Importance of Forgiving

To err is human, to forgive divine.

Alexander Pope

Mahatma Gandhi taught us a lot of things about non-violence, about civil disobedience and about self-governance. However his most important teaching is the art of forgiving which holds special significance in today’s turbulent world.

Forgiveness has been a cherished value for centuries and is propounded by all world religions. Religions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity have all stressed the importance of forgiveness, although these religions conceptualise and address forgiveness in different ways.

All of us without exception have experienced in our lives being wronged by someone or the other. The individual offender could be a co-worker, a friend or a family member. We are also exposed to incidents of spouses who are unfaithful, parents who mistreat or abuse their children, people who killed for the sake of money etc. Whenever such things happen, we tend to seek severest punishment to the perpetrators of these wrong doing and generally forgiveness is the last thing that will come to our mind.

The following story, therefore, should come as somewhat of a surprise.

Everett Worthington had been studying forgiveness for more than a decade but one day, suddenly, he was faced with the worst possible opportunity to put his research findings to the reality test. His mother was murdered in a home invasion. Though police identified the perpetrator, the man was never prosecuted.

I had applied the forgiveness model many times, but never on such a big personal event” says Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “As it turned out, I was able to forgive the young man quite quickly.”

It is notable that Worthington never described himself as a superstar forgiver. He attributed his action to the skill he developed and practiced over many years, which made this forgiving very easy.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Marcus Aurelius

Let us first get clarity on what we mean by forgiveness.

Forgiveness is defined as an internal process through which an individual gives up all feelings of resentment and anger towards someone who has wronged him and at the same time feels absolutely no need for any revenge and retribution.

Thus forgiveness is not just about saying the words ‘I forgive’ but is an active process in which we make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the offender deserves it or not. As we release the anger, resentment and hostility, we slowly begin to feel empathy, compassion and sometimes even affection for the person who wronged us.

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was actually you

 Louis B. Smedes

For forgiveness to occur, it is not essential for us to forget, justify, condone or absolve the actions of the offender.  What is required is a shift or change in how we feel about the offender. Forgiveness enables us to accept the offense against us without excusing it. This requires us to alter our motivation from one of avoidance or retaliation to one of empathy and reconciliation.

It is worthwhile remembering that we have no control over our memories, but we do have capability to introspect and control our thinking. While our anger may be justified when the event happened, retaining this anger over a long period of time is harmful to us. We must realistically acknowledge that we can not change what transpired in our past but we do have the power to stop events of the past affecting our current lives.

While we generally think that forgiving as a kind and selfless act, the reality is that it is a  very selfish act which sets in motion the process of self-healing, self-empowerment and self-liberation. As Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s former Anglican archbishop and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said, “We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.

From all the above, we can have a fair appreciation of what forgiveness is not.

  • It is not approving the offence.
  • It is not excusing the action or denying it or overlooking it.
  • It is not forgetting or pretending that it did not occur and to just moving on.
  • It is not justifying the offence or relinquishing possible action for justice.
  • It is not just calming down and ceasing to be angry.
  • It is more than being neutral towards the offender.
  • It is more than making oneself feel good.
  • It is one step towards reconciliation, but it is different from reconciliation, which requires a sincere apology from the parties concerned.
  • It is completely independent of  the person/s being forgiven. Consider Corrie Ten Boom, who forgave the Nazis after losing her family in the Holocaust, or Marietta Jaeger who, after her daughter was kidnapped and brutally murdered, was able to forgive. Thus people can forgive, even when the person who wronged them is unknown or dead.
  • It is not a onetime event, but a process with several steps and repetitions.
  • It is not a restoration of full trust on the offender (trust takes time to develop or to be reinstated assuming that the other party is interested too).

Bob Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, who pioneered the study of forgiveness three decades ago says true forgiveness covers lot more ground by generating positive feelings like empathy, compassion and understanding  towards the person who hurt us thus making it a powerful construct in positive psychology.

Let us now examine the need to forgive.

Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard School of Public Health says “When you learn to forgive, you are no longer trapped by the past actions of others and can finally feel free.

This is illustrated by the Tibetan Buddhist story of two ex-prisoners of war who meet after many years. When the first one asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” the second man answers, “No, never”.  “Well then,” the first man replies, “they still have you in prison.”

