Dimensions of Empathy

‘You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’

From Harper Lee’s classic novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

What Harper Lee is alluding to is empathy which is the experience of understanding mental state of other persons from their perspective.
You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

We need to pay tribute to empathizing politicians like Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk who sat down across the table trying to understand each other and to empathize with each other’s perspectives, even when they had extremely strong and deeply embedded differing points of view. The result was the historical dismantling of apartheid.

Psychologist Mark Davis suggests that there are three important types of empathy. The first is a purely cognitive form of empathy that he terms as ‘perspective-taking’ also known as ‘cognitive empathy’. This is what enables you to see things from other person’s point of view.

Davis terms the second type of empathy as ‘personal distress’ which is more generally known as ‘emotional empathy’ or ‘affective empathy’. Emotional empathy is literally feeling another’s emotions. When you are watching a scary movie, and you start to empathize with the hero and feel afraid, that is personal distress in action. According to research, you are actually feeling the other’s emotion through a process called ‘emotional contagion’.

Daniel Goleman says that with cognitive empathy, you can understand another person’s perspective, reflect on his situation and think of the forces that may be acting upon him. On the other hand, he says, emotional empathy allows you to sense unspoken feelings of people by reading facial expressions, tone of voice or other non-verbal communication.

In some medical conditions, persons with one type of empathy may lack the other type or at least one of these empathies may be functioning well below the average. For example, persons with psychopathic or antisocial personality disorders may have excellent cognitive empathy which in fact enables them to deceive others but they will have reduced emotional empathy as they just don’t care about suffering or pain of others.

Majority of people with autism spectrum conditions, on the other  hand, may show the opposite profile. They tend to struggle with cognitive empathy, finding it hard to understand perspectives of other people. This is one reason why they try to avoid social interactions. However they often do have functional  emotional empathy and when their attention is drawn to suffering of someone they then realize the situation which makes them get upset and also makes them want to alleviate the suffering of the other person.

We need to understand the overlap between autism and alexithymia, a condition defined by a difficulty in understanding and identifying one’s own emotions. People with high levels of alexithymia might sense that they are experiencing an emotion, but are unsure which emotion it is. They could be sad, angry, anxious or maybe just overheated. About ten percent of the population at large and about fifty percent of people with autism have alexithymia.

Researchers have found that individuals with autism but not alexithymia show normal levels of empathy, whereas people with alexithymia are clearly less empathic. Thus autism itself is not associated with a lack of empathy, but alexithymia is.

The third type of empathy is one where you actually feel the same pain or emotion of the other which is termed as compassionate empathy. This type is what we most often think about when we use the term ‘empathy’. This is the ability to recognize another’s emotional state, feel in tune with that emotional state, and if it is a negative or distressful emotion, feel and show appropriate concern.

These three types of empathy represent different aspects of our personalities. A person high only in perspective-taking may be good in understanding and appreciating others’ points of view, but may not get very involved in others’ emotions.

Similarly an individual high on personal distress will be prone to experience the emotional states of others. The down side of high levels of emotional empathy is that these persons may make themselves vulnerable to additional burdens, expending physiological resources in order to help others.


From the neurological or functioning brain perspective, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin says “Neuroscientific research on empathy shows that if you’re empathizing with a person who is in pain, anxious or depressed, your brain will show activation of very similar circuits as the brain of the person with whom you’re empathizing.”

Compassionate empathy as opposed to emotional empathy activates a different part of the brain which are the areas associated with motivation and reward. Whereas  emotional empathy can cause pain and burnout, compassionate empathy actually drives you to want to go out and help. This shifting of focus to the person’s well-being and happiness rather than their distress, results in shifting the brain’s pathways from experiencing painful empathy to the more rewarding areas of compassion. Davidson says. ‘It is this process that helps us to detach from their suffering’.

A cardinal feature of empathy is that it helps us to connect with people. Because of the evolutionary development of this brain-based capacity, affective empathy, or emotional sharing, most easily and naturally occurs among members of the same tribe or group.

It is a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to denigrate others who don’t fit into those groups. Others who share our particular qualities are our “in-group,” and those who do not are our “out-group.” Please read my blog on tribalism for complete discussion on this.



It should, therefore, come as no surprise that individuals tend to have the most empathy for members of in-group. We see these biases play out repeatedly in communities, schools, sports teams, religious communities and across nations as well. We need to accept that even empathy is not always an equal opportunity benefactor.

Barack Obama lamented before he became the president that ‘The biggest problem we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit.’

Unfortunately these deficits in empathy, as for instance when it comes to out-groups, has the effect of increasing the areas of conflicts and human suffering. To reduce such conflicts and suffering, it is crucial to understand how empathy can be learned and how learning experiences can reshape empathy-related processes in the human brain. Researchers conducted experiments to see how empathy deficits for the suffering of out-group members can be corrected by a learning intervention. During this intervention, participants received costly monitory support as often from an out-group member as from an in-group member. Researchers found that receiving big help from an out-group member, which the brain was not expecting, elicited a classical learning signal, a prediction error in the anterior insular cortex. Subsequent prediction of such help from other members of the out-group enhanced the empathy-related insula responses towards the out-group members.

More interestingly, researchers  showed that not many positive learning experiences are required to increase empathy for the out-group. Researchers were able to establish the neural and psychological mechanisms through which learning interacts with empathy thus providing a neurobiological account of enhanced empathic reactions. For instance, when you move into a new neighbourhood, you may be apprehensive about their attitude and behaviour. But a couple of good interactions will make you more comfortable and more empathetic towards them.


Empathy in children is a hot research topic, and is a subject of great practical importance for families and communities.

There is a definitive need to develop, at an early stage of life, emotional literacy, or the ability to read or recognize one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. By tuning into what other people are feeling, children take their first critical steps towards developing empathy. We need to appreciate that children with higher emotional literacy are smarter, nicer, happier and more resilient. These children who are better adjusted emotionally have been found to be more popular and outgoing.

 There is also compelling evidence that prosocial behaviours such as altruistic helping emerge early in childhood. Infants as young as twelve months of age begin to comfort victims of distress, and fourteen to eighteen months old children are shown to display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviours.



Internationally recognised educational psychologist Michelle Borba suggests the following guidelines to parents for improving emotional literacy of their children.

  1. Stop and tune in. Connect with your child on an emotional level. Move past the distractions and actually, intentionally and fully connect with your child each and every day.
  2. Look face-to-face. The first step to good communication is eye contact. Get down on your child’s level and show them you are interested and invested in them by using good eye contact.
  3. Focus on feelings. Children need to learn that their feelings are important and should be taught to express their feelings. Give them words to describe how they feel – like mad, angry, embarrassed, frustrated, shocked and ecstatic. Ask probing questions: “You seem really upset, what are you feeling right now?” Help children connect their physical reactions to the underlying emotions: “I see your face is getting red, are you feeling angry?”
  4. Express the feelings. Before children have developed their emotional vocabulary, you will need to help them express their feelings, like “You must have been so excited when you were picked for Student of the Week.” Once children have learned the words necessary to express their emotions, you can ask them “How do you feel?” It’s also important to ask your children how they think other people feel: “How do you think he felt when you threw sand at him?”

