more in sync than those of other spectators.

The meaning of ritual cannot often be fully captured through words which are inadequate to describe the totality of the experience. Through wordless sharing, the participants can discharge difficult emotions and heal and restore themselves. The fundamental power and promise of ritual lies in this particular aspect.

Rhythm and music do play a somewhat similar and important role in many rituals. Whether we are chanting in Sanskrit or singing the national anthem together, our brains tend to resonate with the brains of those around us. So, if everyone is performing the same dance or singing the same hymn or prayer, all of the participating brains are working in sync. Andrew Newberg, a researcher in neurotheology, observes that this synchroneity can engender powerful feeling of connectedness. The resulting reduction of stress levels in the participants, is due to the activation of their autonomic nervous system connected to their emotional areas of the brain. According to one study, chanting the Sanskrit syllable “om” deactivates the limbic system, softening the edge of fear, anxiety, and depression.

Extreme ritual practices involving pain and suffering pose significant risks such as injury, trauma or even infection. Nonetheless, they are performed by millions of people around the world. More interestingly, quite often, they happen to be the culturally prescribed remedies for a variety of maladies, especially related to mental health.

Combining ethnographic observations and psycho-physiological monitoring, researchers investigated the outcomes of participation in one of the world’s most extreme rituals, involving bodily mutilation and prolonged suffering. They found that performance of this physically demanding ordeal had no detrimental effects on physiological health. On the other hand, participants exhibited discernable health improvements. They also found out that the improvements were far greater in those who engaged in more intense forms of participation.

Extreme rituals such as fire-walking, push the limits of human endurance by imposing extraordinary pain, stress and risks. A small Spanish village called San Pedro Manrique is home to the largest fire-walking in Europe. Fire-walking is a demanding task considering that temperatures are extreme and the experience of walking over burning coals can be painful. The pace must be controlled with precision. Walking too slowly will prolong the contact with the fire, which is guaranteed to cause a nasty burn. Trying to run will push the feet deeper into the coal bed, where temperatures are even higher. Going toes-first could get pieces of burning matter stuck between the toes. Putting too much weight on the heels will reduce the surface area of the impact point, plunging the feet deeper into the hearth. The more experienced fire-walkers advise the youngsters ‘Stomp on the fire using your entire foot … walk steadily and confidently … walk straight and look straight … respect the fire, but do not be afraid of it.’

Neuroscience offers some clues on why such painful and dangerous rituals are performed. Extreme rituals create increasing levels of arousal in the participants, starting well before the actual act is performed during preparation time and peaking at the time of completion of the ritual. As rituals become more arousing, they trigger hormones that stimulate the reward systems of the brain. Sensations such as pain or fear, typically thought to be negative, can actually be transformed into pleasurable experiences. This is similar to the sharp thrill experienced by the bungee-jumper due to a spike in the neurotransmitter dopamine. An increase in neuropeptides called endorphins, which bind to the brain’s opiate receptors, produce soothing euphoria in the ritual participants similar to the one felt by the marathon runner, also known as ‘runner’s high’.

We can easily appreciate that it is impossible to navigate in a foreign country, without the knowledge and understanding of the local traditions and cultural rituals. For example, in Asian culture, taking off our shoes when we enter the home is an important ritual. It not only helps to keep the house clean, but it is also a way to show respect for the house and to the people in it.  We need to realize that rituals are socially stipulated conventions. Therefore we cannot ignore them. A visit to a new country will quickly reveal how rituals are so ingrained in everyday social interactions. For example, upon arrival at a ryokan, a Japanese inn, we will typically encounter a long line of shoes at the entryway. We will, by intuition, quickly slip off our shoes to add to the line, despite receiving no explicit instruction to do so. As we place our bare feet on the parlour floor, we will encounter a pair of house slippers or uwabaki. It will be apparent that wearing uwabaki inside the ryokan is expected as a glance around the room will reveal that everyone else is wearing them. When we arrive at our sleeping quarters, we will again encounter no fewer than two additional pairs of uwabaki. We can quickly figure out that one is for the bedroom and the other is for the bathroom. We will dutifully transition to our different pairs of uwabaki throughout our stay. We will follow this ritual even when wee are alone inside our bedroom, with no one to observe or correct us. The reason we quickly adopt the ritual footwear practices, is to signal to the community and to ourselves that we consider ourselves as members of this group.

Social scientists have long speculated that collective rituals generate benefits that exceed their costs by reinforcing social bonding and group solidarity. Famously, Emile Durkheim proposed the notion of collective effervescence, a feeling of ‘belonging and assimilation’ that is produced by collective ritual action. Durkheim particularly emphasizes the importance that is placed on the collective practice of the religious rituals for the unity of tribes. When the tribe gathers for a religious ritual, a force is formed, which Durkheim associates to a kind of social electricity which escalates the mood of the participants. The gathering of human bodies in the same place is a basic prerequisite for this shared experience. The several interaction rituals that follow promote ‘attunement’ and culminate in intensification of the common emotional state of the participants which Durkheim calls ‘collective effervescence’.

Collective rituals have also been seen as activities that integrate an individual with the communal social order. They also help to establish & maintain social equilibrium by bonding group members, minimizing status differences and redressing social conflicts.

It is claimed that “In a collective gathering, emotional synchrony pulls humans fully, but temporarily into the higher realm of the sacred, where the self disappears and collective interests predominate.”

Randall Collins has developed Interaction Ritual Theory (IRT) which focuses on the mechanisms by which successful social interactions transform people’s feelings into longer-term emotional energy. Collins defines emotional energy as a feeling of confidence, elation, strength, enthusiasm and zeal to take action. When this energy is circulated and regenerated through chains of further interactions, then relationships are nourished, identities are moulded and the social fabric is shaped.

Let us try to picture the last time we were engrossed in an interaction. May be, we were immersed in a conversation with a friend, or we may be experiencing the sadness at a funeral, or we may be absorbed in a concert by our favourite band. In all these cases, we were engaging in an interaction ritual (IR): a focused encounter in which we were emotionally in sync with the other participants. 

Dr James Jones, a clinical psychologist and a professor of religion at Rutgers University integrates neuropsychology with ‘philosophy of mind’ to discover scientific explanations for religion.

He delves into the idea of expanded awareness, which is a common effect of all religious rituals. Ritualistic activities can cause a trance-like state, which involves experience that goes beyond the ordinary everyday experiences which are received through our five senses. Religious rituals have the capacity to make a person experience transcendence. Dr Jones attempts to explain the neuropsychology behind these higher-level experiences.

The Human Connectome Project finds that reason, emotion and sensation all work together using the same neural networks. Working together, they generate a more transcendental way of knowing. This suggests that human understanding is never purely reason driven. The mind is also made up of two subsystems. One is to do with unconscious thought processes which are intuitive and fast-reacting. The second is to do with conscious thought processes, which are slower and more deliberate. These two sub-systems are interdependent and affect each other all the time. During the intense ritual practice, these combined systems create a larger transcendental perception of the world by joining bodily activity, intuition, thought processes and emotion.

In their research paper “Ritual Design: Crafting team rituals for meaningful organizational change”,  Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan claim that rituals have a special power to bring people together and give them a sense of purpose, values and meaning.

It is common for all organizations to conduct celebratory ritual in some form or other at the end of a project or at the end of the month or at anytime when a major milestone is completed.  Typically, gift cards are passed out, pizzas are ordered, certificates of appreciation are handed out and special t-shirts are made and distributed. Also, some or other event that is celebratory in nature is conducted.

Research shows that when rituals are integrated into the culture of an organization, they help motivate employees to achieve the goals of the organization. Rituals can also help forge connections among the various departments or among the several work teams that otherwise tend to isolate into silos. Rituals can also build bridges between different generations within the workforce, like bringing together the experienced veteran staff and the newly hired employees thus paving way for healthy and enriching relationships. Rituals also serve as events when people who otherwise do not agree with each other, are drawn to come together and stand shoulder to shoulder. 

Decline of Ethics and Moral Values

Corrosion of moral values is a painful reality all around the world. We see dangerously increasing violence, self-centeredness, dishonesty, bullying and rudeness everywhere. Research points out to the sad trend where young people are caring less and less about morals and ethical values. Their entire focus appears to be on themselves with least concern for morality.

Ethics refers to well-founded standards of what is right and what is wrong that determines what people are expected to do. These rules revolve around rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, specific virtues etc. At a fundamental level, ethics should provide the answer to the question ‘What do I do in a particular set of circumstances?’ Thus ethics is an external system of concepts and rules that directs us to make morally right decisions. 

Morality on the other hand is a personal set of beliefs. It is the core of who we are as individuals unlike ethics which deals with the expectations that are defined and enforced on us by the culture and society we live in.

Integrity which is closely associated with morality, is an internal system of principles which guides our behaviour. People of integrity are motivated by a strong inner drive that makes them strive for consistently high standards of behaviour. Such behaviour is displayed even when no one is watching. There is also no expectation for either reward or punishment when behaving on the basis of our inner compass.

We attach lot of importance to morality:

In religious and philosophical traditions, morality enjoys maximum importance. Where moral considerations conflict with other considerations, it is made clear that moral considerations should always be “overriding”.

In cross-cultural research, moral values have been found to reside at the top of “value hierarchies” in all the cultures around the world. Studies repeatedly found that assessments of a person’s moral character played a central and dominant role in forming good or bad impression of the individual. Morality thus plays an important role in a variety of social and personal contexts.

Decline in ethics and morality all around:

Mass shootings, racial hatred including display of white supremacy, social injustice and fraud are just a few of the examples of the moral decay in America. These extremes forms of behaviour are mainly occurring because of a decline in morality and nonadherence to ethical standards.

This sorry state-of-affairs was reflected in the Gallup Survey conducted in the year 2022. The survey found that 50% of Americans rated the overall state of moral values in the U.S. as “poor” and another 37% said it was “only fair”. Just 1% of people surveyed thought that the state of moral values is “excellent” and 12% voted them as “good”. Most disturbingly, the survey highlighted the general feeling that Americans most of the time treated each other shabbily.