An fMRI study by Italian researcher, Pietro Pietrini, demonstrated that anger and vengeance have negative implications for us as they inhibit our rational thinking. Conversely, the steps that are involved in the process of forgiveness positively activate the areas of our brain which are linked to problem-solving, morality, empathy and cognitive control of our emotions.

We need to appreciate that the part of the brain that is associated with resolving anger is also the same part that is involved in empathy and regulation of our emotions. Research shows that there is a strong neuronal foundation for the idea that resolving conflict and granting mercy do good to our brains as they enhance positive emotions in us.

Researchers have collected massive evidence to clearly prove that forgiveness is linked to positive mental health outcomes such as reduced anxiety and reduced propensity for getting into depression or other major psychiatric disorders. Stress relief is the most significant benefit of forgiveness and we are well aware that chronic stress is highly detrimental to our health.    

Let us also look at the enormous price we pay by not forgiving. Anger is a form of stress, and so when we hold on to anger it is as though we are turning on our body’s stress response. Berkeley scientists looked at the levels of the stress hormone cortisol , in people who did and did not forgive the faults of their romantic partners. They found a spike effect in those who could not forgive such faults in their partners. Cortisol peaks are generally associated with chronic stress which is one of the nastiest ways in which we can hammer our own body from the inside out. Johns Hopkins Hospital warns us that carrying grudges poses ‘serious and enormous’ physical burden on us.   

In the turbulent days we live in, the world is suffering enormously for lack of forgiveness as we remain chained to the past.  Whether it is the war on Iraq or the conflicts in Syria or elsewhere in the world, all of these are fuelled by hatred and the need for vengeance. Collectively, humanity needs to learn forgiveness, to end the cycles of retribution and violence which are becoming a daily headline news.

While there are a lot of approaches to the forgiving process, the following four step process with some variations appears to be more prevalent.

The Uncovering Phase. During the first phase of forgiveness, we need to improve our understanding of the injustice, and how it has impacted our life.

The Decision Phase. During the second phase, we need to gain a deeper understanding of what forgiveness is and make the important decision of choosing the forgiveness option rather than vengeance.

The Work Phase. During the third phase, we need to start looking at the offender in new ways, which will allow us to reduce our negative feelings and promote positive feelings toward the offender.

The Deepening Phase. During the final phase of forgiveness, we need to further decrease the negative emotions associated with the injustice. We may, in fact, find purpose and meaning in these experiences and recognize that in some ways we have become better persons as a result of these experiences.

Here is a wonderful story of how Buddha reacted towards an offender.

A Lesson on Forgiveness

 Buddha was sitting under a tree talking to his disciples when a man came up and spat on his face. Buddha wiped it off and asked the man, “What next? What do you want to say next?”. The man was puzzled by this reaction as in the past the insulted people invariably became angry and reacted strongly unless they were cowards and weaklings. But Buddha reacted so differently asking him matter-of-factly “What next?” 

But Buddha’s disciples became angry, and they reacted. His closest disciple, Ananda, said, “This is too much. We cannot tolerate it. He has to be punished for this act, otherwise everybody will start behaving like this!”

Buddha admonished Ananda saying “You keep silent. He has not offended me, but you are offending me. He is a stranger who does not know me. He must have heard from people something bad about me, that I am an atheist or a dangerous man who is throwing people off their track or a revolutionary or a corrupter. And he may have formed in his mind some idea or a notion of me. Thus he has not spit on me but on his notion. He has spit on his idea of me. As he does not know me at all, how can he spit on me?

“If you think about it deeply,” Buddha said, “he has spit on his own mind. I am not part of it, and I can see that this poor man wants to say some thing and this is his way of saying it. Spitting is a way of saying something. There are moments when you feel that  your language is inadequate to convey your feelings like when you are in deep love or in intense anger or in hate or in prayer. When the language is impotent, you have to express your feelings some other way. When you are angry, intensely angry, you hit the person or you spit on him conveying your feelings. I can understand him. He must have something more to say, that’s why I’m asking him, “What next?”

Learning to forgive everything.

And Buddha said to his disciples, “I am more offended by you because you know me, and you have lived for years with me, and still you react this way.”