Empathy is a crucial component of social intelligence, and many scholars argue that empathy is the basis for morality. For instance, experiments suggest that long term viewing of violent video games makes people less responsive—and less likely to help—when they witness other people in trouble. Indeed, a study of kids in Belgium and the Netherlands found that boys who were rated as less empathic and more aggressive were especially attracted to violent video games. Likewise, “prosocial” video games—which reward players for helping others—seem to promote acts of kindness in the real world.

We are, most unfortunately, continuously plugged into devices. This creates a problem as emotional literacy skills require face-to-face reciprocal interactions. In our digital world, where we are constantly engaged in one-way interactions via technology, we are simply giving children less opportunity to engage in meaningful and two-way, face-to-face interactions with others, which is a big part of developing emotional literacy skills.

We have heard this phrase ‘One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic’.

 One unfortunate aspect of empathy is that while a single crying child or injured puppy tugs at our heartstrings, large numbers of suffering people, as in epidemics, earthquakes and genocides, do not inspire a comparable reaction.

Studies have repeatedly confirmed this. It’s a troubling finding because many of us would like to believe that if more lives are at stake, we should feel more empathy and do more to help. Not only does empathy seem to fail when it is needed most, but it also appears to play favourites as when in-groups/out-groups are involved. These results suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.

Simon Baron-Cohen developed the concept of Empathy Quotient (EQ) using a 60-item questionnaire designed to measure empathy in adults. The test was developed at Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Clinically, the empathy measurements provided by the EQ are used by mental health professionals in assessing the level of social impairment in certain disorders like Autism. However, since levels of empathy vary significantly even among normal individuals without any mental health disorders, it is also suitable for use to measure temperamental empathy by and for the general population.

‘Made in Empatia’ a not-for-profit brand that wants to make Finland the most empathetic country in the world. This brand does not have an official owner and Virve Miettinen,  one of the members, says  that the intention is to build a societal movement around it, to which everyone is free to join. As part of the campaign, individuals, work communities and schools can learn empathy as a skill.

 The team believes that empathy is a civic skill for our daily lives, one that everyone needs to manage in increasingly diverse societies. A lot, for example, could be accomplished if things were seen through the eyes of the customer or boss. Better leadership, better services and better products and perhaps even better democracy can be visualised.

US Marine Corps is another great example of empathetic relationship where Marines willingly trust each other with their very lives. Lt Gen George Flynn proudly claimed ‘Go into any Marine Corps mess hall and watch the Marines line up for their chow. The most junior eats first, followed in rank order, with the leaders eating last. This practice isn’t in any rulebook. The Marines just do it because of the way they view the responsibility of  leadership. Whereas many people think leadership is about rank, power and privilege, Marines believe that true leadership is the willingness to place needs of others above your own’.

Here is another example of how we miss out on good experiences due to lack of empathetic observation.

Marshal Rosenberg, Psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication had this story to tell. ‘I used to regularly walk past a homeless man around the corner from where I live in Oxford and virtually took no notice of him. One day I stopped to speak to him. It turned out his name was Alan Human and he had a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. We subsequently developed a friendship based on our mutual interest in Aristotle’s ethics and pepperoni pizza. This encounter taught me that having conversations with strangers opens up our empathic minds. We can not only meet fascinating people but also challenge the assumptions and prejudices that we have about others based on their appearance, accents or backgrounds.’
Rosenberg also quotes Indian Philosopher J Krishnamurti who said ‘Observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence’.

Multi-faceted Chad Fowler an internationally known software developer, trainer, manager, speaker and musician recommends an activity he calls ‘watch and wonder’, which you can try virtually anywhere. ‘Put down your cell phone. Instead of checking Twitter or reading articles while you wait for the train or are stuck in a traffic jam, look at the people around you and imagine who they might be, what they might be thinking and feeling, and where they are trying to go right now. Are they frustrated? Happy? Singing? Looking at their phones? Do they live here or are they from out of town? Have they had a nice day? Try to actually wonder and care.’

Finally, I urge all to commit to becoming more and more empathetic. Let us reflect on what Maya Angelou said.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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Lies and self-deception

It is well established that all of us, humans, are excellent liars. For example, we tell ourselves that we are smarter and better looking than our friends. We claim that the group with which we strongly associate can do no wrong. We refuse to extend a helping hand to a colleague in need pretending that we are too busy. We can go on.

We need to appreciate, however, that lying has all kinds of everyday applications with varying degrees of acceptability. We do not hesitate to go out of our way to ensure that we do not hurt somebody’s feelings, as for example, by saying that their baby is adorable, even if we think the opposite. We want our dinner hosts to feel good by telling them how much we enjoyed the meal, even when the food tasted awful. If we come across the family we know is dysfunctional, we pretend we are not aware of any problems in the family.

We can see that lying always involves a mostly unconscious cost-benefit analysis, and this is perhaps how lying actually evolved. We know young children lie all the time. They have no problem lying. They are quick to realize that if they say, “I ate a cookie before dinner,” or “I broke the window,” they are going to be in trouble. In a study observing behavior of children, it was found that four-year-olds lied roughly once every two hours, and six-year-olds once every ninety minutes.

According to another study most people lied at least twice a day and deceived others on an average about thirty times per week. The same study found that college students lie to their mothers in fifty percent of their conversations, and dating couples lie about themselves thirty three percent of the time.

Interestingly, we don’t like to think of ourselves as capable of lying as it hurts our ego and so we lie about that too.

Cortney S Warren, author of the book ‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’, laments that as a clinical psychologist, he is consistently faced with the harsh reality that humans lie to themselves on a daily basis. We deceive ourselves about everything from tiny, seemingly insignificant aspects of our lives to our most influential life choices.

Although self-deception is a complicated construct, we lie to ourselves at the most basic level by not admitting something that is true or by believing in something that is false.

Warren attributes this tendency to lack of psychological strength in us to admit the truth and to change our position once the truth is acknowledged. More importantly, self-deception helps us to avoid confronting painful life realities.

One of the most common types of self-deception is self-enhancement. Psychologists have traditionally argued that we have evolved over the years to overestimate our good qualities because it makes us feel good. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at Berkeley, also showed that overconfident people are looked at by everyone as more competent and therefore appear to enjoy higher social status. One research finding goes on to suggest that people may not always reward the more accomplished individuals but will prefer to reward the more overconfident people. The risk we face is that if overconfident individuals are more likely to be risk-prone then by promoting them we may be creating institutions, including banks and armies, which are more vulnerable to risk.

One silver lining in this otherwise hopeless situation is that extended interaction may diminish or eliminate a self-deceived individual’s ability to deceive another individual. This is because deception only works as long as the deceived individual has incomplete information about the deceiver.  Extended interactions over a period of time is likely to provide the deceived individual ability to assess the deceiver’s true abilities.

Interestingly, while some people have this self-deception tendency as an inborn personality trait, others may develop the habit as a way of coping with their problems and challenges.

The unfortunate consequence of self-deception is profound discontent because lying to ourselves will thwart our ability to live the life that would be most fulfilling for each one of us.