Cost of Corruption:

The World Economic Forum estimates that the global cost of corruption is at least $2.6 trillion, or 5 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP).  According to the World Bank, meanwhile, businesses and individuals pay more than $1 trillion in bribes every year. ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary‑General of the United Nations said “Corruption robs schools, hospitals and others of vitally needed funds”. 

When corruption is systemic, the public resources are constantly diverted away from projects, policies and services that serve the public at large. 

Our education system is failing to enhance our ethical values:

As our moral values are significantly shaped in our younger years, we need to question our educational system for its failure in this area. Even though more people are now going through schools and colleges, their education appears to be ineffective in strengthening their social, ethical and spiritual values. Thus, the right type of education will take us out of darkness into light, and out of ignorance into brighter understanding (Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya) is completely missing.

Colleges and universities today place great emphasis only on acquiring academic knowledge. But when we examines failures of adults either in job performance or in relationships with friends and colleagues, especially in marriages, we may find that the root cause is lack of ethical reasoning which is different from academic reasoning. 

Teaching ethical reasoning is not about teaching what one should do in particular circumstances, it is about teaching students how to think wisely when looking for solutions involving ethical considerations. Students need to examine the problems from different angles exploring possible solutions and then evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of these solutions. What is important is that the solution will need to pass the ethical objectivity test. 

Moral Foundation theory:

Moral Foundations Theory was created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures and yet shows so many similarities. With so many unique cultural moralities around the world, some moral rules are bound to conflict with that of others.  However, there are moral rules that are universal and are found in all these cultures. They consist of rules governing ‘caring for others, being fair, displaying loyalty, respecting authority, wanting a certain degree of freedom and liberty’ etc.

Morality As Cooperation(MAC):

Research is converging on the idea that morality is a collection of rules for promoting cooperation. Such rules cover areas like working together, getting along, keeping the peace and promoting the common good. 

The theory of ‘Morality As Cooperation’ argues that morality is best understood as a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation which one regularly encounters in human social life.

MAC draws on evolutionary game theory to argue that there are bound to be many types of morality simply because there are many types of cooperation. However, anthropologists at the University of Oxford have discovered that in-spite of this variety, there are seven universal moral rules that cut across all cultures. These universal rules consist of helping our family, helping our group, returning favours from others, being brave, paying respect to superiors, dividing resources fairly and finally respecting property rights of others. These common rules were found in all the 60 cultures that were surveyed from around the world.

Some interesting examples, including some from tribal cultures, are given below. 

Among the Amhara of Ethiopia, flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character. 

In Korea, there exists an egalitarian community ethic which consist of mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbours and also strong solidarity within the group.

Reciprocity is observed in every stage of  life of Tibetan-Burmese ethnic group Garo and has a very high place in the Garo social structure of values. 

Among the largest indigenous tribe of North America which is Tarahumara, respect for the property of others is the keystone of all interpersonal relations.

The Bemba of Zambia exhibit a deep sense of respect for authority of elders.

Morality in Sports:

One reason for compromised moral values in the sports arena is the professionalization and commercialization of sports which puts too much emphasis on the need for wins rather than the need for active participation. The moral dilemma then, is the desire and need to win which is pitted against the importance of sincere participation, faithfully following all the rules of the game. 

In a research study on ‘Morality and values in sports among young athletes’, it was found, that young athletes who were raised by parents who communicated high morals and values as part of the socialization of their children, exhibited ethical traits in all their sport activities.

The curse of  moral mandates:

Rigid moral codes are not necessarily good all the time. Uncompromising and absolute moral convictions can cause serious negative interpersonal consequences. This is due to the tendency by moral extremists to vilify and dehumanize those that disagree with their moral beliefs. Researchers describe beliefs based on moral convictions as “moral mandates”. They are defined as mandated rules regarding the rightness and wrongness of specific behaviours. Thus ‘abortion is morally wrong’ or ‘natural environments must be protected at any cost’ or ‘ use of marijuana has to be prohibited even if it has medicinal value’ are all examples of such entrenched moral values. Unfortunately, when our moral values force us to challenge scientific facts and well-founded innovations, we are in a way impeding the advancement of science.

Ethics and business:

Businesses create a lot of value both to stakeholders and to society at large. They provide goods and services, wages to workers and income to investors. They pay taxes that are deployed for infrastructure development for the community. Taxes also act as the financial resource for a wide variety of governmental programs and services. Many firms also give generously to charities and provide ‘employees time’ to engage in community programs. This is a short but incomplete list of sources of value provided by businesses. However, in spite of the value they provide, many people have a negative view of businesses and their leaders, believing that they are inherently corrupt and destructive. This perspective is fuelled by widely disseminated information about corporate misdeeds associated with pollution, greed, discrimination, exploitation of workers, bribery, and so forth. Businesses are being scrutinized more than ever thanks to high-speed internet, abundance of news sources and social media,

Research conducted by ‘Ethics and Compliance Initiative’ showed that 49% of U.S. employees reported observing unethical behaviour in their organizations. The most frequently observed unethical behaviours involved favouritism toward certain employees (35%), management lying to employees (25%), conflicts of interest (23%), improper hiring practices (22%), abusive behaviour (22%) and health violations (22%).

Regulators in several countries have been focusing on auditor independence, which is a major investor safeguard. This has resulted in barring of audit firms from performing certain outside work for their audit clients and also limiting the revenue that the firm’s consulting practice can earn. 

It should therefore come as no surprise when the huge global firm Ernst & Young announced plans to separate into two companies, one that does mainly auditing work and the other consulting and advisory work.  Most analysts cited it as an effort to help avoid conflicts of interest between the two businesses. The Bloomberg headline read EY Consulting Split Aims to Free Firm from Ethics Crackdown”. 

Moral dilemmas for businesses with branches outside their country:

Companies face several moral dilemmas when they set up shop outside their country.

Should a company invest in a foreign country where civil and political rights are frequently violated? Should a company go along with the discriminatory employment practices of the host country?  What standards should prevail when companies in developed countries shift facilities to developing nations which lack strict environmental and health regulations? Also in such situations should the companies fill management and other top-level positions sourcing from the host country or home country? 

Even the best-informed, best-intentioned senior executives must rethink their assumptions about business practice in foreign settings. What works in a company’s home country may not work at all in a country with different standards of ethical conduct. Such difficulties are unavoidable for business people who live and work abroad, as they have to struggle against cultural relativism.

According to cultural relativism, ethics of no particular culture is better than that of any other. Thus, the theory holds that there are no international rights and wrongs. If the people of Indonesia tolerate bribery of their public officials, so what? Their attitude is no better or worse than that of people in Denmark or Singapore who refuse to offer or accept bribes. Likewise, if Belgians fail to find insider trading morally repugnant, do we care? Not enforcing insider-trading laws is no more or no less ethical than enforcing such laws. However, the inadequacy of cultural relativism becomes apparent when the practices in question are lot more damaging than the examples of petty bribery or insider trading. 

At the other end of the spectrum from cultural relativism is ethical imperialism, which directs that people should do everywhere exactly what they do at home. This theory calls for exactly the same behaviour around the world.  It, unfortunately, believes that there is a single list of universal truths which can be expressed only with one set of concepts. This goes against the well-established doctrine on the need to respect differences in various cultural traditions and practices. For instance, in some cultures, loyalty to a community weather it is family, organization, or society, is the foundation of all ethical behaviour. The Japanese, for example, define business ethics in terms of loyalty to their companies, their business networks, and their nation. On the other hand, Americans place a higher value on individual liberty than on loyalty. U.S. tradition of rights emphasizes equality, fairness and individual freedom. It is hard to conclude that truth lies on one side or the other, but an absolutist would force us to select just one.

The other problem of insisting on a single global standard of ethical behaviour is that the context often must shape ethical practice. Very low wages, for example, may be considered unethical in rich, advanced countries, but developing nations may be acting ethically accepting lower wages since it encourages more investments into the region thus improving living standards of locals. 

Various cultures also have different ways of handling unethical behaviour. When a manager at a large U.S. specialty-products company in China caught an employee stealing, she followed the company’s practice and turned the employee over to the provincial authorities, who promptly executed him. Managers, thus, cannot operate in another culture without being aware of that specific culture’s attitudes toward ethics.

Ethical organization culture is more critical than statement of code of conduct:

There is overwhelming evidence that simply defining code of ethics in an organization is  totally inadequate for fostering ethical values unless an ‘ethical organization culture’ is actively promoted in the organization. Social proof, also called the informational social influence argues that people tend to copy the actions and behaviour of others, especially that of more influential people, in any organization. This results in people in the organization taking cues about behavioural decisions from the organization culture rather than looking at the stated core values. There is growing research support for the phenomena of culture as the primary driver of employee behaviour. 

For example Enron’s Code of Ethics, with its Vision and Values platform encompassing its RICE (Respect, Integrity, Communication, and Excellence) values statement, was often cited as a model corporate code of ethics. But Enron, one of the largest energy companies in the world, collapsed in fraud, scandal and bankruptcy in late 2001. The company’s claim of 1000% return to investors was little more than an accounting fraud. The Justice Department filed hundreds of charges against Enron executives for fraud and conspiracy.

It is safe to say that unethical cultures will, over a period of time, result in unethical and even illegal activities.

In 2014, General Motors admitted that since 2001 it had hidden a potentially fatal design defect. GM engineers, investigators, and lawyers knew, but the company decided that recalling cars would cost too much. Instead, they kept the flaw secret for more than a decade. They kept selling risky cars while the deaths and injuries piled up.

Society needs to promote good ethical practices and discourage deviations:

All of us, as members of society, learn morality from the observed behaviour of other members rather than from an approved rule book. The incentive to act morally is influenced by our expectation that other members will also exhibit the same moral behaviour. The moral standards of a society thus are built on the outcomes of such expectations over time. Our own moral standards can quickly deteriorate when we witness insufficient moral sanctions for wrongful actions by others. We may start believing that the society’s moral standards are lower than what we had expected. Such a belief among the members will encourage more wrongful actions with the feeling that there is no incentive to act morally. As the moral standards start declining, the stated moral rules lose the power to regulate unapproved behaviour. 