Puzzled and confused, the man returned home. He could not sleep the whole night. Again and again he was haunted by the experience and could not explain to himself on what had happened. Buddha had shattered his whole working of his mind and his whole pattern of thinking.

The next morning he went back and threw himself at Buddha’s feet. Buddha asked him again, “What next? When you come and touch my feet, you are saying something that cannot be said using words as they are not adequate for you to express your feelings clearly.” Buddha said, “Look, Ananda, this man is again here and is expressing something. This man is a man of deep emotions.”

The man looked at Buddha and said, “Forgive me for what I did yesterday.”

Buddha said, “Forgive? But I am not the same man on whom you spit. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same and much has happened in these twenty-four hours. The river has flowed on so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.”

“And you also are new. I can see that you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and so he spit, whereas you are bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man, so let us forget about it. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more. Come closer. Let us talk of something else.”





Importance of Emotion Regulation

We are no strangers to emotions. We are constantly exposed to a variety of stimuli that can evoke various types of emotions in us. For instance, walking down the city street, we may see people hugging or fighting, we may hear a baby crying, we may smell food that reminds us of our favourite restaurant and we may receive a text message with some sad news.  All these may happen within a few seconds.

It may be prudent for us get a clearer understanding on what we mean by emotion before examining the need for regulating it.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus today on a precise definition of emotion. The term emotion, however, is contextually referred to by all researchers while talking about the six basic emotions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.

Six emotions

World renowned researcher Barbara Fredrickson, Director of ‘Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory’,  defines emotions as “multicomponent response tendencies that unfold over relatively short time spans”

A simpler definition is that emotion is any mental experience with high intensity and high level of either pleasure or displeasure. Another one is that emotions are bodily reactions that are physical and instinctive and are prompted by either threat, reward or anything in between.

What we do know, scientifically, is that emotion begins when a stimulus is perceived by one or more of our senses. Amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, which is consistently scanning for threats and opportunities, responds with alacrity to the stimulus. If what is sensed is recognised as a threat, then the vigilant amygdala triggers the autonomic nervous system to prepare us for the action of flight or fight.

The amygdala also instructs the hypothalamus to release hormones that activate our sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline is released and our heart rate accelerates, blood pressure increases, and blood sugar is elevated to assist us in our fight-or-flight response to the threat. At the same time, our digestion and immune response is suppressed. The brain system has prepped up our body for quick response to any eventuality. Obviously, this heightened state of the body cannot continue for a long period. Fortunately, the body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. Adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, our heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels and other systems resume their regular activities.

We must understand that these emotional reactions occur automatically and unconsciously and in a sense are hard-wired. According to Antonio Damasio, director of the ‘Brain and Creativity Institute’, these emotions are action programs that exist not just in human brains but also in the brains of many other species. Some of these programs, he says, go all the way down to invertebrates, to little creatures like a snail that do not even have a skeleton.

We need to realize that evolution has developed these programs to achieve something very important. For example, emotional arousal of fear allows us to take action, even without thinking, so that we can quickly get away from danger without any delay. Probably, fear has saved more lives than any other emotion that we experience.

Unfortunately, there are too many situations in modern day life that can cause a stress response similar to fear in our bodies. Changes at work place, problems in relationships, family issues, demands on limited financial resources, illness, accidents can all cause stress. Even seemingly small daily hassles like someone pushing us in a queue can make us feel stressed. When these negative events keep happening to us one after the other, the body’s stress response is triggered repeatedly.

When these stress responses becomes prolonged (chronic), it has a very different effect compared to the short bursts that enhance the body’s abilities. In many cases, the system controlling the stress response is no longer able to return to its normal state. Attention, memory, and the way we deal with emotions are negatively impacted. This long-term stress can contribute to both physical and mental illness through effects on the heart, immune and metabolic functions and hormones acting on our brain.

Here is a concrete experiment that establishes the effect of negative feelings.