From an existential and philosophical perspective, self-deception can be understood as a desire to avoid the “Givens of Life” which are the four basic realities of being human that we must face over the course of our lifetimes.

  1. Death: We and everyone we love will die one day.
  2. Ultimate aloneness: We are all born and will die as single persons housed in a solitary physical body.
  3. Meaninglessness: Our lives are inherently meaningless unless we give them meaning because none of us are that important, special, or unique in the grand scope of human history.
  4. Freedom: We are responsible for every aspect of ourselves because we have the freedom of choice.

To avoid the discomfort of accepting these realities, we frequently lie to ourselves.

For instance, you may deny your mortality and the mortality of those you love by refusing to write a will, skipping your medical checkups, or avoiding discussions about the poor health of family and friends.

Another reason for self-deception is cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, is responsible for the development of the “Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” which is the idea that we find it hard to hold two contradictory beliefs, so we unconsciously adjust one to make it fit with the other.

People quickly adjust their values to fit their behavior, even when it is clearly immoral. Those stealing from their employer will claim that “Everyone does it” so they would be losing out if they didn’t, or alternatively that “I’m underpaid so I deserve a little extra on the side.”

I’m sure you can think of a number of situations in which people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalizations. The son who justifies not visiting his parent in a nursing home because of lack of time. The father who justifies abandoning his family because they are better off without him. The criminal who justifies his crimes because of environmental factors. The person who gets fired because the boss hates outspoken people. The self-made billionaire who shies away from people in his past because all they want is his money. The list goes on.

In an interesting study of resolving cognitive dissonance, students found a boring task more interesting when they were paid very small amounts of money to take part. Their unconscious thinking resolved the cognitive dissonance of working on a boring task for a pittance. The thinking ran like this: If I did not do it for money, then I must have done it because the task must be interesting. Thus, a boring task became more interesting as otherwise the behavior cannot be explained.

The reason why cognitive dissonance is unsettling is that our minds are performing these sorts of rationalizations all the time, without our conscious knowledge.

Being aware of this can help us avoid falling foul of the most dangerous consequences of cognitive dissonance: Believing our own lies.

Another interesting aspect of lying is projection, which involves taking an undesirable aspect of our behavior and ascribing it to someone else. In other words, instead of admitting something that we don’t like about our own behavior, we see the same flaw in someone else. Projection makes us look highly hypocritical in the eyes of others. For example, you may accuse someone of being a gossip instead of admitting that you are the one gossiping. You may claim that someone is a racist when in practice you look at every one with colored glasses. You point out these behaviors in other persons to basically cover up the fact that you are uncomfortable with you own behavior.

Given the unconscious nature of self-deception, becoming honest is incredibly challenging. However, confronting your self-deception is critical to long-term life fulfillment and happiness.

Becoming more honest is a lifelong journey. It takes daily practice and effort because most of the time we are completely unaware of the rampant lying going on in our own minds. However, we cannot be honest with others until we are first honest with ourselves. Although we can’t directly ask ourselves how we lie, we can learn about who we really are by consciously observing ourselves, paying particular attention to and when required questioning our emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and culturally internalized beliefs.

Really understanding who we are requires brutal honesty. May be, one way is to share and confront our self-deception with an excellent therapist. As we learn about ourselves at a deeper level, we give ourselves the freedom to heal, change, and evolve.


Illusion of Confidence

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.


All of us have come across situations where less competent people seem to rate their competence higher than what it actually is. We have also seen very competent and knowledgeable people rate themselves lower. This is a result of genuine cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger proposed in 1999 that people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence. They not only fail to recognize their incompetence but also feel confident that they actually are competent. The original paper was titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” for which they won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000.

This cognitive bias is problematical as people who are incompetent not only reach wrong conclusions, but more importantly they also lack the ability to realize their mistakes. Instead of being confused, perplexed, or thoughtful about their erroneous ways, incompetent people insist that their ways are correct. In a sense, they are blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

David Dunning says “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent… The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

He elaborates further saying “For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent”.

When a 19-year-old thinks that she can win a national singing competition even though the only person who has told her that she is a good singer is her mother, there’s some real “Dunning-Krugering” happening.

Psychologist Steven Sloman, in his book “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” describes a series of experiments in which people were asked to assess how much they knew about the way various systems work — from toilets to single-payer health-care systems. People generally rated their knowledge of those systems as high — but then, when asked to explain in detail how those systems actually worked, most simply couldn’t.

In 2013, Professor Bryan A. Garner, an American lawyer, lexicographer and academic who has written more than two dozen books on English usage and style, advocacy, legal drafting and golf, published an article in the American Bar Association Journal entitled ‘Why lawyers can’t write’.

In his article, Professor Garner argues that most lawyers suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. He claims that not only are they unable to write, but they are completely delusional about their writing abilities. In other words, they think they are fabulous writers when they are actually hopeless.

As comedian Stephen Fry puts it, “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is not just a curiosity of psychology, it touches on a critical aspect of the default mode of human thought, and a major flaw in our thinking. It also applies to everyone – we are all at various places on that curve with respect to different areas of knowledge. You may be an expert in some things, and competent in others, but will also be toward the bottom of the curve in some areas of knowledge. You are as ignorant as the average person in every other area of knowledge in which you are not an expert.

Illusions of superiority are not always so mundane and can have real consequences.

Consider the anti-vaccination movement. A group of people with no medical or scientific qualifications are refusing to vaccinate their children for fear of them developing autism. Even though there is no scientific link between vaccines and autism, their erroneous opinions are so loud and convincing that they have caused the re-emergence of diseases that had been previously eradicated in the United States. Globally, the anti-vaccination movement has caused the resurgence of many treatable diseases. Unfortunately, it is a difficult battle to win given the people we are dealing with.

“It is hard to win an argument with a smart person, but it is damn impossible to win an argument with a stupid person”.   Bill Murray

Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that people are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship. An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

The Dunning-Kruger effect and the knowledge illusion aren’t disorders, but are part and parcel of being human. Some people, however, are much more subject to these than others.

Interestingly, people have an easier time recognizing ignorance in others but fail to recognise their own. Each of us at some point will reach the limits of our expertise and knowledge. All those decisions that we take that require knowledge beyond these boundaries can be classified as decisions based on ignorance and are undetectable to us.

Dunning gives his own example.

“I have asthma, and just the other day I ran across a test on how to appropriately use an inhaler. I took the test just for fun because obviously I knew all the right answers. I’ve been using an inhaler for 15 years!”

But it turned out that he had been using the inhaler wrong for all that time. “I was breathing in heavily really quickly when you’re supposed to take breaths slowly. It was a shock to me!” he said. “I had been depriving myself of oxygen that was there for the taking. I’ve been feeling much better since I began doing it correctly.”

It so happens that the Dunning-Kruger Effect has some unfortunate corollaries. High-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and based on this, erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

We need to appreciate that we live in a world of rampant misinformation in environments that cannot be so well controlled. The Internet, news media and social media make it almost impossible to decipher truth from fallacy.