We need to appreciate that unlike written laws, moral rules are intrinsically implicit and subjective because each person’s moral values, which constitute society’s rules, are individual and private information. 

Trust Deficit all across sectors:

There has been much discussion worldwide in recent years about what is referred to as the growing crisis of trust, particularly in the core institutions of government, business and the media. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, observed in September 2019 that “our world is suffering from a bad case of ‘Trust Deficit Disorder’ … people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march” 

This plummeting public trust sweeping the globe is infecting relationships among people, between people and their governments and between people and a range of societal institutions. This erosion of trust is clearly visible in all the media, especially in social media. The danger of this moral erosion is that citizens lacking trust are less likely to comply with laws and regulations, are unlikely to contribute to economic vitality and will have less resistance to the influence of extremist elements etc.


Bioethics is commonly understood to refer to the ethical implications in all aspects of the health-related life sciences. These implications can run the entire length of the life sciences value chain. Dilemmas can arise for the basic scientist who wants to develop synthetic embryos to better study embryonic development, but will be afraid of running into moral and ethical issues later on, like how much should the scientist worry about their potential uses.

Once treatments or drugs reach the clinical trials stage involving human subjects, a new set of challenges arise, from ensuring informed consent to protecting the vulnerable research participants.  Eventually, when the drugs are released for public use, then the patients and their families struggle to fully understand and analyse the risks and benefits of treatment in line with the patient’s best interest and goals. There is also the problem of high costs of new therapies which are a great strain on patients or health care providers.

One major ethical dilemma revolves around allocation of scarce and potentially life-saving equipment like ventilators.

The decision maker is asked a direct question “Who shall live when not everyone can live? Unfortunately this decision cannot be emotion-driven or arbitrary. It cannot be based on a person’s wealth or social standing. Priorities need to be established ethically and must be applied consistently in the same institution and ideally throughout the state and the country. The general social norm to treat all equally or to treat based on a first come, first saved basis may not be the appropriate choice here. There is a consensus among clinical ethics scholars, that in this situation, maximizing benefits is the dominant factor in making a decision. Maximizing benefits can be viewed in two different ways. We could look at lives saved or look at life-years saved. In any case these decisions are emotionally very stressful.

All about Anger

It should be a matter of great concern to all of us that there is so much anger in the world today. If we turn on the TV, we can witness lot of anger-mongering, if I could use such a term. We can see journalists snapping questions at politicians and politicians responding with anger. If we turn to social media, we will notice people seething and roiling in rage. It has come to a stage when people seem to be very comfortable in using aggressive and offensive language to deride people who do not subscribe to their point of view. It is becoming apparent that the traditionally admired trait of ‘quiet reflection’ is a thing of the past.

It is now common for people to get outraged by just about everything under the sun. Outrage is the new drug of choice, a drug that numbs, at least temporarily, the discomfort associated with some or other problematic aspects of our lives.

Let us examine what this anger really is. Anger is our brain’s way of signalling to us that something is not quite right. Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. We could be angry at a specific person such as a co-worker or a supervisor. We could also be angry due to an event like a traffic jam or a cancelled flight. Our anger could also be caused by worrying or brooding over our personal problems. Memories of the traumatic experiences and enraging events of the past can also trigger angry feelings in us.

It is often said that love and anger go together. How many times have we felt angry at someone we love? I suspect the answer would be “quite often”. This might seem paradoxical but it is not. When we are attached to another person, we do care deeply about them. We want them to do well and act well. If they do, we will feel the positive emotions of respect, admiration and love. Conversely, we don’t want them to step out of line and do wrong. If they do, we are bound to feel the negative emotions of anger, resentment and indignation.

We almost always feel that our anger is justified. However, other people may see it differently.  Unfortunately for us, the social judgment of our anger can create real consequences for us. If our superiors feel that our anger towards a customer is not justified, our job may be at stake. If our spouse feels that our anger is not justified, we could face domestic disharmony. We witness many cases in our daily lives where an angry person feels justified in committing an aggressive action, but the judge or jury of peers do not see it that way resulting in painful consequences to the angry person.

Understandably, Buddhist philosophy looks at anger as an enemy of reason that interferes with our rational self-control. This characterization that anger takes over our minds and clouds our reason, is made explicit in The Dhammapada’, one of the most famous Buddhist texts which goes on to say 

‘Whoever controls his anger, Is like a true charioteer.
In command of the rolling chariot And not just holding the reins’

Thiruvalluvar, the noble sage of Tamil Nadu, offers the same advise on Anger in his ‘Thirukkural’

“To protect yourself, curb your anger. Otherwise, anger will destroy you”. 

(thannaith thaan kaakkil chinam kaakka kaavaakkaal thannaiye kollum chinam)

 [Kural 305]

In Hinduism, akrodha is considered a virtue and a desirable ethical value recommended to be practised. When there is cause for getting angry but even then there is absence of anger, such a state of mind is called akrodha or non-anger. Akrodha also requires one to remain calm even when provoked or insulted or rebuked.

Atharva Veda has this advice on putting up with angry people. “All cruel words from angry person should be endured. No anger should be directed in turn towards one who is angry. Only soft words should be spoken, even when violently pulled by another”.

Research has established that Vedic mantra chants are energy-based sounds and vibrations and these can be leveraged to enter a deep state of meditation. Such chants are also believed to awaken the body’s natural healing mechanisms and thus help treat physical and mental illnesses. A research study published in ‘The International Journal of Indian Psychology’, reveals that the situational anger and anxiety of participants in the study reduced significantly after they listened with concentration to the Vedic chanting for an hour. The study concludes that the practice of merely listening to the Vedic chanting attentively can calm down the mind and keep the listener’s levels of anxiety and anger under check.

The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum also advises us to get beyond anger both in private and public life. She points out that a desire for payback is unfortunately a core issue of anger. Anger is a combination of a sense of being wronged and a strong desire to retaliate. She goes to the extent of saying “If you don’t feel the wish to get your own back, what you are experiencing probably isn’t anger”.

Nussbaum argues that although getting angry is a deeply human trait, it is “fatally flawed as a way of making sense of the world and is a stupid way to run one’s life”. She uses the example of Nelson Mandela, who, despite his almost three decades of imprisonment, managed to avoid the anger trap once he was released. He focused instead on truth and reconciliation with emphasis on forgiveness rather than revenge.

Anger, clearly is not necessary as a form of motivation. We can all think of examples of individuals, such as Mahatma Gandhi, who achieved social change through peaceful means, without giving way to any feelings of anger. Anything anger can do, love and reason can arguably do better. 

We need to be wary of people taking advantage of debilitating effects of anger in others. That is how Mohammed Ali tried to provoke George Foreman by taunting him in the boxing ring. Ali realized that anger was Foreman’s greatest weakness. When Foreman became angry, he became reckless, threw too many punches, tired himself out and let his guard down. He made himself vulnerable as a result. 

There is another body of evidence, which indicates that not all anger is bad. Indeed, psychologists argue that in moderate doses, anger is useful as it can motivate us or can make us more creative or can deepen our relationships or can even help us fight against social ills.

A great example is that of Martin Luther who does not talk of falling prey to anger, but rather being inspired by it. He goes on to say I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart’.

Black poet and activist Audre Lorde delivered the keynote address in June 1981 at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association. Her speech was later published as the essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”. Lorde explains that racism gives rise to significant levels of anger, whether such racism is experienced at a personal level or after witnessing how others are grievously affected by it. She argues that such anger, if harnessed as a tool, can effectively address racial injustice. 

The philosopher Myisha Cherry uses Lorde’s arguments as inspiration for her book, “The Case for Rage: Why Anger is essential to Anti-Racist Struggle”.  Among the various types of anger that a person can have upon experiencing or witnessing injustice, she identifies what she calls as “Lordean rage” as both virtuous and productive.

Research overwhelmingly indicates that feeling angry increases optimism, creativity, and effective performance. It even suggests that expressing anger appropriately can lead to more successful negotiations both in life or on the job.

Interestingly, altruism is often born from anger. When it comes to mobilizing other people and creating support for a cause, no other emotion works stronger than anger. We need to appreciate that positivity alone is insufficient to the task of helping us to navigate social interactions and relationships.  A healthy society is not necessarily an anger-free society.

It appears that anger, which can be destructive, has also a vital energy to it that motivates us to action. This helps us to improve communication in both personal and professional relationships and promotes optimism within us.

Interestingly, while anger does trigger us to take action, it is not necessarily to harm the person causing the anger. Let us take a few everyday examples of anger. Sita gets angry with her father for constantly interrupting her while she is speaking. Tina is angry with her husband for driving the car too fast and not being sufficiently careful. Seth is angry with his childhood friend Ruby for staying with her abusive boyfriend. We naturally apply the term anger to these cases, but they do not involve any desire to harm, punish or exact revenge. This does not mean that there is no desire to take action. It is just that the desire is not one to harm or to take revenge. Sita does not desire to hurt or punish her father, she just wants him to shut up and allow her talk without interruption. Tina does not want to harm her husband, in fact, her anger stems from a desire for his safety. Seth does not want revenge. He is angry with Julie for refusing to remove herself from harm. 

As a more serious case, think of a woman who feels angry that nobody really believes her story about being sexually assaulted. She may be angry with those who refuse to believe her about what happened, but she has no desire to harm them. Her fervent hope is that people believe in what she is saying and accept and understand what she is going through. 

From an evolutionary perspective, all emotions are appropriate in certain circumstances when experienced at an optimal degree. For example, certain levels of stress and anxiety push us to perform at higher levels.  Sadness can be cathartic, filling us with appreciation for what we have lost while signalling to others that we need support to recover and heal. Mild to moderate anger can often help us to move forward positively. But extreme or chronic anger can be highly detrimental to our well-being.