According to scientists at Ohio State University, a 30-minute argument with our partner can slow our body’s ability to heal by at least a day. If we keep arguing on a regular basis, that healing time scales up. Researchers tested couples with a suction device that created tiny blisters on their arms. When the couples were asked to spend enough time talking about an area of disagreement that provoked emotion, the wounds took about 40 per cent longer to heal than those in the control group. This response, say the researchers, is caused by a surge in cytokines, the  immune molecules that trigger inflammation. High levels of cytokines are linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Antonio Damasio claims that emotions and feelings are two different things. His theory is that feelings in contrast to emotions, occur after we become aware of the physical changes that are triggered by emotion and it is only then, that we experience the real feeling of fear or threat.

Our memories of past experiences become encoded into triggers and these triggers automatically switch on the psycho-emotional response.

The type of feelings that are evoked in us depends on the recorded experiences of how we manged such situations in the past.

 As Antonio Damasio says, emotional stress is inevitable if we live in large urban centres. Such a stress releases certain hormones that are connected with fear and anger and they not only damage our arteries and the heart but also damage receptors that are on the surface of nerve cells and neurons. As the repeated episodes of negative stimuli continue for a long time, we get into a state of chronic stress and the neurons themselves start getting damaged.

Emotional stress not only harms our cardiovascular and immune systems but exposure to chronic stress also impairs learning and memory. Stress hormones, known as glucocorticoids of which one is cortisol, slow the birth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. They also kill existing hippocampal neurons and disconnect the networks of neurons that move information through your brain. Prolonged chronic stress can cause depression.

Another factor that works against us, is that evolution has hard-wired us to give high priority to defend ourselves from serious threats. This leads us to subconsciously give lot more importance to all negative experiences of the past shadowing our positive experiences. This “negativity bias” results in our spending much more time ruminating over the minor frustrations that we have experienced in the past. Small irritations like bad traffic and a disagreement with a loved one can fully occupy our mind making us to miss out on the many opportunities that we get to experience positive factors like wonder, joy, empathy and gratitude.

Hence, there is a critical need to become aware and then regulate our emotions in order to support our psychological and physical well-being.

Emotion regulation enables us to control and modify the frequency, intensity, duration and type of our emotional responses. Thus, emotion regulation is a mechanism enabling better coping with the environmental demands.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that emotions are useful and important signals informing us about either external circumstances or our own internal states.  If we can become aware of these signals and if we can properly regulate our responses to them, we can lead healthier and happier lives.

Although part of emotion regulation happens automatically, more effective responses by us for longer term benefits do require conscious control of information processing in our brains. To do this, we use our prefrontal cortex which downregulates emotion-related regions such as the amygdala by inhibiting neural activity in these regions.

The Cognitive Model of Emotion looks like this:

Event → Interpretation → Emotion → Response

 Let us imagine the following situation to understand all the four parts.

A blue car cuts us off very close to our vehicle while we are driving down the highway (Event). The following thought speeds across our mind: “That fool is going to kill somebody” (Interpretation). We feel angry (Emotion). So we hit the gas in a valiant attempt to catch up with the car and snap a photo of the license plate (Response).

A critical aspect of the Cognitive Model is that while the first three parts are largely automatic and outside of our control, how we act (Respond) to a great extent is under our control. If we have trained ourselves to regulate our emotions, then we don’t have to chase down the blue car, even though that’s our first instinct.

The advantage of brain regulation is that it reduces our tendency to react hurriedly to a situation, instead of evaluating the options available to us and choosing the optimal one.

With regular training and practice of emotion regulation, when we were cut off by the vehicle, our brain’s automatic interpretation and emotion would have been less intense, resulting in much less anger and we therefore would have decided not to chase down the car.

The most effective way to regulate our emotion is to re-interpret the situation. For instance, we can try to imagine that the driver of the blue car may be a terrified husband on the way to the hospital with his wife going into labour in the back seat. Such a reinterpretation would automatically moderate our emotions and we are likely to take a more pragmatic decision.

While there are many other strategies that can be used to actively regulate our emotions, especially the negative ones, the most commonly studied strategy is reappraisal, which involves deliberately changing the way we think about the meaning of an emotionally evocative stimulus or situation. In this explicit form of emotion regulation, we need to effectively use brain control processes.

Imagine another scenario that in some situation, someone is screaming at us in anger without sufficiently good reason. Our immediate desire would be to scream back or even hit the person.

But if we were to be aware that this person’s mother passed away a day earlier or that he/she is going through a tough divorce and just lost custody of the kids, our reaction will be very different. We may even respond to the anger with compassion.