Writing in his classic 1992 treatise The Flanshaw Infants on the potential of the world wide web, futurologist Terence Dobson wrote: “with too much information at their disposal, people (might) choose to take facts as given rather than question sources or open minds to the endless possibilities of knowledge and truth that the internet will provide.”

Another disturbing aspect is that we are not forced to face our own ignorance and ask for help as we can just look up in the internet for the answers immediately. This easy and frequent access to internet makes people to consider knowledge stored online as their own. This in turn gives rise to illusion of knowing with all its consequences.


We are driven by our Emotions

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Whether we like it or not, most our decisions and behavior are driven mostly by emotions and very little by logic. Let us examine the brain infrastructure to understand how emotions override rational thinking.

Whenever we have been flooded with anger or anxiety, overwhelmed by sadness, or torn by hurt, that emotion leaves an imprint in the Amygdala, the emotional part of our brain. Along with each emotional imprint, Amygdala dutifully stores whatever reaction we learned at those moments, whether it was freezing in fear, lashing out in rage or tuning out and going numb. In short, the Amygdala acts as a schema warehouse, the repository for our repertoire of negative emotional habits.

Amygdala is strategically positioned to intercept sensory information streaming in from our eyes, ears, and noses. If that information contains a potential threat, then Amygdala immediately fires off volleys of impulses that can change our behavior even before the signals have been fully processed and interpreted by our neocortex, the thinking part of the brain. That is the reason why your heart starts pounding immediately after noticing the vague shape of two men approaching you on a dark sidewalk. The men may or may not be a threat to you at all, but your Amygdala does not care and is preparing you for the worst.

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That’s where the problem begins. The Amygdala bases its reactions on a fuzzier picture much before the thinking brain gets the more complete input, and it also acts with lightning speed. This must have worked wonderfully well during most of evolution, when there were so many real, physical threats which demanded lightning responses. But in modern life we still respond to symbolic threats with the same intensity and speed as though they were actual physical dangers.

Brain studies show that a highly activated Amygdala, unfortunately, impairs our ability to turn off our negative thoughts and emotions. So, if we have already been upset by something, and then a bit later another emotional trigger gets launched, we find it even more difficult to control Amygdala from going out of control.

Tellingly, a hot Amygdala floods the body with high levels of cortisol, the hormone released by the brain to marshal the body’s emergency responses. Cortisol again makes the whole situation worse. The Orbital Medial Prefrontal Cortex (OMPFC), the thinking part of the brain, becomes inhibited thus making it difficult to be rational, logical and in control of our thoughts.

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When Amygdala gets triggered, it floods the body with the stress hormones that prepare it for emergency. These hormones are of two kinds: one variety provides the body with a quick, intense shot of energy – enough, say, for one vigorous round of fighting or running, the ancient survival responses that, in evolution, paid off. Another kind is secreted more gradually into the body, heightening its overall sensitivity to events, making us hyper alert to any coming danger.

Understanding this emotion-triggering process can help you adopt some damage control initiatives. The moment you realize that you are angry or upset, try to calm down and try to avoid confrontations of any type. Remember that your thinking part of the brain is inhibited. Similarly, when you realize that the other person with whom you are having an argument is emotionally upset, try to avoid any contentious issues. It does not make sense to bring some logical reasoning into the discussions as the other person’s thinking part of the brain is not in control. The best approach is to postpone further interactions till tempers cool down.

This is important, as not following this approach can escalate the bad situation into a worse situation which can damage relationships. This is simply because the anger keeps building up and up as you or the other person thinks more and more about the upsetting cause. What may start as a small emotive issue can build up to an explosive situation where potentially damaging statements may be made.


Feelings like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust don’t just help us survive in the world, they also help us thrive, providing key information that motivates us to take important actions and decisions, and to connect with other people.

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Let me illustrate with some examples how emotional attachments make you highly biased and compels you to override other rational arguments.

You are driving on a mountain road and some of your family members are in different car. Suddenly you witness an accident involving the car carrying your family members and a large bus. You quickly realize that while the occupants of the car are your close family members the occupants of the bus are people whom you may have never met. A quick assessment of the situation shows that both the car and the bus are precariously hanging on the edge of the mountain. You have time to save only one of the vehicles by quickly pulling it with the crane of your car. Which one would you save?

According to traditional economics thinking, you should maximize the utility of your actions, so you should save as many people as possible. Your rational choice should thus be to save the large bus. However, according to the behavioral research, your decision will be biased by emotions and you will certainly save the member of your family. It would appear very natural for most if not all of us to try our best to save someone we love and the psychological consequences of not doing so would be devastating for us. Thus emotions play an essential role in our decision making. However, according to the common interpretation of rational thinking and decision making, your decision has been biased.

Let’s look at a less tragic example. Imagine that tomorrow is your wife’s birthday. You are aware that things have not been working well lately. Long hours of working by both of you has not helped and you have had a couple of arguments. You know that she would love to have this ring you saw together a month ago in a jewelry shop and you decide to buy the ring. However, when you arrive at the jewelry shop you realize that the price tag is more than you expected and you had already planned for a couple of items of expenditure. In addition, you are told by the sale person that the item will be sold at 50 % discount next week. Would you buy the ring today or wait until next week?

Once again, according to traditional economics you should maximize your utility and wait until next week. But taking into consideration the general situation and according to behavioral research predictions, you will probably buy the item today and surprise your wife. After all, making the people you love happy and get on well with them is more satisfying than saving some money. We face once again the same questions: has your decision been emotionally biased and are you acting irrationally?


We can now detect if you are lying with authenticity

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For many years now “Lie Detection Tests” have been in use though without full authenticity.The parameters that were used were physiological reactions such as heart rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation and skin sweat response to direct questions, such as “did you kill your wife?”

With advances inbrain scanning technologies and better understanding of the working of the brain, we are much closer to establishing if a person is lying or speaking the truth.The recent Neuroscience News edition of 06 August 2017 talks about the latest research in this area where a new technique may become almost be acceptable by courts as providing evidence of lying.


In this technique, electrical signals within the brain are scanned through the scalp by electroencephalography (EEG). These signals indicate brain responses known as the P300 signals to questions or visual stimuli. Theseresponse signals are assessed for signs that the individual recognises certain pieces of information or not. The process includes asking some questions that are neutral in content and are used as controls, while other questions probe for knowledge or awareness of facts related to the offence.

The P300 response typically occurs very fast within 300 to 800 milliseconds after the question or other stimulus. This fast response by brain indicates awareness or otherwise of the event and is compared to what the subject claims. If there is a discrepancy, it is clear that he is lying or concealing the fact. If the questions can be made sufficiently narrow to focus on knowledge that only the perpetrator of the crime could possess, then the test can accurately reveal if the subject is concealing knowledge of critical information.

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These reasons for hiding knowledge may have nothing to do with the crime. You could have knowledge relevant to a crime but be totally innocent of that crime. We need to look at the test as revealing knowledge or lack of knowledge of an event and not necessarily of guilt.

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The need to question and alter our perceptions

All of us without exception are driven by our perceptions while making our decisions and wrong perceptions therefore can have far reaching effects.