Indignation also referred to as ‘righteous indignation’, is anger that manifests as a concern for moral rights, fairness or justice. We are angry because we are disgusted at something that we perceive to be morally incorrect. This anger is not rooted in selfish concerns but is targeted on the wellbeing of others. We can justifiably be angry witnessing the harm and suffering of others who are not necessarily related to us. A common example is when we get angry when we see or hear news headline of a young rape victim. 

Consider Mother Teresa’s own report about feelings of anger and frustration. She clarifies “Am I ever angry or frustrated? I only feel angry sometimes when I see waste, when things that we waste are what people need, things that would save them from dying. Frustrated? No, never.”

Her anger is rooted not in selfish concerns but is to do with her overwhelming care for the wellbeing of others. This is the reason such anger not only fails to detract from her moral character, but reflects well on it. 

Let us examine how anger affects our body and brain. The first spark of anger activates our amygdala even before we are aware of it. The amygdala activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus in turn sends signals to pituitary gland by discharging Corticotropin-Releasing-Hormone (CRH). Then pituitary activates the adrenal glands by releasing Adreno-Cortico-Tropic Hormone (ACTH). The adrenal glands secrete stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These actions affect cardiovascular system by elevating heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose level etc. The digestive system is also affected by decrease of blood flow and decrease of metabolism.

It is well established that inability to control anger has serious long term negative consequences. Inappropriate and uncontrolled anger is harmful for both the targeted persons as well as the angry person. Such anger destroys relationships, makes it difficult to hold on to a job, and takes a heavy toll on the physical and emotional health. A lack of anger control was found to impact mental health and leads to poor and maladaptive decision making. There is also this theory that anger could be an underlying factor that promotes suicidal tendencies. This theory is buttressed by the fact that anger and suicide were found to be more common in younger population than in older adults. Anger is considered the likely culprit in violent behaviour, and it should therefore come as no surprise that many individuals arrested for domestic violence often undergo anger management training.

Anger specialists describe the difference between what is known as state and trait anger. Trait anger refers to a chronic, long-standing personality characteristic that shows up as an almost constant tendency to become angry at the slightest provocation. State anger on the other hand refers to temporary, short-lasting outbursts of anger. Individuals associated with trait anger, experience angry feelings more frequently, with more intensity and for longer durations. People with high trait anger tend to perceive situations as hostile and are less capable of controlling their hostile thoughts and feelings.

People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with angry feelings. The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming. Expressing our angry feelings in an assertive but not aggressive manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, we need clarity on our needs and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding. It simply means being respectful of yourself and others.

The second alternative is for us to suppress our anger and convert or redirect the feelings. This happens when we reign in our anger, stop thinking about it, and refocus on something else which is positive. The aim is to inhibit our anger and convert it into more constructive behaviour. We need to guard against the danger of our anger turning inwards leading to health issues like hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression.

Unexpressed anger can also lead to pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behaviour like getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on. It could also make us perpetually cynical and hostile. 

Most of the research surrounding anger management therapy has focused on Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which has been the dominant form of therapy in this area.

CBT emphasizes important links between how we feel, the thoughts and beliefs we have, and the behaviours that we carry out.  CBT anger management interventions have been effective at helping a variety of populations, such as people with high blood pressure, angry drivers, people in prison, college students, police officers, and parents.

According to Ayurveda, when aggravated pitta accumulates in the channel of the mind, it tends to cause accumulating heat. This can lead to anger, irritability, and other fiery emotions like envy, criticism, and excessive ambition. Therefore, using diet, lifestyle, and supportive herbs to increase our exposure to cool, slow, and stabilizing influences will generally serve to relieve anger and irritability. These qualities help balance excess heat while softening, grounding, and containing pitta’s intensity.

We are not aware that we are unaware

You are unaware of how unaware you are”

David McRaney in his book ‘You Are Not So Smart’.

McRaney says ‘We are constantly observing our own behaviour and then explaining it in a way which corresponds to whatever positive self-image keeps us sane. These narratives are sometimes realistic, and sometimes pure fiction. Either way, they build up and become the story of who we are. When you look back on your life, those stories are you, but you remain blissfully unaware of how inaccurate they are’.

I will first talk about our lack of ability to understand ourselves. I will follow it up with reasons on why our understanding of others is also quite faulty.

Tasha Eurich, author of the book ‘Insight’, explains that self-awareness, at its core, is the ability to see ourselves clearly. It is to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us. She points out that we are notoriously terrible at guessing how others see us. It is lot easier for us to choose self-delusion which is the antithesis of self-awareness over the cold hard truth about our behaviour. To know ourselves better, it would make sense to seek out the people in whom we have full trust. They can tell us truthfully, various aspects of our behaviour that they observe in us.

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us…

Robert Burns

Ezequiel Morsella and his colleagues came up with “Passive Frame Theory”. They postulate that most of our brain’s work is conducted at the unconscious level, completely without our knowledge. It is now well established that in all our daily interactions, it is our unconscious brain that does all the requisite processing to arrive at our decisions or to act in certain ways. It is just the small job of a physical action that our conscious mind executes.

The conscious part of our brain is, thus, like a CEO, whose subordinates do all the needed research, then draft all the documents, lay them out and say, “Sign here, sir.” The CEO just signs these documents presented to him and takes the full credit.

One important reason why approximately 95% of everything we do is unconscious is due to the limitation of conscious thought. Thinking brain is too slow to initiate behaviour, whereas unconscious processes work very fast, operating in milliseconds. Our unconscious brain can process eleven million bits of information every second, whereas our conscious brain can handle only forty to fifty bits of information in a second. It should therefore come as no surprise that it is the unconscious brain that determines most of our behaviour.

Daniel Kahneman in his famous book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ explains that our brain deploys two systems. One is the automatic System 1 and the other is the effortful System 2. He says “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 on the other hand, allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it”.

We feel the experience of being alive and we execute all our decisions when System 2 is operating at the conscious level. However, System 2 consumes glucose at a fast rate, making it difficult for us to stay in this mode for too long. All the processing for making our decisions is made by System 1 operating at the unconscious level and then the decisions are passed on to System 2. Once they are brought to our conscious awareness, we act on these decisions.

The unfortunate aspect here, is that we have no ability to tap into our unconscious mind.

In his book “Strangers to Ourselves”, Timothy Wilson observes “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try. This is mainly because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of our consciousness.”

It therefore makes sense to heed the advice of Nicholas Epley, author of the book “Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want”. He says “Spending two decades studying the mind, really highlighted to me the importance of humility in life.” He underscores the point that we really do not have privileged access to our minds and therefore it is much wiser for us to tone down our self-confidence and to act with humility.

Every decision that we take and every move that we make at any time, is determined by all our past experiences up to that very second. It is how every living creature evolved and stayed alive over hundreds of years.

It is the unconscious that manages all our habitual behaviour, and we are blissfully unaware of it. As much as 40 per cent of our daily behaviour is habitual and this, in fact, is very useful. For example, on most of the days when we drive to work, we are not conscious of how our brain coordinates various parts of our body, like our eyes, our ears, our legs, our hands etc to manoeuvre our car through our journey, navigating many obstacles including the traffic lights on our way. Our conscious mind is generally lost on other thoughts till we reach our destination. Thus, while our unconscious was busy driving us to work, our conscious mind was free to focus on other things.

What is then, the role of the conscious mind? Its power is not in the decision making of what action to take, but in performing the decided action. We need to appreciate that we are all programmed from birth to act and behave in certain ways by our parents, peers, educators, and society. The mental models that we construct from these experiences are stored away in our memories and are updated from new experiences continuously by our brain. These mental models become our version of reality and our unconscious brain uses these models to drive our behaviour.

Michael Shermer says ‘We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. After forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow. In my book The Believing Brain, I call this process, wherein our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it, belief-dependent realism. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any given time’.

Time after time, experiments show that introspection is not the act of tapping into our innermost mental constructs, but instead, is a fiction fabricated by our brains. Psychologist Emily Pronin specializes in human self-perception and decision making and calls this as “Introspection Illusion.” She recommends that we are better off in getting the inputs on our behaviour from others, especially those who know us well. She emphasizes that it is hard to know who we are unless others let us know how we affect them.

We infer what we think or believe from a variety of cues, just as we infer what others think or feel from observing their behaviour. For instance, we might infer that we are anxious about an upcoming presentation because our hearts are beating faster, and our breathing is heavier. But this inference could be wrong. These bodily reactions could be because we are feeling excited about the prospect of making a great presentation. This kind of psychological reframing is often used by sports coaches to help athletes maintain composure under pressure.

If we do realize that our behavior needs to be corrected, we may sincerely try to alter our behavior. Unfortunately, this does not yield results. What we need to do instead, is to alter the causes of such behavior, which are our embedded internal beliefs and “mental thermostat.” However, as all our beliefs operate at the unconscious level, we have really no control over them.

We are generally quick to criticize behavior of people under a variety of circumstances. But, if we can appreciate that their behavior, just like ours, is driven by the unconscious and is the result of many factors beyond their own conscious control, we may be more tolerant. We may then be less critical and may even condone such behavior.

We need to recognize that respecting the perspectives or habits of others by offering them empathy is crucial for our own development. This occurs through perspective-taking, or the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from an alternative point of view, such as that of another individual. But actively considering other people’s points of view happens only when we try our best to suspend our own judgement and then understand the other person’s thoughts, motives, and emotions. We also need to try to understand why they think and feel the way they do.

In this sense, perspective taking is an intentional process rather than something that is automatic. This means that we have to make a focused effort to do it. It’s also an active process that requires intentional distancing from our own perspectives. In order to do it properly, we have to have the thinking capacity, emotional resources, and proper behavioural strategies. Research finds that it becomes easier to take on someone else’s perspective when we experience positive emotion toward them, such as empathy and compassion. We also need to possess requisite emotional intelligence.

However, some researchers question our own ability of perspective-taking. Psychologist Tal Eyal says ‘We assume that another person thinks or feels about things just as we do, when in fact, very often they do not. We often use our own perspective to understand other people which could be very different from the other perspectives of others’.