Let us examine what has changed in eliciting from us two very different responses for the same event.  It is the story that we are telling ourselves about the event that has changed everything.

Kevin Ochsner, Director of ‘The Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab’ demonstrates that changes in our beliefs about a situation forces our brains to change our feelings about the same situation.

In Ochsner’s reappraisal experiment, participants were shown a photo of people crying outside a church, which naturally made all the participants feel sad. They were then asked to imagine that the context is actually a wedding and the people were crying tears of joy. Once the participants imagined the scene as a wedding and changed their appraisal, their emotional response also changed to one of joy and these changed emotions were captured in their brain scans.

On a lighter vein, on how reframing of a situation can completely change the perspective, Edward Russo and Paul Shoemaker provide an amusing story to illustrate the power of framing. A Jesuit and a Franciscan were seeking permission from their superiors to be allowed to smoke while they prayed. The Franciscan simply requested for permission to smoke while he prayed. His request, as to be expected, was straight away denied. The Jesuit, on the other hand, framed the question in a different way: “In moments of human weakness when I smoke, may I also pray?’’ He got the approval.

All of us do make mistakes at various points of time and later feel bad for having made these mistakes. The unhappy feelings or discomfort created by these mistakes sometimes can last a long time. Richard Davidson author of ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain’ and founder and chair of the ‘Centre for Healthy Minds’ encourages cognitive reappraisal training to help us reduce the impact of distressing and uncomfortable situations that we create by our mistakes.  He says that instead of viewing our mistake as representing the way we normally think, work and behave, we can be trained to feel that the mistake was more of an exception or aberration and could have been committed by anyone. Cognitive reappraisal, can thus help us to reframe the causes of our behaviour and reduce its impact or distress.

Besides cognitive reappraisal, research also suggests that certain forms of meditation can change how the brain responds to emotional stimuli. For example, one study found that short-term mindfulness training increased the functional connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in emotion regulation, suggesting that even a few weeks of meditation training may build up emotion-regulation abilities.

Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama, explains that many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness which is the desire for happiness for others and wanting to relieve suffering of others through compassion. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and mission.

Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, author of ‘Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion’, says that when we have feelings of caring or love for other people, we feel better both psychologically and physically.  While all of us do desire to be loved, what actually generates lot more joy and happiness is the feeling of loving. This feeling of loving is generated in us when we do kind and compassionate things for other people.


Positive plus


Now that we have a good idea of ill effects of negative emotions on our lives, let us look at positive emotions.

Among the many health benefits of positive emotions, the main benefit is a reduction in stress and a boost to our general well-being. Positive emotions can actually act as a buffer between us and stressful events in our lives, allowing us to cope more effectively and preserve our mental health. In addition, researchers confirmed that experiencing positive emotions helps us modulate our reactions to stress and allows us to recover from the negative effects of stress more quickly.

According to Fredrickson‘s research, we should aim for a positivity ratio of at least 3 to 1. This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience that we endure, we need to experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift us. As we age, this ratios needs to keep moving up a bit to keep us healthy.

We now know that the difference between people who are living healthy and happy lives  and those who are not, is the ability to use their strengths and virtues for purposes greater than themselves. The magnitude of positive emotions that we are able to self-generate from everyday pleasant activities like social interactions, learning, helping others etc. will make us more healthy. According to positive psychology, what creates a fulfilling life is the steady stream of micro-moments of positivity, however fleeting and modest they may be, rather than occasional grandiose gifts of fate. So, we need to grab all these wonderful positive micro-moments in our daily lives, effectively using them to over-ride negative stimuli that we are inevitably exposed to.

A number of studies have shown that increased levels of generosity and helpfulness displayed by us will generate positive emotional feelings in us. Research has also shown that endeavours in creative pursuits,  flexible thought processes, innovative responses to situations and openness to information have all been seen to create similar positive emotional feelings. Research in the area of Positive Psychology by Lisa Aspinwall and Richard Tedeschi, has shown clearly that positive emotional feelings can improve our coping processes and can also increase health-promoting behaviour. The reasons why positive emotions really make a difference is due to improved thinking or cognitive processing by us which allows us to look at and consider lot more options and possibilities in any given situation. This improved cognitive organization and increased cognitive capacity allows us to look at more active approach to problem-solving.