Let us first see what perception is. Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information to attain awareness. It requires both cognitive or thinking part and affective or the emotional part of the brain in addition to the various organs of the body to effectively interact and understand the external world. The other dimension of perception is that what someone perceives is a result of interplay between the perceiver, the situation, and the perceived. Hence, perception is not a passive reaction to events or circumstances but in fact, an active and pervasive process where the structure and function of the sense organs and nervous system play a vital part in making sense of the external world.

This is the reason why different people have differing perceptions of the same event or same environment. This becomes problematical as wrong perceptions which get entrenched as beliefs give raise to conflicts at many levels.  Nations fighting wars, couples fighting over who does more chores, children fighting over a toy are all results of entrenched beliefs. And these conflicts often occur in part because we think that we are right and that the other people, or nations with whom we are disagreeing are wrong. But the truth is that we both are interpreting the situation with our own biased perceptions. The other side has a different perception of how things are, but that does not mean they are wrong.

                                            -ANAIS NIN


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Here is an example of how our interpretation of a situation could be so wrong.

While a woman was waiting for her plane at London Heathrow Airport, she purchased a package of English shortbread cookies. She had a hectic day and the busy schedule did not give her time to eat earlier. Making her way to a seating area, she carefully arranged her luggage and was getting settled when a man approached and indicated by pleasant gesture that he would like to occupy the seat next to her. She nodded and he sat down.

After a few moments, the woman decided to eat some of the cookies she had purchased, and she reached down to get them. As she opened the package, she noticed the man who sat next to her watching with great interest. She took the first cookie and began to eat when, to her great surprise, the man reached over, smiling, and took the second cookie.

The woman ate her cookie in stunned silence, astonished at the audacity of the man. After a moment she determinedly reached for the third cookie, but no sooner had she taken it out of the package than he, again smiling and without a word, reached over and took the fourth. Her indignation continued to rise as back and forth they went in total silence, she taking a cookie and he taking a cookie, until they reached the bottom of the package where the final cookie remained.

Without hesitation, the man reached over and took it, broke it in half, and cheerfully handed her one of the pieces. The woman took her half of the cookie with an icy glare. After finishing his half, the man stood, still smiling. With a polite bow, he turned and walked away.

The woman could not believe that any one could be so arrogant and rude. She was extremely flustered, her stomach churning. Making her way back to the airport gift shop, she picked up a package of antacid. As she opened her purse to get the money to pay for it, she stopped short.

There, in the bag was her unopened package of short bread cookies. Can you even begin to imagine the embarrassment, the chagrin, this woman felt when she discovered her mistake? Think of her attitude and behavior – inappropriate, rude, potentially destructive – especially compared to exemplary behavior exhibited by the stranger, and all stemming from one thing, the way she saw the situation.

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                                                                             -FRANZISKA ISELI

As observers, it is easy for us to laugh at the situation. But if we are the participants in real-life situations in which our own attitudes and behaviors are the result of some unrecognized, incorrect, or incomplete thinking pattern, we may live with the pain, the frustration, the misjudgment, often never making it to that final scene where we discover that the basic assumptions causing the pain were wrong all along.

I believe that most of our interpersonal problems are primarily the result of wrong assumptions and interpretations of what we see and believe and this episode is a good illustration of this.

We need to appreciate that what we think that we are seeing around us, is actually made up by our minds and not necessarily what is actually out there. When we look at an object, our brain constructs a picture of what’s out there based on what it thinks is important for us.

Most people assume that what we see is pretty much what our eyes see and report to our brain. In reality, our brain adds very substantially to the report it gets from our eyes, so that, a lot of what we see is actually “made up” by the brain. Perhaps even more interestingly, the eye actually throws away much of the information it gets, leaving it to the rest of the brain to fill in additional information in its own ways.

A characteristic pattern of connections among neurons in the eyes, termed as “lateral inhibition network”, is responsible for throwing away information. Lateral inhibition helps to explain a number of “optical illusions” and, more importantly, provides an excellent example of how the brain is organized to actively “make sense” of the information it gets, rather than to simply absorb and respond to it. Without this filtering mechanism, with the amount of data that reaches our senses, we could literally become mad trying to respond to all of them.


That brings up an important theme in neuroscience: a central function of the unconscious is to construct a useful reality, and to fill in the blanks in the face of incomplete information. That applies not just to our perception of the physical world, but also to our social perception.

Just as our brains fill in the details of an image our eyes recordedwith partial informationso too our brains fill in details about people we don’t know that intimately. In filling in the unknown details about people, our unconscious mind employs parameters such as voice, looks, dress, body language, andat times wishful thinking. More unfortunately, ourprior beliefs based on ethnic stereotypesalso play a significant part in this reconstructionof the individual. And we normally accept these impressions as realwithout realizing the extent to which they are the guesses of our unconscious mind. We are also not aware of factors our unconscious mind employed to make those guesses or impressions.

Timothy Verstynen of Carnegie Mellon University says that as much as 90 percent of our perception is actually mental fabrication. According to him as we start walking about in the world, seeing, touching and hearing, our brain starts learning from theseexperiences and builds models to help us to interact rightly with people and the environment. He says”That’s a much more efficient way to get around in the world than to try to process every single bit of sensory data that your senses collect,”


The problem 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 UCLAin 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.

This misperception illustrates a key feature of the brain: it gets the gist of what’s going on and makes up the rest. To avoid the hard work of processing every detail about the world, the brain just captures a few key ones and fills in a whole perception. That filled in perception is what you actually experience, and it’s based largely on your past experiences. Every other time I had seen a guy with dark sunglasses, a dog, and what looked like a cane, he had been blind (though I wouldn’t really know if that’s true because I could have failed to catch a few mistaken perceptions). Therefore it becomes easier on the brain to just jump to that conclusion.”

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In this illusion by Richard Russell, the same face appears to be female when the skin tone is made lighter (left image) and male when the skin tone is made darker (right image).The illusion works because changing the skin tone affects the face’s contrast – the difference between the darkest parts of the face (lips and eyes) and lightest parts (the skin).Few would regard facial contrast as a defining feature of either sex, but in fact, contrast is on average higher in females than males.


Synopsis of talk at TIE Entrepreneurial Summit 2011

Part 1 covered the power of incentives, neuroeconomics and how Gallup developed method to measure emotional connect between customers and organizations. There was explanation on how a feeling of unfairness can trigger strong reactions with a variety of examples. Then the ultimatum game was used to show how people respond to situations emotionally rather than rationally. The effect of framing and how it can affect responses was explained. How loss aversion affects important decisions was explained with some examples.

Click here to read part 1

Part 2 starts explaining that human beings without exceptions are highly biased. First optimism bias was explained followed by reference or anchoring effect and relative positioning bias. The tendency of linking price to quality was explained and comparison between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations was made. Finally there is explanation on how brain research supports the need for leaders to set examples for others to follow.

Click here to read part 2

We are mostly driven by our subconscious mind

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Let us first examine what we mean by subconscious mind.

Subconscious mind is nothing but the neural pathways that have been established in our brains as a result of our past beliefs and conditioning.