Our “egocentric bias” thus can lead us to make inaccurate predictions about the feelings and preferences of others. Instead, if we allow the other persons to express their feelings and opinions freely, before making any predictions about them, we are likely to be more accurate. Tal Eyal calls this as “perspective getting” as opposed to “perspective taking”.

Apart from enabling us to understand others better, perspective-getting allows for the growth of our own knowledge base by expanding our own perspectives. It is the equivalent of seeing life as if through a tunnel and having someone break down the sides of the tunnel to create a more expansive perspective on life. Multiple perspectives are critical to gain a more holistic understanding of any concept, experience, or the environment.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of the book ‘No One Understands You and What to Do About It’ explains why we’re often misunderstood. Most of us assume wrongly that other people see us as we see ourselves. We also assume that they can understand our true character and behaviour. But both these assumptions are wrong.

“We don’t see things as they are,
We see them as we are”

Anais Nin

Theory of Mind (ToM) is our ability to understand the perspectives, mental states and beliefs of others in order to anticipate their behaviour. This ability is particularly crucial for meaningful social interactions. Though all of us employ ToM to understand others, the accuracy of our judgements is suspect. Research makes it very clear that people have a hard time recognizing the ways in which their own perceptions are biased by the interpretive lens of beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge that they view it through. This handicaps our ability to understand the minds of others in two ways. First, we tend to overestimate the extent to which others believe, think, and feel as they do. Second, when we find out that others perceive the world differently than we do, we fail to recognise our own biases and think that it is the others who are biased.

Perception is not Reality. Role of the Predicting Brain.

The world we experience as “out there” is actually a reconstruction of a tiny part of reality by our brains. Our interpretation of sensations are heavily shaped by our thinking processes such as attention, expectation and memory. What we perceive at any given moment is also determined by our personal physical abilities, energy levels, feelings, social identities and much more. 

Thus our brains construct simulations of our surroundings by combining incoming sensory data with existing, unconsciously stored memories, beliefs and concepts.

Let us just peep into our brains. The brain is locked inside the bony vault of our skull, trying to figure out what is out there in the world apart from controlling our internal body functions. There is no light inside the skull nor is there any sound. Our eyes, ears and other sensory organs just deliver streams of electrical signals to our brain. These signals do not come with labels attached like “I am from a cat or I am from a coffee cup”. They are just electrical signals which do not themselves have any shape, colour or sound. In order, therefore, to figure out what is out there in the worldthe brain has to combine these ambiguous sensory signals with some prior “expectations” or “predictions” about the world.

According to Anil Seth, professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, “perception, instead of just being a reflection of what’s actually there in the world, is always this active process of interpretation. We assume that we see with our eyes but, in fact, we see with our brains. Our eyes are of course necessary, but what we actually end up perceiving is much more a product of how our brain interprets all this information from the eyes than the eyes being this window into an objective external reality.”

Our brain draws on lifetime of our past experiences, like things that have happened to us personally and things that we have learned from our friends, teachers, books, videos and other sources. In the blink of an eye, our brain reconstructs bits and pieces of past experiences as our neurons pass electrochemical information back and forth in an ever-shifting, complex neural network. Our brain assembles these bits to infer the meaning of the sense data that we are receiving to decide what to do about it.

Fortunately, while it is true that the inputs from our body and its sense organs are like simulations, we can still be fairly confident that most of the time, they are faithful representations of the actual things out there. Evolution over hundreds of years, has shaped and reshaped those representations to be a pretty close to the external world. Organisms that could not accurately and reliably perceive and respond to their environment have not survived  and became extinct. We, humans have descended from those animals that had relatively accurate perceptions of external reality.

To appreciate that perception is not reality, let us take the example of colour. While we all think colour as an important attribute of an object, Newton remarked, colour is not a property of an object. When electromagnetic radiation hits an object, some of it bounces off and is captured by our eyes. 

Our eyes are equipped to detect only a limited set of wave lengths, from about 400 nm to about 700 nm, and pass them on to the brain. Colour, therefore, is an interpretation of wave lengths by our brains. Incidentally, our recognisable visual wavelengths is less than one trillionth of the available spectrum around us. 

We also do not have biological receptors to pick up various spectrums, including x-rays, microwaves, radio waves, gamma rays, cell phone conversations etc. even when all of these are flowing through us. The slice of the outside reality that we can sense is thus limited by our biology. Every creature on earth perceives, as objective reality, only that much which its biology permits. Therefore colours are a clever trick that evolution has developed to help our brains to keep track of surfaces under changing lighting conditions. 

Out of all our senses, the visual system collects up to 80% of all the sensory data received from the environment. In order to make sense of this deluge of optical information, the visual inputs are converted into electrochemical signals by approximately 130 million light-sensitive cells in the retina known as cones and sent to the brain to be processed by a complex network of nerve cells. 

Light and colour have other effects on us. We also have on our eyes retinal ganglion cells which  respond to light by sending signals mainly to a central brain region called the hypothalamus which plays no part in forming visual images.

The hypothalamus is a key part our brain responsible for the secretion of a number of hormones which control many aspects of the body’s self-regulation, including temperature, sleep, hunger and circadian rhythms. What this means is that there is clearly an established physiological mechanism through which colour and light can affect mood, heart rate, alertness, and impulsivity, to name but a few.

Similarly, our acoustic sense can only register and process a very narrow band of frequencies ranging from about 16 Hz–20 kHz. Typically, infrasonic and ultrasonic bands are just not perceivable by humans despite being essential for other species such as elephants and bats, respectively.

Interestingly, to make sense of complex environments permeated by light and sound, brain waves constantly adapt, compensating for drastically different sound and vision processing speeds. It is common knowledge that sound and light travel at very different speeds. If the brain did not account for this difference, it would be much harder for us to tell where sounds came from, and how they are related to what we see. The visual and the sound signals created at the same time are sensed by the brain at different points of time and are processed by neural circuits at different speeds. However they are still presented to us as happening synchronously. 

Our human biology limits us from sensing what other animals can do. Unlike bees, we do not see ultraviolet light and we cannot sense magnetic field unlike turtles, worms and wolves. We are also deaf to high and low pitch sounds that other animals can hear and we have a relatively weak sense of smell.   

While there is clearly an enormous data in the external world, evolution has equipped us to process only a very limited set of data enough to enable us to survive.  The goal of our senses and brain is to make one and only one decision based on the unambiguous interpretation of the received data in order to execute an appropriate action. This single interpretation enables us to take fast action without quarrelling about alternatives enabling us to survive as species. In order to make such a clear interpretation of available data, we need a mental model of the external world which is very clear without ambiguities.

Thus our brain has a problem to solve, which philosophers call a ‘reverse inference problem’. Faced with ambiguous data, our brain must somehow guess the causes of that data to decide the plan of action to keep us safe and alive.

Fortunately, our brain has another source of information which is our memory that can help with this very challenging task. Our brain can draw on our lifetime of past experiences, some of which would be similar to the present moment, to guess the meaning of the sense data.

The process of combining prior knowledge with uncertain evidence is known as Bayesian Integration. MIT neuroscientists have discovered distinctive brain signals that encode the prior beliefs. They have also found how the brain uses these signals to make judicious decisions in the face of uncertainty. And this whirlwind of mental construction all happens in the blink of an eye, completely outside of our awareness. The intimate processing between sensory inputs and our neural networks, enables us to recognize familiar objects or take appropriate actions within a few milliseconds. 

Our Bayesian brain predicts incoming sensory data using the internal model from within and this is called ‘interoception’. It also predicts the meaning of outside data and this is called ‘exteroception’. It matches these two predictions to give us the perception that we become conscious of. If there is discrepancy between the two predictions, then the internal model which was built based on past experiences is updated. 

how the brain makes emotions

While we might feel as if we are simply reacting to events that happen around us, in actuality, our brain constantly and invisibly guesses what to do next and what we will experience next, based on memories that are similar to the present moment. The key word here is ‘similar’. The brain doesn’t need an exact match. We have no trouble climbing a new, unfamiliar staircase because we have climbed staircases in the past. So similarity is enough for our brain to help us survive and thrive in the world.

The problem of predictive coding, however, is that this fast and quick assessment by brain based on the past experiences may be faulty at times as illustrated by Alex Korb, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLA in the following narrative.

“I am driving down a sunny, tree-lined street in Santa Monica. As I make a left turn I notice a blind man standing on the corner with his seeing-eye dog. He wears dark sunglasses and carries a cane.

As I turn past him I see that what I thought was a cane is actually a pooper-scooper! It amazes me that a blind man is capable of cleaning up after his dog. I guess in absence of vision the brain develops a greater sensitivity to localizing smells. I chastise myself for assuming that blind people are more disabled than they actually are. Then I notice the dog is on a regular leash rather than a sturdier seeing-eye dog leash, and I can’t understand how that could possibly provide enough tactile guidance to the blind man. I figure he’s been blind a while and has the hang of it. As I drive away I glance in the rear-view mirror and see the blind man turn his head both ways before crossing the street. Finally, it dawns on me that the man is not actually blind, he is just a normally-sighted guy wearing sunglasses, carrying a pooper-scooper and taking his dog for a walk”.

According to the theory of predictive coding, our brain constantly attempts to model the probability of its own future states, with the goal of minimizing uncertainty. At the macro level, anticipation is the key to predicting events as they unfold, thus allowing us to interact with the external world efficiently. At the micro level anticipation prepares our motor and sensory functions ready to execute the expected actions.

The predictive coding framework supports the brain functions to minimize surprises and uncertainty that may be faced by us. 

Let us look at the example of how our brain extrapolates. It takes time for information from our eyes to reach our brain. It takes further time to analyse the received electrical signals to come to a conclusion on the data. Only at this point of time we can perceive the meaning of the input data. Due to this processing delay, the information available to our conscious perception is always outdated.

Let us consider catching a ball. It takes several dozen milliseconds for information from the eye to reach our brain and about 120 milli-seconds to take any action on the basis of this information. As the ball continues to move all this while, our perception about the current position of the ball is always lagging. Typically, in lots of sports, balls travel at speeds well above 100km per hour, This means that the ball can move more than three metres during this lag time before we consciously perceive the ball. Clearly, if we react based on the perceived position of the ball, we would never be able to catch or hit the ball as it would have passed us by due to the delay. However, we manage to hit the ball only because our intelligent brain extrapolates the moving object’s position forward, along its perceived trajectory. In cricket, the bowler tries to deceive the batsman by making the ball move in a different direction than what the batsman’s brain has projected. 