Indeed, many studies suggest that charity or generous giving generates the same type of happy feelings in our brains similar to the enjoyment that we experience when we are eating our favourite food or spending time with our loved ones. These findings help to explain why behaving with compassion and generosity gives us a pleasurable, uplifting feeling, known as the “helper’s high.”

Besides cognitive reappraisal, research also suggests certain forms of meditation that can change how the brain responds to emotional stimuli. For example, one study found that short-term mindfulness training increased the functional connectivity between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in emotion regulation, suggesting that even a few weeks of meditation training may build up emotion-regulation abilities.


Davidson, who has worked extensively with the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama, explains that many contemplative traditions speak of loving-kindness as the desire for happiness for others and of compassion as the desire to relieve others’ suffering. Loving-kindness and compassion are central to the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and mission.

Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, author of ‘Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion’, says that feelings of caring or love for other people generates happiness.  While all of us do desire to be loved, what actually feels really good is the feeling of loving. This feeling of loving is generated in us when we do kind, compassionate things for other people.

Using the compassion meditation adapted from the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation, Clinical Psychologist Helen Weng conducted an experiment at ‘Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds’.  The participants in the experiment were gently instructed to extend feelings of compassion toward different people, including themselves, a loved one, a casual acquaintance, and also someone with whom they had difficult relationship.

The mental training in compassion that the participants had undergone earlier, resulted in observable altruistic changes in them towards people who needed help which were reflected in changes to their brain activity. Specifically, when compared with their brain activity before the training, the participants showed increased activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions.

Generally, it is recognised that heightened sensitivity to suffering makes us avoid such situations because it makes us uncomfortable. However, the compassion training seemed to strengthen the brain’s ability to sense the suffering of others without feeling overwhelmed by it. Instead, the compassion training oriented them to look at suffering not as a threat to their own well-being but as an opportunity to reap the psychic reward of connecting with other people and making them feel better.

We also need to recognise the critical role played by social relationships in improving our overall health and happiness.

The team consisting of Gre Cucci A, Fredrickson JR and Job R, in their editorial on ‘Advances in Emotion Regulation’ observe that when it comes to interpersonal relationships, emotions are the gift that nature gave us to help us connect meaningfully with others. They say “Emotions do not come from out of nowhere. Rather, they are constantly generated, usually by stimuli in our interpersonal world. They bond us to others, guide us in navigating our social interactions, and help us care for each other. We love our partner, we get angry with a friend, we feel sad for the loss of a parent, and so on”. Paraphrasing Shakespeare they say ‘Our relationships are such stuff as emotions are made of’”.

Whether we like it or not, our lives are inextricably linked to the life of others. There is no such thing as leading an independent, individual life. From the day we are born we are dependent on our parents. We clearly cannot walk out and run our lives, go to school and get to the university without help. We live in a society where there is so much inter-dependence and inter-connection.

It is amazing that the 17thcentury philosopher Spinoza clearly identified, as a source of happiness and more importantly as a source of moral systems, the fact that you cannot be happy by yourself if you do not contribute to the happiness of others.

It should therefore come as no surprise that how we lead our lives, and how the others that surround us manage their lives, can influence many diseases of the brain, all the way from stroke to Alzheimer’s disease.


Some references:





Critical Role of Parenting


Whether “nature or nurture” is more important in shaping human behaviour has been a subject of debate and discussion for several decades. Ground-breaking research in related areas, especially in epigenetics in the recent years, clearly indicates that the effects of both heredity and environment are intensely intertwined. Let us explore the underlying scientific information that will help us better understand these influences and allow us to examine what interventions are feasible to improve outcomes.

I seek your indulgence to put with some scientific terminology in the first few paragraphs, which I have tried my best to simplify, based on my own limited understanding. In the later part of this blog, effective parenting, which is the main focus of this blog, will be covered in simple less-scientific language.

Virtually every individual on the planet carries a unique set of variations in their DNA sequence, and this is what decides, among other things, your outward appearance or physical traits, your behavioural tendencies, your susceptibility to certain diseases etc. The scientific term for our complete inherited genetic identity is genotype which in common parlance is referred to as “hereditary traits”.