Research has established that while brain size has increased by about 350% over human evolution, blood flow to the brain increased by an amazing 600%. The increase in the supply of blood to the brain appears to be closely linked to the evolution of human intelligence where the human brain has evolved to become not only larger, but more energetically costly and blood thirsty than previously believed.

The brain therefore has developed two important mechanisms to conserve energy by way of ‘Latent Inhibition’ and ‘Cognitive Biases’.

Latent Inhibition is the unconscious capacity of the brain to ignore stimuli that experience has shown to be irrelevant to our needs. This is critical, as scientists estimate that we are exposed to several million pieces of information at any one time, but our brains can deal with only about forty. On the flip side, Latent Inhibition makes us miss out many important things that happen around us.

The other type of optimization occurs by way of cognitive biases which are a result of our brain’s attempt to drastically simplify information processing by using rules of thumb, heuristics or mental shortcuts. The downside here is that these cognitive biases, which operate without our explicit awareness, often tend to make us take very irrational decisions.

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In fact, Dan Ariely, well known behavioral economist, in his ground-breaking book ‘Predictably Irrational’, explores this phenomenon and demonstrates that people make the same mistakes time and again in predictable ways.

It is clear from research that even though we are aware of our consciousness, it is the unconscious mind operating quietly in the background that is really running our lives.

All of us who are more than five years old operate from unconscious levels of our mind approximately 95% of the time and not surprisingly children under six years rarely use conscious processes at all. The subconscious mind of children continually acquires behavioral programs by observing people who influence them like mother, father, family or community. These programs, which are subconsciously registered and strengthened by repeated observations, run the show for the rest of their lives unless they are consciously changed with a lot of effort.

It should therefore come as no surprise that many of our childhood experiences really drive our behavior without our explicit awareness.

The early sensory-motor and emotional memories of infants and toddlers are created and nurtured by the Amygdala, Thalamus, Cerebellum and Orbital Medial Prefrontal structures of the brain. This system organizes and retains the primitive vestibular-sensory-emotional memories of early caretaking. What makes this very significant is that these memories become the foundation of our belief systems when we grow up.

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In his book “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships”, Louis Cozolino says “ Because the first few years of life are a period of exuberant brain development, early experience has a disproportionate impact on the development of neural systems. In this way, early negative interpersonal experiences become a primary source of the symptoms for which people seek relief in psychotherapy.”.

Although most of our important social and emotional lessons occur during our early years, we have little or no conscious memory of learning them.

This phenomenon, referred to as Infantile Amnesia, is due to the immaturity or lack of full development of hippocampal-cortical networks, whose functioning is required and critical for the conscious recollection of the learning process. Despite our lack of explicit memory for these experiences, we are nevertheless driven by these early lessons of life.

It must be highlighted that the subconscious mind does handle many onerous responsibilities. It keeps our body temperature at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It keeps our heart beating at a certain rate and it also keeps us breathing regularly. It effectively uses our autonomic nervous system, to maintain the right balance among the hundreds of chemicals that reside in our billions of cells so that our entire physical machine functions in complete harmony. It is also the source and storehouse of our emotions.

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Subconscious is a storehouse of all your learnings. Once you learn how to do a certain task, then it becomes a habit stored away in your subconscious memory and you don’t need to learn it again. If there was no subconscious mind, then on a daily basis you would have to relearn every function.

Thus we learn how to walk with our conscious mind, but once the behavior is fully learned, we no longer need to think about it. The subconscious now controls the act of walking unless we decide to consciously control our steps. Again, when we stop thinking about it, the subconscious mind resumes control.

Subconscious mind is many times more powerful and responds faster than the conscious mind. The conscious mind processes information at an approximate rate of 40 bits of information per second, while the subconscious mind processes approximately 40 million bits of information per second. It is worth noting that when we drive a car we use around thirty different skills without being aware of it.

Cozolino says “ Research has found that, although it takes our brain 400-500 milliseconds to bring sensations to conscious awareness, it takes only 14 milliseconds to implicitly react to, and categorize, visual information.”

We need to note that the subconscious mind does not think or make any moral judgments. It only knows what it has been taught and holds them as true beliefs. Accordingly, it directs our thoughts and actions in tune with the entrenched programming.

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In his book “Strangers to Ourselves”, Timothy Wilson presents a superb view of the reasons why the unconscious mind is inaccessible to self-analysis: “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.”

Wilson suggests that we are better off by combining introspection with observing how others react to us, and deducting the otherwise inaccessible nature of our minds from their responses. If others see us differently than we see ourselves, we need to incorporate this alternative view of ourselves into our personal narrative.

This is the reason why I have been emphasizing for many years now, that we need honest feedback from people who love us enough to tell us the truth which, if we take in the right spirit, will help us change our behavior to build better relationships.

We now know that all our habits of thinking and acting are stored in our subconscious mind. But more significantly, our subconscious mind clearly demarcates our comfort zones and works really hard to keep us as much as possible in these comfort zones.


Whenever we try to change any of our established patterns of behavior, our subconscious mind makes us feel emotionally and physically uncomfortable. At that time, we can feel our subconscious pulling us back towards our comfort zone. Even thinking about doing something different from what we are accustomed to, will automatically trigger a tense feeling and unease.

McKinsey studies done in the years 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010 have repeatedly confirmed that 70% of corporate change initiatives have failed to meet their stated objectives. Many Behavioral Scientists believe that resistance of people to move away from their comfort zones may be a big contributing factor for these failures.

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Research has established that less than one percent of all the information that the mind takes in, actually reaches our awareness. Likewise, most of how we react to that information remains outside our awareness. Let us examine what we miss out in the process.

A psychologist made a one-minute videotape of three students passing a basket ball back and forth. At one point in the video a woman wearing a white victorian gown and carrying a white parasol strolled through the game and her passage took about four seconds.

Before playing the video, the psychologist asked the participants to watch the video and report how many times the ball was tossed back and forth. At the end of the video, participants came out with numbers like 23, 24 or 25 as the number of ball tosses. Then the psychologist asked them if they saw anything unusual. The participants were perplexed with the question, as they did not notice any thing unusual. However when the video was replayed, most people were flabbergasted to see, for the first time, the woman walking through the game.

Thus, while the selectivity of our attention or focus usually helps us, it also means that we do not notice many things – and more importantly, we do not realize that we have not noticed.

To summarize, we cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dreams, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so. Similarly, when we greet someone on the street we just act, and there is no actor standing behind prompting us to greet. Thus our acts are essentially end points in long sequences of unconscious responses. They arise from a complex structure of habits and learned skills. We need to understand and appreciate that most of our life is enacted without our conscious awareness.


Understanding False Memories

Our memories are wrong at least as often as they are right. At best, they are incomplete, though we might swear otherwise. This affects countless aspects of our lives, and in many cases the decisions that we take purely depending on our memories can have far reaching consequences to the lives of others.

Thus False Memories, which are the erroneous recollection of events that did not actually occur become important to understand because they have the potential to derail relationships simply because the parties simply relied too much on their memories. Even worse, it can send innocent people to prison.