Similarly, our intelligent brain, based on our previous experiences, has learned that a single sensory cue, such as a loud bang, can have many different causes. It could be a door being slammed, a bursting balloon, a hand clap, a gunshot etc. Our brain searches our memory for past experiences to provide the closest match to this sound, fully taking into account the context with its accompanying sights, smells and other sensations.

Here is another example of predictive processing by our brain. Let us see how our brain can so effortlessly read jumbled and garbled words.

“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

As our brain deciphered each word in the example above, it also predicted which words would logically come next to form a coherent sentence. Dr Lars Muckli, neurophysiologist at the University of Glasgow, says “We are continuously anticipating what we will see, hear or feel next.” 

Here is another example of how context decides our perception.

Look at the same shape in the middle appearing in two different contexts. Given the context below where there are two alphabets on either side, we will perceive the shape to be “B”.

On the other hand, in the following context of numbers on either side, the same shape will be perceived by us as the number “13.”

Our perception is therefore driven by our cognitive expectations based on the context. 

There is also downside. We underestimate the capacity of our brains to create their own convincing realities. Psychologists use the term “cognitive distortions” to describe irrational, inflated thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality, usually in a negative way.

We underestimate how powerfully realistic some dissociative experiences, hallucinations and other well-recognized mental/neural misperceptions can seem. And yet we find our own subjective perceptions so persuasive that we are more willing to doubt the laws of physics than to doubt our own minds. We can’t help assuming that perception equals reality.

Psychiatrists therefore have an unenviable task of trying to persuade people to be sceptical about their own beliefs and to critically examine the evidence for their assumptions and to not automatically believe their own thoughts and perceptions.

For all the advancements the world has seen in every field of science, including neuroscience, the mechanics of perception and thinking still elude comprehensive understanding.

Take these examples of what scientists are still trying to figure out. When we lie on our sides, the brain appears to dial down its reliance on information related to the external world and instead increases reliance on internal perceptions generated by touch. Blindfolding degrades our representation of the external world, which allows our internal body-centred perception to dominate. In our inner ear, we have a little bit of ocean that came with us when we evolved from the sea. We carry it around to assess gravity, so we can tell which way is up. Issues with our hearing system can cause disorders such as vertigo.

Indian philosophy, even as early as the period of Rig-Veda, gave the concept of Maya to depict the world as unreal and illusionary. The changing world that we see around us can be compared to the moving images on a movie screen. There cannot be a movie without the screen. Brahman, our true self, is the one who enables us like the screen to sense the world as reality. 

Vijnanavada Buddhism also looks at the world as unreal and only as the projection of our mind.  

Some References:

Understanding Empathy

In the past few years, we have seen increasing use of the word empathy by everyone from scientists to business leaders to education experts to political activists. Empathy has become such a popular topic in recent years that it finds a place in the title or subtitle of more than 1,500 books listed in Amazon. 

We generally know that ‘empathy’ is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others. There is also a strong consensus that we need to see drastic improvement of  empathy across the globe. Barack Obama went to the extent of saying “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”

It is therefore surprising to see a book with the title “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion” authored by Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

Before trying to unravel Paul Bloom’s perspective, let us first understand what empathy is in all its various dimensions.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman break down the concept of empathy into the following three categories. 

Emotional empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person. Some have described it as “your pain in my heart.” This type of empathy helps us build emotional connections with others. 

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking.  Cognitive Empathy is about thought as much as emotion. It is defined by knowing, understanding, or comprehending emotions of others on an intellectual level. As most of us know, to understand sadness is not the same thing as feeling sad.

Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings. It actually moves us to take action or to lend a helping hand, in whatever way we can.  

We show emotional empathy when we internally experience what somebody else feels. Our brain’s response to our own pain is found in areas such as the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex. These same areas are activated when we empathise with someone else’s pain. It has long been shown that emotional empathy can rapidly occur even outside of our consciousness and awareness. Research supports the idea that emotional empathy is a basic and primitive beginning of empathy. When we observe that others are experiencing emotions, our own mirror neuron system kicks in by simulating neuronal activities similar to the observed ones. The mirror neuron system is thought to comprise of the inferior frontal cortex, the premotor areas, and the insula. 

As emotional empathy makes someone else’s pain become our own pain, we tend to treat others as we treat ourselves and this expands our selfish concerns to encompass others.

We display cognitive empathy when we understand some person’s pain without feeling it ourselves. Psychologists describe this as social cognition, social intelligence, mind reading, theory of mind, perspective taking or mentalizing. From the viewpoint of neuroscience, brain regions that are engaged during cognitive empathy include dorsal, middle & ventral medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus and temporoparietal junction. These areas are selectively activated when subjects make inferences on the information about the mental states of others. In simple words cognitive empathy speaks to our capacity to understand what is going on in the minds of others.

With compassion empathy we have feelings of love and warmth towards others which compels us to help the people who are suffering. Compassionate empathy uses our emotional intelligence to effectively respond to difficult situations with loving detachment. With compassionate empathywe do not get burdened by the feelings of the other person but make the conscious choice to turn our emotion into action. Thus compassionate feelings, thoughts, and decisions pass through filters of consciousness, which enable us to deliberate, reflect and improve upon our decisions on how to provide the best support to the suffering person.

Supramarginal gyrus is a unit of the cerebral cortex that helps us to differentiate our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.

To summarize, emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel”cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel” and compassion as “caring about how others feel”.

Given the clear benefits of empathy, it becomes difficult to understand why Prof Paul Bloom writes a book against empathy. However, once you read the book, it becomes clear that his emphasis actually is on the subtitle the case for rational compassion”. Paul Bloom uses clinical studies and simple logic to argue that empathy, however well-intentioned, is a poor guide for moral reasoning. After all, the idea that human nature has two opposing facets, emotion versus reason, gut feelings versus careful rational deliberation, is one of the oldest and most resilient psychological theories.

As an example, a doctor who feels his patient’s pain cannot be very effective. It is easy to visualise that a surgeon will not be able to perform his surgical operation if he is disturbed by emotional empathy. That is the reason why surgeons will not operate on their own very close relatives. The medical profession heavily demands emotional regulation of empathic feelings to enable them to perform their work.

Paul Bloom argues that empathy heavily biases our decisions to focus on identifiable individuals rather than more deserving people because of identifiable victim effect “.  This concept describes how we feel greater empathy and emotional urge to help identifiable individuals in tragic situations and how, on the other hand, we show very little empathy to situations where the victims are a larger, vaguer group of people. Mother Teresa  succinctly remarked “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

The excellent example is that of 18-month-old Jessica McClureShe fell 22 feet down an eight-inch-diameter well in the backyard of her home in Texas and the intense coverage of this incident drew donations of over US$80,000 from across the world. Very few, if any, of these people who sent donations to Baby Jessica would have tried to help faceless emaciated poor children around the world. These children who have neither shelter to live nor food to eat deserved lot more support. Thus the real problem is that only when we are able to  identify and put a face on the suffering child and their family we experience an empathic response with them, but the much more deserving random children and their families remain empathically out of our reach.

Empathy is strongly affected by our biases and more significantly by tribalism or groupism. We are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look more like us or those who share our social, ethnic or national background. Despite its early origins and adaptive functions, empathy is not inevitable. We routinely fail to empathise with others, especially members of different social or cultural groups. We feel less empathy for strangers who belong to a different racial, political, or social group and this is termed as  intergroup empathy bias. In certain contexts, we may even experience pleasure in response to adversities of out-groups called as Schadenfreude and we may also be displeased with the successes of the out-groups  known as GlückschmerThis is very common in the sports arena when we emotionally enjoy the successes of our team and get equal pleasure from the failures of the opposing team. 

Researchers scanned the brains of Chinese and Caucasian participants while they were shown videos of members of either their own ethnic group or the other group, all suffering from some pain. They found that the brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is often active when we see others in pain, was much less active when participants saw members of the other ethnic group in pain.

Interestingly research on Israelis and Palestinians revealed that people who engaged in extreme violence did not necessarily lack empathy. Instead, they had high empathy for the group they belonged to and very low empathy for the group they opposed.

One study on judgemental nature of empathy found that brain areas involved in empathy are much less active when watching people suffering from pain if they had committed some unfair acts. 

There are also situations when it is important to be less empathic. For example, in war it becomes almost essential to feel less empathy for people that you are trying to kill, especially when they are trying to harm you.

Interestingly, empathy shuts down if we believe that someone is responsible for his own suffering. In a study experiment by Jean Decety, Stephanie and Joshua Correll, people were shown the videos of individuals said to be suffering from AIDS. When the observers were told that the suffering patients were infected through their own intravenous drug use, they felt much less empathy for them. But when they were told that the suffering people were infected by careless blood transfusion in a hospital there was lot more empathy for them.

We need to appreciate that while highly empathic people may be good at spotting the emotions of others, they may not necessarily be adept in understanding the emotional triggers correctly. People with high empathy have the tendency to hastily create in their minds a particular scenario on why someone else is having an emotion, which may not be accurate. The reason for this is the strong and quick emotional feelings that arise from within them. This overrides the logical and rational thinking which would have looked at various other possible scenarios.  

Like everything else in the world, there is also this problem of too much of empathy known as “pathological altruism” or empathy distress when we absorb too much of negative feelings from others. 

Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki describe empathic stress as a strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others. This fuels the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.

While positive empathy happens when we acknowledge a person’s feelings and emotions without getting too overwhelmed by them, hyper-empathy happens when we let emotions of others overpower ours. 

Unfortunately, prolonged emotional distress causes many in healthcare professions, such as doctors, nurses and counsellors, to burn out, endangering their own physical and mental health. Those experiencing empathic distress have increased risk of depression and anxiety. It is interesting that after a prolonged period of empathic stress, they even start showing lack of understanding and compassion for those they are responsible for.  