The term phenotype on the other hand takes into account the environmental influences on your hereditary traits that ultimately determine your current personality. Phenotype includes several attributes like your height and eye colour, your overall health and disease history, your behaviour, your propensity to gain weight easily, your tendency to be anxious, your liking for cats and so on. In a sense, phenotype represents all the ways in which you present yourself to the world, part of which is what you have inherited.

Your genome is your complete set of DNA, including all of your genes and in some sense, it is the sum total of your inherited tendencies. The Greek term epi- denotes “on top of” and thus epigenome sits on top of genome and is the complete description of all the chemical modifications to your DNA and histone proteins.

Epigenetics thus is the study of changes in your personality brought about by modification of gene expressions without altering your basic genetic code itself.

Gene expression is such a fundamental well-studied biological process that research on epigenetics has been sprawling in scope and speed. After all, if you have a gene that has been turned off, you are going to look and behave a lot like someone who doesn’t have that gene at all.

We need to first appreciate the enormous influence exerted by the environment on our lives. Here, the term environment encompasses pretty much everything that happens in every stage of your life like social experiences including parenting styles you experienced in your childhood, good and bad experiences you had in your schools etc., nutrition in your food, your hormones, toxicological exposures you undergo prenatally, postnatally and in your adulthood etc. All these do influence your genetic activity through epigenetic mechanisms.

The implication of epigenetic understanding is that doctors and mental health professionals can treat life threatening and dreadful diseases including schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorders, mental retardation, autism and neurodegenerative disorders in novel ways.

We may eventually find molecular intervention solutions even for social challenges, such as aging, addiction, suicide, child abuse, and child neglect.

Research is allowing scientists to manipulate epigenetic marks in the laboratory set-up, which means that they are able to develop drugs that treat illness simply by either silencing the bad genes or over expressing the good genes. The great hope of ongoing epigenetic research is that with the flick of a biochemical switch, we may be able to instruct the genes that play a role in many diseases — including cancer, schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and many others — to lie dormant without adversely affecting the individual concerned.

There are other learnings as well. Study of epigenetics shows evidence that lifestyle choices like smoking and overeating can change the epigenetic marks atop your DNA in ways that trigger the genes for obesity to express themselves too strongly and the genes for longevity to express themselves too weakly. The obvious consequence of these differing gene expressions is that you tend to become obese and your life span may be shortened if you regularly smoke or overeat.

While I have discussed so far how epigenetics can help fight dreaded diseases, my blog is meant actually to highlight how with better understanding of epigenetics we can create or influence our living environment for better health outcomes.

Technically, child development can be conceptualized as experiences becoming sculpted in our DNA through methylation, which is one of the major epigenetic mechanisms of change. Incidentally, DNA methylation was first confirmed to occur in human cancer as long ago as 1983 and the pervasive effects of methylation are far better understood now. Without explaining the scientific basis for everything, let me present important findings on the critical need for effective parenting.

It is worth quoting American psychologist and behaviourist John Watson, the 17th most cited psychologist of the 20th century, who said: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select… regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.

While this may look like a tall claim, we do have the power to make a huge difference to lives of people with strategic early interventions.


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Let us examine how environment and upbringing, especially at an young age can shape or modify naturally inherited tendencies. As an example, think of one strong-willed child in one household who habitually presents a defiant attitude making it very difficult for parents to handle the tantrums. Now think of another strong-willed child in a different family setting expressing this trait very differently by channelling it into an extracurricular activity of his liking. The strong-will makes the child display positive commitment and hard work in order to excel in his chosen field. What therefore becomes important in these kind of situations, is how the personality of the child interacts with his daily experiences. We can hypothesize that the disrespectful behaviour of the strong-willed child could be due to the personality clash with his parents. The difficult situation may be further exasperated by parents not knowing or not equipped to redirect the strong will of their child into more productive pursuits.



While most parenting strategies, literally hundreds of them, are generally effective in theory, the critical difference is the situational context and complexity of relationships that it needs to take into account. You need to appreciate that to make your strategic approaches succeed in managing a defiant child, you may need to make several difficult adjustments in your own lifestyle and may have to tone down your expectations.