Among the most surprising discoveries about human memory is the realization that remembering a past event is not like picking a DVD off the shelf and playing it back. Remembering involves an elaborate process of reconstruction from information stored in various parts of the brain.

We store assorted features of an event as representations that are distributed around the brain. In simple terms, visual features are represented near the back of the brain in the areas specialized for visual processing, sounds are stored in auditory processing regions close to the ears and smells are stored in the olfactory system that lies behind the nose.

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To experience the rich, vivid “re-living” of a past event, the brain gathers all these features and puts it together into a representation of what took place.


Loss of memory, and creation of new memory, is central to a relatively efficient system of information processing that never sleeps. The selective movement of information into long-term memory is an adaptive marvel of efficiency that allows our brains to store crucial pieces of information that we will rely on in the future, and at the same time shed information not worth holding onto. The process is not neat and tidy, and memory selectivity often works against us like in cases where we would rather like to forget a hurtful event. But when you view the process through the lens of species survival, it makes abundant sense. It is important to remember that during the human evolution, it was crucial to remember where the best sources of food were located, where the best hunting grounds were located, which areas needed to be avoided lest you became something else’s dinner and clarity on how to return safely back home. For our ancestors, reliance on memory of particular details was a matter of life and death.

There are two types of memories ‘verbatim’ and ‘gist’.

Verbatim traces are memories of what actually happened. Gist traces, on the other hand, are based on a person’s understanding of what happened, or what the particular event meant to him or her. Over a period of time the Verbatim traces fade away unless the event itself was emotionally charged. Ultimately what gets retained is only Gist traces.

Information retrieved from memory is simultaneously processed in two specific regions of the brain, each of which focuses on different aspect of a past event. The medial temporal lobe (MTL), located at the base of the brain, focuses on specific facts about the event, the verbatim part. The frontal parietal network (FPN), located at the top of the brain, on the other hand processes the global gist of the event.

The specific brain area accessed when one tries to remember something can ultimately determine whether the the memory is true or false.


During the brain scans, Roberto Cabeza, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University found that volunteers who were highly confident in memories that were indeed true showed increased activity in the fact-oriented MTL region.

“This would make sense, because the MTL, with its wealth of specific details, would make the memory seem more vivid,” Cabeza said. “For example, thinking about your breakfast this morning, you remember what you had, the taste of the food, the people you were with. The added richness of these details makes one more confident about the memory’s truth.”

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On the other hand, volunteers who showed high confidence in memories that turned out to be false exhibited increased activity in the impressionistic FPN. The people drawing from this area of the brain recalled the gist or general idea of the event, and while they felt confident about their memories, they were often mistaken, since they could not recall the details of the memory.

“Specific memories don’t last forever, but what ends up lasting are not specific details, but more general or global impressions,” Cabeza said.

What we do not realize is that other events that occur after the original event can change the memory of the original event. Think of the scenario where at the time original event occurred, you and your cousin were close friends. But later on you have an argument and a falling-out that lasts for years. Your memory of the first event might now include your cousin being aloof and cold, even if that was not true. The later experience has changed your memory.

You will also start to fill in your memory gaps with “made up” sequences of events, but these will seem as real to you as the original event. You can’t remember who else was at the family dinner, but Aunt Jolene is usually present at these events, and so over time your memory of the event will include Aunt Jolene.

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Have you ever embellished a story—or just made something up—and re-told the not-entirely-true version enough times that you could no longer distinguish between fact and fiction?

It is also not that difficult to implant false memories. In an interesting experiment, Daniel Schacter, Psychology Professor at Harvard University, was able to implant a “false memory” in more than half of the audience. He recited a list of 15 words, including candy, sugar, and taste. A minute or two later, he asked the audience whether certain words were on the original list. Taste, most everyone agreed, was. Nail was not. In both instances, the audience was correct. Lastly, Schacter asked if sweet was on the list. Nearly every hand went up. “Are you absolutely certain it was on the list?” Schacter asked. Some hands went down, but a majority was confident it was on the list. It was not. Most of the words were related to sweet; that association helped contribute to the false memory.

Similarly, It is easy to mix up memories so that things that happened at two separate events become fused into one.

Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a lineup and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV. They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. The policeman taking his statement sneered, “Yes, I suppose you’ve got Jesus Christ, and the Queen of England, too.” Eventually, the investigators discovered that the real rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV – the very program on which Thompson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused the rapist’s face with the face that she had seen on TV.

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Witness testimony has been the gold standard of the criminal justice system, revered in courtrooms and crime dramas as the evidence that clinches a case.

If memory flaws only affected our personal past, that would be bad enough. But the problems created by our mistaken recollections affect all of society. More than 75,000 prosecutions every year are based entirely on the recollections of others. While perjury is a felony, the overwhelming majority of eyewitness errors aren’t conscious or intentional. Rather, they’re the inevitable side effects of the remembering process.

Forensic technology has now led to many such convictions being overturned. The Innocence Project in the US campaigns to overturn eyewitness misidentification and lists all the people who have subsequently been acquitted.

The project reports that there have been 311 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the US, which includes 18 people who were sentenced to death before DNA evidence was able to prove their innocence. Unfortunately, many of them had already served dozens of years in prison.

We need to appreciate that human memory has not evolved so that an observer may accurately report previously seen events. The actual, physical events are merely grist for the mill of interpretation. We need to appreciate that each witness extracts an interpretation of the event that is meaningful in terms of his own beliefs, experiences and needs. Once the interpretation is done and the interpreted information is stored away, the event itself becomes relatively unimportant. Moreover, since each person interprets the event in terms of his own world view, different eyewitnesses observing the same event may have different interpretations and therefore different memories.


We do not see what we sense but what we think we sense. What our consciousness is actually presented with, is an interpretation of the event and not the raw data.

The whole process starts with a quick interpretation of the event.  Once the interpretation is done, then the raw sensory data is mostly discarded. What is important to note is that the transformation from raw data to interpretation occurs automatically and outside our awareness.

One mystery that is somewhat alarming emerged from case reports of Innocence Project. Despite being innocent having not committed the crime, nevertheless around a quarter of the accused who were later exonerated had, in fact, confessed or pleaded guilty to the offences.

It seems hard to imagine that anyone of sound mind would take the blame for something he did not do. But several researchers have found that it was surprisingly easy to make people confess to invented misdemeanors.

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Admittedly these confessions are taking place in a laboratory rather than an interrogation room, so the stakes might not appear that high to the confessor. On the other hand, the pressures that can be brought to bear in a police station are much stronger than those in a lab. The upshot is that it seems worryingly simple to extract a false confession from someone—which he might find hard subsequently to retract.

Elizabeth Loftus has dedicated most of her life’s work and energy to creating a vivid and brilliant model and theory showing that the memory is amazingly inventive and fragile. In one of her experiments, Loftus gave a group of volunteers the rudimentary outlines of a childhood experience: getting lost in a mall and being rescued by a kindly adult. She told the subjects, falsely, that the scenario was real and had taken place when they were young. (For verisimilitude, Loftus asked their parents for biographical details that she could plant in each story.) Then she debriefed the subjects twice, with the interviews separated by one or two weeks. By the second interview, six of the twenty-four test subjects had internalized the story, weaving in sensory and emotional details of their own. Loftus and other researchers have since used similar techniques to create false memories of near-drownings, animal attacks, and encounters with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

It’s important to point out that a false memory is different from a lie. Liars know what really happened, but claim something different. People with false memories honestly believe what they’re saying—there is no intent to deceive. They’re just wrong about what actually happened, for predictable reasons.