The good news is that we can control our empathy even though it does not come with an on/off switch. We need to realise that we pick up feelings of others even when we are not conscious of doing it. But the safeguard for not being overwhelmed can be learned, and in times like the current Covid period, this becomes very critical. Emotion regulation, or maintaining an even keel, combined with self-other awareness are key parts of the empathic process They give us the ability to wade far into the feelings of others but enable us to pull back and regain our own sense of self. Thus, we can re-centre ourselves even when we are unravelling the emotional state of others.

Please see by blog on this topic.

Moving away from empathic distress and towards compassion involves compassion training, wherein psychologists use meditation-related techniques to foster feelings of generosity and kindness.

People often confuse sympathy which is a related concept with empathy. Sympathy is “the feeling of being sorry for someone and showing that you understand and care about someone’s problems.” It resembles pity more closely because it is discomfort at someone else’s personal distress. 

Empathy, on the other hand, entails putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and then imagining or feeling that distress. Put simply, sympathy is “I am sorry you’re sad” whereas empathy is “I feel sad because you’re sad”.


Some References:

Scourge of Tribalism

For many thousands of years, human tribes have competed against each other for their very survival. Tribe coalitions that were more cooperative and cohesive not only managed to survive but also were able to appropriate land and other resources from other coalitions.

Thus the idea that humans have a need to belong to social groups is very fundamental in psychology. Belonging does not just feel good but is often essential for our very survival, even in modern times. Insider-outsider distinctions are innate and are well entrenched. This favouritism is the result of substantial benefits derived from group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with this grouping tendency even today.

It should not therefore come as a surprise that tribal loyalties tend to override objectivity and rational decision making. One such manifestation of group loyalty was reported in The New York Times, where the Orthodox Jews of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn shunned a neighbor after learning that he complained to police about a fellow Jew who was sexually abusing his son. As an objective person, you would think that a father protecting his son would be the sort of behavior that would be appreciated and endorsed. Unfortunately, such objectivity is thrown to the winds if it is considered disloyal to the tribe.

Something that goes almost unquestioned in many circles is nationalism which is another strong form of tribalism. Mukul Gupta writing in The Economic Times says “Building walls, promoting hate and distrusting refugees, persecuting minorities, fuelling the nationalist propaganda for narrow political gains are all being used for winning elections at the expense of national wellbeing”.

The divide of ‘us’ vs ‘them’

Harvard professor David Ropeik has written a poignant essay on How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous. He argues that tribalism is all pervasive and controls a lot of our behaviour, readily overriding our reasoning faculties. He reminds us of the inhuman things that we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars, for instance, are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism with the idea of wiping out the other group to keep our group safe taken to the extremes. Other examples are racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better and superior to the others, resulting in parents resorting to honour killing of their own children when they dare to marry someone of a different faith or colour. 

Another horrific case is the serious plight of ‘Rohingay’ Muslim community of more than a million staying in Myanmar. Many of them had migrated during the British colonial rule, from across the Bay of Bengal, at that time a part of composite India and now Bangladesh. They had settled down mainly in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. The ugly manifestation of  tribalism in Myanmar has resulted in persecution of this community to such an extent that it has been described by international media and human rights organizations as a genocide. 

After fleeing Myanmar army troops, hundreds of Rohingya children struggle for food at Balukhali refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. 

What is playing out in most of the countries around the world is that people with vested interests are exploiting our tribal instincts to create fear psychosis. Fear is a very strong tool in their hands that can completely destroy our rational thinking and then change our behaviour for the worse. 

These tribal narratives are effectively framed and publicised by the tribal leaders in such a way that it creates a strong feeling that the threat from outside is real and will lead to destruction of our tribe. Such a propaganda engenders a sense of urgency in us to act in order to secure a better future for their our children. 

We need to recognise that all nations, religions, cults, gangs, subcultures, fraternal societies, internet communities, political parties, social movements and sports fans are all groups of people that can be called as tribes. They all tend to have a common bond, be it worshipping a certain deity or speaking a certain language or belonging to a certain geographical region or supporting a certain sporting club etc. Their interactions more often happen with one another in the tribe rather than with outsiders. They all develop an internal culture such that members of the groups often like the same foods, wear the same clothing, play the same sports and have the same philosophical beliefs. An excellent example is the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) community in the US and elsewhere. Tribes also tend to develop legendary histories, where they celebrate and exaggerate the deeds of their founders and past champions. They tend to express their pride in their tribe through conspicuous use of group symbols, group attire and other cultural artefacts. 

Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institution and author of ‘The Second Wars’, calls tribalism as one of history’s great destroyers. With tribalism, loyalty to larger commonwealth is gradually compromised as the influence of smaller and more intimate groups like race, religion, ethnicity, local region etc. increase. This leads to gradual erosion of loyalty and commitment to the larger entity over time, giving rise to fissiparous tendencies. We can clearly witness all around the world, that national interests by many countries are overriding multi-national global cooperation thus effectively nullifying the healthy benefits that we had derived from globalisation. As we go down the hierarchy, we can see that allegiance to religious or political or local entities is overshadowing national interests.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, was very honest when she said “Let me let you in on a little secret. There is no such thing as an international community. There are only self-maximizing, self-interested states that will push their interests as far as possible.”

Most of the Middle East and Africa remain plagued by tribalism. In Iraq, a civil servant sees himself first as Shiite or Sunni rather than Iraqi, and acts accordingly. A Kenyan’s first allegiance is to his tribal first cousin rather than to an anonymous fellow Kenyan.

The result is inevitably the violence seen in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Syria or Iraq. Back home in India, there is no attempt to hide the religious, caste and regional calculations during elections. The political parties unabashedly select candidates during elections based on religion or caste or linguistic considerations. A leader from Thakur, Brahmin or Dalit community in Uttara Pradesh or a leader drawn from Lingayat or Vokkaliga community in Karnataka will be chosen for leveraging the particular vote bank that gives maximum advantage. More unfortunately, religious loyalties and political affiliations are trumping national interests in India and there is complete lack of consensus on even important issues, including the critical area of security of the nation.

It is amazing that the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects who had lived for hundreds of years years as fellow citizens in many parts of Middle East have become enemies overnight thanks to Islamic extremists waging global jihad and power struggles. Surprisingly, both Sunnis and Shias look very similar to each other, live around in the same neighbourhood and believe in the same God albeit with small differences in theology. It is the very same violent aspect of tribalism that played out traumatically during the partition of ‘colonial India’ into two nations of India and Pakistan resulting in massacre of thousands of people. 

The level of inhumanity in these tribal conflicts is mind-boggling. For instance, the Fulani tribes in Sahel region of Africa were targeted by the other tribes. A ten day old baby was killed along with the mother. People of the tribe were thrown into a ditch of burning oil before being fired upon. One village chief was captured and summarily executed in front of his own mother. There were also pregnant women and elders who were killed and some people’s throats were cut while others were burnt alive.

When ex-president Donald Trump likened immigrants to poisonous snakes, biologist and behavioural scientist Robert Saplosky had this to say.  The author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” observed that this comparison coming from a powerful leader, is a textbook definition of dehumanization of the ‘other’ group. When group or tribal leaders exhort their tribesmen with phraseology that activates their neurons in the insular cortex, the part of the brain that responds viscerally to disgusting things, then they have succeeded in creating the platform for genocide.

Saplosky had another profound observation.  He says that we do our worst when we are surrounded by a lot of people who agree with us. For example, devout religious belief is not necessarily a predictor of extremism. Devout religious observance also does not give rise to extremism. But devout religious observance in a large group setting does engender extremist tendencies. Studies show that support for terrorism in Muslim majority countries was unrelated to how often they prayed or how devout they were about various religious prohibitions. But it was definitely related to how often they prayed in mosques, in large group setting. The same was also true of right-wing Jewish extremists in Israel. Things take on a new meaning and a different perspective when sacred values are re-affirmed in group settings.

Jonah Goldberg in his new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy’, describes what he calls the West’s suicidal tendency to surrender to tribal and nationalist forces from both the left and the right. 

World Economic Forum (WEF) Study finds that the world is witnessing a deepening distrust of each other thanks to growing tribalism and intolerance of those with different beliefs and backgrounds. Economic factors are playing a central role in terms of rising inequality, stagnant incomes, job insecurity and the division between prosperous cities and “left behind” regions. But the perfect storm of conditions for social fragmentation is coming from the convergence of economic forces with changes in culture, technology and the proliferating communication media landscape. 

WEF urges political leaders and civil society to appreciate that maintaining the rule of law, accountable institutions, independent media, social trust and strong civil society networks have become extremely critical. It points out the need to lower the barriers so that ordinary citizens are engaged more meaningfully in national affairs instead of restricting such participation to the loudest voices with the most strident views. There is also a crying need to incorporate serious consequences to those politicians, advocates and campaigners who pursue victory at any cost undermining the critical public trust in the system.

Neuroscientists have been researching this field for some time now. When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdala, the brain’s center of fear and anger, were activated so quickly and subtly that the conscious centers of the brain were unaware of the response. The subject, in effect, could not help himself.

On the other hand, when appropriate contexts were added like the approaching black man being a doctor and the white person his patient, things were different. Then, the two other sites in the brain, the cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex of the brain integrated with the higher learning centers, effectively silencing the input through the amygdala.

In a paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA showed that the racial sensitivity of the amygdala does not kick in until around the age of fourteen. Such racial sensitivity is also not uniform across people of the same age group. Racially diverse groups had a less strong amygdala effect. In fact, with really high levels of diversity in the group, racially sensitivity almost disappeared. These findings therefore suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.

Living Meaningful Life vs Pursuing Happy Life

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

The field of Positive Psychology (PP) has been in the forefront propagating this perspective. PP assumes that people, like all animals, are governed by the instinct of pursing happiness and avoiding pain as much as possible. Consequently, the first wave of positive psychologists focused on painless and easy activities to achieve happiness and success.