The main difference between false memories and lies is awareness: people are unaware that a memory is false, but are fully cognizant of the truth when lying or concealing incriminating information.

The British False Memory Society (BFMS) is a registered charity formed in 1993 to deal with issues relating to false memory.

False memory is creating severe problems in the field of alleged sexual abuse.  The Society acknowledges and abhors the fact that there are many genuine cases of child abuse that may require the application of the criminal law. However, what is happening is that a number of people, usually during psychotherapy or counselling, are recovering ‘memories’ of having been sexually abused in childhood, even though those accused – usually, but not always, their parents – strongly deny such abuse and there is no real corroborating evidence to support such abuse.  A worrying feature of these cases is that the accusers did not remember being abused prior to receiving therapy. Thus these could be cases of planted memory.

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Not surprisingly, such memories, if false, have severe consequences both for the person concerned and for his or her family. It is not uncommon for a whole network of family relationships to be destroyed as a result.

The phenomenon of false memories is common to 
everybody. You may recall, for example, the party you were certain that you attended many year ago in high school, say, when, in fact, you were home down with the flu. The false memory is created because so many people told you about the party over the years that the details made their way into your own memory cache.

False memories can be dismissed sometimes as a mere curiosity, but quite often they have real implications. For instance, innocent people have gone to jail when well-intentioned eyewitnesses testified to events that actually unfolded in an entirely different way.

We tend to develop overconfidence in our memories as in our daily experience we recall events, especially the important ones, easily and often. Unfortunately, we rarely find our memories contradicted by evidence and we also do not take any initiative to check if they are right.


Critical need to understand Tribalism in the current volatile environment

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.

As Jane Howard, biographer of anthropologist Margaret Mead, puts it “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

We now have strong evidence that human evolution has produced natural tendencies in people to favor members of their own group and to distrust and disadvantage outsiders. Insider-outsider distinctions seem to be innate and well entrenched. This favoritism is the result of substantial benefits derived from group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with this grouping tendency even today.

As social animals we depend on our groups, our tribes, literally for our survival. And it would be consistent with that interpretation that the more threatened we feel, by economic uncertainty, or threats of terrorism, or environmental doom and gloom, the more we circle the wagons of our opinions to keep the tribe together and keep ourselves safe.

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It’s a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to denigrate others who don’t fit into their groups. People who share our particular qualities are our “in-group,” and those who do not are our “out-group.”

Let us take a look at Social Identity theory. Psychologists Tajfel, Billig and Turner have shown that part of our social identity comes from those groups with whom we associate. Interestingly, we show this strong bias in favor of ‘in-group’ members, even when the groups are arbitrarily formed. Tajfel demonstrated this in an experiment where he assigned people randomly into groups but, although everyone had seen and noted that the assignment was random, they still showed a preference for members of their group over other people, even going to the extent of giving rational arguments about how unpleasant and immoral the ‘out-group’ people were.

The term group here is rather a loose expression as it refers to any type of grouping starting from your classmates, office colleagues, same club members, working mothers or social activists, depending on your individual sense of belonging to a particular cluster.

The in-group may also consist of a tribe, a religious group, speakers of a common language, or, within nations, interest groups such as workers, gun owners, or farmers. Each person is typically a member of several groups, each of which can potentially command this sort of loyalty.

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Perhaps there is some survival mechanism at work in formulating in-group-out-group distinctions. In our desire to feel safe, we bond together with those whom we see as most like us so that we can protect ourselves from those who might do us harm. The virtual fences we build to keep the outsiders away allows us to lead our daily lives with a feeling of being protected and secure. However, it is precisely these fences that keep us from bonding with our fellow human beings which in fact, may compromise our true security.

Many a times 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 told police about a man – 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 honored, appreciated and supported. Unfortunately, such objectivity is thrown to the winds if it is disloyal to the tribe.

We have also read reports that show this dangerous tribe-centered attitude by Catholic Church authorities abandoning their morals and severely compromising the safety of vulnerable children by covering up, ignoring, or denying extensive evidence of child abuse by a small number of priests.

The severest form of tribalism that is tearing the world apart is religious fanaticism.

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Scott Atran, Hammad Sheikh and Angel Gomezc gave very interesting insights in their interviews with United States officials familiar with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “Caliph” of the Islamic State, and his close circle, including General Douglas Stone, who commanded Camp Bucca where they were held.

They suggest that these jihadists were absolutely committed “purists,” completely devoted to their idea of Sharia and the Caliphate, and willing to do anything for it and were willing to use violence to instill blood lust among their followers and terror among enemies. They also believe that the unconditional commitment to comrades, in conjunction with their sacred cause, may be what allows low-power groups to endure and often prevail against materially stronger foes.

Let there be no doubts that tribalism is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason. Think of the inhuman things we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism – wipe out the other group to keep our group safe – taken to madness. Racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better than theirs, parents who end contact with their own children when they dare marry someone of a different faith or color – are all examples of tribalism trumping common sense and objectivity.

Something that goes almost unquestioned in many circles is nationalism which is another strong form of tribalism. Nationalists are concerned with their fellow citizens, regardless of the effect on outsiders. Nationalists are willing to sacrifice their own self-interest in order to harm outsiders, e.g., in war, for the benefit of co-nationals.

Former 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.”


The reason for this is that it creates solidarity in the group, which increases the chances that our group’s views, influence and power will prevail in society which, incidentally, is how political parties work.

It is clear to any observer that people are prone to ethnocentrism. It is an uncomfortable fact that even when given a guilt-free choice, individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion.

This is because they trust them more, relax with them better in business and social events, and prefer them more often than not as marriage partners. They are quicker to anger at evidence that an out-group is behaving unfairly or receiving undeserved rewards. And they grow hostile to any out-group encroaching upon the territory or resources of their in-group.

When in experiments black and white Americans were flashed pictures of the other race, their amygdalas, 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.

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When, on the other hand, appropriate context like the approaching black being a doctor of the white American observer was added, then the situation changed as the two higher learning centers viz. the cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral preferential cortex of the brain got activated, silencing threat response from the amygdala.

Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that when they extended these amygdala studies on children they found something very interesting. The racial sensitivity of the amygdala is not noticeable until around the age fourteen and even once it kicks in, its effect is not uniform across people. For instance, children exposed to more racially diverse peer group exhibited less strong amygdala effect. In fact, at really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared altogether. The authors of the study suggest that neural biases to race therefore are not innate and that race is actually a social construction, learned over time.

It is worthwhile pointing out that shifting strong tribal conflicts from the very real battlefield of war and mutual human destruction to sports arenas and video games can be looked at as a civilizational progress. Victories in team sports can provide the satisfaction of showing the superiority of their own group over the other groups without the damaging consequences of real conflicts.

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