PP has tended to be defined in terms of a concern with ‘positive’ psychological qualities. However, over recent years, a more nuanced ‘second wave’ of positive psychology has been germinating, which explores the philosophical and conceptual complexities of the very idea of what constitutes the ‘positive.

The new wave of Positive Psychology (PP), which some people call as PP 2.0, assumes that people are spiritual beings. It accepts that there is more to life than either our physical needs for pleasure & comfort or our psychological needs for power & fame. What we crave for is for meaning in our lives and self-transcendence. Therefore, the second wave of positive psychologists prescribe the long path of pursuing self-transcendence.

The new wave of PP researchers do not bash happiness perse, but remind us that negative emotions also serve a purpose. Anxiety, for instance, helps to alert us to problems before they loom larger. Anger helps us to mobilize ourselves and others to confront challenges or threats. For instance, social psychologist Carol Tavris and others have argued that anger could motivate someone to act against and change an invidious situation that had been hindering their wellbeing. They caution that human experience is complex and sometimes bad things lead to good outcomes. Also, sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes. To ignore this simple truism is to leave humanity undiscovered under a patina of illusion.

The overemphasis of PP on self-directed happiness completely ignores collectivist mindset. People in strong collectivist cultures may be more concerned about securing a better life for their family than for themselves. Many professionals from developing countries work at low-paying jobs in developed countries so that their children can have a better education and a better future. They endure their own marginalization and downgraded social status in order to promote the happiness of their children. Thus, there are cultural differences in the balancing act between Me and We. Positive benefits for self-centred individuals include life satisfaction, achievement, and self-esteem, while positive outcomes for group-centred individuals would encompass harmonious relationships, group morale, and collaborative success.

“He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How. Friedrich Nietzsche

A meaningful life is not necessarily a happy life. We feel happy, when we get what we want and when our needs and desires are easily met. We need to realize that such happiness is short-lived. It is experienced in the here and now, and it then fades away. Meaningful life, on the other hand, is enduring. One way we derive meaning is from sacrificing ourselves for the benefit of others and by facing hardship and challenges in life. The meaningful life thus connects us to the others and to the bigger picture and encompasses both the past and the future.

Although researchers are agnostic about what kinds of meaning-in-life can be considered “best”, they argue that as people mature, their concept of meaning-in-life gets increasingly directed at a greater good which transcends their own individualistic desires. Incidentally, this notion of self-transcendence is often a descriptor that is used for people experiencing a mindful mindset.

Researchers have established that we do not become happy by pursuing happiness. We can become happy only by living a life that means something to us. Closely linked to meaningful activity in life is finding one’s purpose. Purpose provides the impetus for getting us out of our beds every morning. One’s purpose might be personal, like rearing children in a loving environment or as noble as saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Viktor Frankl said, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who managed to live and those who had died in the concentration camps came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he had become aware of very early in his life.

Frankl wrote “To the European it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’.”

It is worth emphasizing that what makes us uniquely human is our ability to care deeply for other people and for causes larger than ourselves. Putting our selfish needs aside, helps us to realize that there is more to a good life than just the pursuit of happiness. Deep happiness comes from using whatever strengths, skills and talents that we have to somehow make the life better for others. Prof Stew Friedman of Wharton, puts this into words beautifully in his book ‘Leading the life you want’. He says, “Significant achievement in the world results from consciously compassionate action, from using one’s talent to make the world somehow better. It’s a paradox that leading the life you want actually requires striving to help others.”

Behavioural economist Prof Kathleen Vohs says “While happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others, people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others”.

UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience has identified a part of the brain, the posterior superior temporal cortex, that seems to be hard-wired for contributing to others. Researchers hypothesize that altruism has allowed us to survive as a species by compelling us to help one another. The reward for helping comes in the form of a rush of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – what neuroscientists call the ‘happiness trifecta’. Oxytocin supports empathy and social bonding. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation and movement. Serotonin regulates mood.

The feeling that one’s life has meaning can come from any number of things. It could come from the work we do that we feel is worthwhile. It could come from our cherished relationships, from religious faith or even from sitting down and appreciating the sunset regularly. While it does not matter what gives us the purpose, it does matter that we do find it somewhere.

Prof Jennifer Aaker of Stanford and Emily Garbinsky claim that people who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. They say, “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need”.

In his book ‘Springboard’, Prof Richard Shell of Wharton, describes ‘deep happiness’ as a kind of feeling that transcends momentary happiness. Its source connects us to our souls, our purpose and to something larger than ourselves. As Shell writes, “It is the path that leads to look into ourselves and to build deeper connection with others. It is a path that is very likely to include tension, challenges and struggles along with happiness”. Thus people who pursue happiness for the sake of happiness may be missing out on this kind of deep happiness which is experienced when we live a more meaningful life.

People’s perception of their own purpose may have profound consequences not only for the legacy they leave behind for others, but also for the quality and quantity of their own life. We have all heard of anecdotes of people who have suffered tragedies in their lives only to persevere and move forward with newfound purpose and zest for life. Current research in an area called Purpose in Life (PIL) reveals exciting correlations between higher levels of PIL and variety of positive health benefits. Researchers, for instance, found that a higher baseline PIL was linked to a lower risk of heart attack. They also found that for each standard-deviation increase in PIL score, adults reduced their stroke risk by 22 percent. One study found that a strong sense of purpose was associated with a 72 percent lower rate of death from stroke, a 44 percent lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 48 percent lower rate of death from any cause.

One particular area of health where PIL is proving to be very useful is the CNS or the central nervous system. Research has shown that knowing one’s life purpose and mission may help protect the brain physically, increasing its ability to withstand greater injuries. In particular, PIL seems to help people protect what is known as a cognitive reserve or cognitive resilience, which is the human brain’s ability to recover from trauma and protect against diseases.

Similarly, a study in 2019 by JAMA Network Open (Open access medical journal published by the American Medical Association covering the biomedical sciences) found that adults over the age of 50 who scored highest on a scale that measured “life purpose” had a longer life expectation and were also much less likely to die from heart, circulatory or blood conditions. This was further endorsed by Eric S. Kim, PhD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who said “There have been a number of studies suggesting that a higher sense of Purpose in Life is associated with reduced risk of early death”.

Research has shown that people with higher levels of meaning-in-life had increased connectivity within nodes of the default mode network of their brains, implying that purposeful people have stronger mental connections between the many functions the default mode network plays. What’s more, people with more meaning in their lives had better cross-network connectivity, indicating that it was easier for their brains’ limbic and default mode networks to work together.

The default mode network and the limbic network are two key sets of structures in the brain. The limbic network controls emotions, motivation, and long-term memory, among other functions. The default mode network regulates our sense of self, our memories, our emotions and helps us envision the future.

Meaning is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future. In other words, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the struggles and sufferings of the past as well as things they want do in the future, felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Even our achievements have their own set points. When we achieve them, we feel happy but this happiness does not last long. Once the condition is met, we start looking for the next goal that we need to pursue to remain happy. What we might eventually discover is the idea that happiness is not at all related to setting goals and achieving them, but in finding that sense of happiness and joy within ourselves and in our daily lives.

In his book ‘Out of the Darkness’, bestselling author Steve Taylor of Leeds Beckett University, tells the stories of more than 30 people who have undergone permanent spiritual awakening after intense trauma and turmoil in their lives. These “suffering-induced transformational experiences” include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, or suffering bereavements, or becoming seriously disabled, or losing everything through addiction or having close encounters with death during combat. What all these people had in common is that after undergoing intense suffering, they felt they had “woken up”. They stopped taking life, the world and other people for granted and gained a massive sense of appreciation for everything. They spoke of a sense of the preciousness of life, their own bodies, the other people in their lives and the beauty and wonder of nature. They felt a new sense of connection with other people, the natural world and the universe. They became less materialistic and more altruistic. Possessions and career advancement became trivial, while love, creativity and altruism became much more important. They felt intensely alive.

Fortunately, we do not have to go through intense suffering to experience these awakening effects. There are also certain temporary states of being when we can sense meaning which Taylor calls as ‘awakening experiences’.

The most common characteristics of these experiences are positive emotional states, including a sense of elation or serenity, a lack of fear and anxiety, intensified perception, and a sense of connection which can be towards other human beings, nature, or the whole universe in general. Other significant characteristics include a sense of love and compassion, altered time perception which often includes a sense of being intensely present. Then there is this strong sense that a person has transcended a limited state and that awareness has become more authentic than normal.

Scientists have coined the phrase self-transcendent experiences (STEs) for these transient mental states of decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness. This occurs under certain circumstances when the subjective sense of one’s self as an isolated entity temporarily fades into an experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dissolution of boundaries between the sense of self and “other.” These temporary mental states are experienced along a spectrum of intensity that ranges from the
routine like when losing ourselves in music or a book, to the intense and potentially transformative like when we feel connected to everything and everyone, to states in between, like those experienced by many people while meditating.

Professor William Damon, one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose-in-life, offers another approach to help people to develop a sense that their lives have been worthwhile, even in the face of difficulties and wrong turns. The idea is to reminisce one’s past in ways that balance negative events with positive achievements which can lead to feelings of gratitude and tranquillity. Life satisfaction does not mean avoiding all misfortunes which anyway is impossible. Nor does it mean always avoiding mistakes which is also impossible. Rather, we aim to do the best we can, learn from our past experiences, and remain hopeful for the future. In this way, our past, present and future selves become integrated into a positive identity that can provide the fulfilling sense of ego integrity that development psychologist Erik Erikson described. Erikson wrote that ego integrity, the most fulfilling form of personal identity, requires a positive sense of where we’ve been, who we’ve now become, what purposes we are seeking to accomplish, and where we hope to be heading.

Every human life, even the most fortunate, is filled with pain. Painful loss, painful disappointments, the physical pain of injury or sickness, and the mental pain of enduring boredom, loneliness, or sadness. Pain is an inevitable consequence of being alive. Thus all the good things in life entail suffering. Writing a novel, running a marathon or giving birth to a baby – all these cause pain and suffering but are done in pursuit of the final joyous results.