Another study looked at so-called ‘warrior genes’ that are generally over represented among violent criminals. Criminal defence attorneys tried to use this as a new defence strategy for violent offenders, claiming that their genes made them do it.
It turns out that the inherited warrior genes by themselves do not engender violent behaviour except in those individuals who grow up in extremely abusive homes. Research indicates that children who are raised by loving parents rarely display any aggressive tendencies even when they grow up.



I cannot emphasize enough that parents exert enormous influence over the healthy development of their children using a variety of strategies like talking and reading to infants, explaining importance of ethical values at various stages, inculcating the need to respect other’s points of view, accepting failures as experiences etc. Many of these important conversations happen around the dinner table. Parents, however, are not the only influencers, especially after children start going to school. There is no doubt that parents have specific responsibility to give their children a good start, but it is equally important for parents to recognize that kids come into the world with their own temperaments.



Parents need to accept the additional responsibility to provide them the right interface and exposure to the outside world that eventually prepares them to become completely independent. The process of child development includes everything from sensory awareness and fine motor skills to language and socialization ability.

Decades of research in developmental psychology, paediatrics and neuroscience converge on the fact that the first five years are especially critical to a child’s outcome. As a child matures, he or she will go through phases where he will explore his environment, learn verbal and reasoning skills, socialize with others, assert his independence from his family, etc.

There is a great deal of research done on the social development of children. John Bowlby, the well-known British Psychologist, the 49th most cited psychologist of the 20th century, proposed one of the earliest theories of social development. Bowlby believed that early relationships with caregivers play a major role in child development and continue to influence social relationships throughout the life.

Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:

1. Proximity Maintenance – The desire to be near the people we are attached to.
2. Safe Haven – Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.
3. Secure Base – The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
4. Separation Distress – Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

Bowlby also made three key propositions about attachment theory.

First, he suggested that when children are raised with confidence that their primary caregiver will be available to them whenever they want, they are less likely to experience fear as adults than those who do not receive such attention.

Secondly, he believed that this confidence is forged during a critical period of development viz. during the years of infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The expectations that are formed during this critical period tend to remain relatively unchanged for the rest of the person’s life.

Finally, he suggested that these expectations that are formed are directly tied to their experiences. In other words, children develop expectations that their caregivers will be responsive to their needs because, in their experience, their caregivers have been responsive in the past.

Many of these theories are confirmed by more recent researches. One study published in Development and Psychopathology, claims that the amount of comforting and close contact between human care givers and their babies can influence the amount of beneficial DNA methylation. This adjustment to the children’s DNA may even persist for several years.



In this research conducted at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital, the study involved 94 healthy children and their parents. The parents were asked to keep a record of their infant’s behaviour – including fussing, crying, sleeping or feeding – as well as how long their caregiving involved bodily contact. The research was followed up till the babies grew to four and half years when the scientists collected their DNA by swabbing the insides of their cheeks. The results again confirmed that the children who were more distressed as infants and also did not receive as much physical contact, showed a molecular profile in their cells that indicated underdevelopment for their age compared to others.

Although it may sound like someone could be “epigenetically doomed” to bad health if their parents didn’t cuddle them enough, it is gratifying to know that other studies suggest that the epigenetic marks might be reversible with proper interventions.

If research on epigenetics that can control diseases is in its infancy, research on behavioural epigenetics is in embryo stage. Hopefully, not in the distant future, we may be able to discover epigenetic mechanisms that can moderate extreme behaviours, especially like the ones displayed by fundamentalists and extremists. We, however, need to realize the enormous promise of epigenetics will also take an enormous amount of work and lots and lots of time.
—————————— Uche

The End of Nature Versus Nurture

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Cuddling Can Leave Positive Epigenetic Traces on Your Baby’s DNA

Importance of Mindfulness


We need to appreciate that what we think we are seeing around us, is actually made up by our minds and is 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 really 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 brains add very substantially to the report they get 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.

Latent Inhibition is the subconscious 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 at a time with only about forty. On the flip side, latent Inhibition makes us miss out many important things that happen around us.

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 and touching objects and hearing various sounds, our brain starts learning from these experiences and builds models which can help us to effectively interact with people and efficiently navigate the environment.

While these models do make it easier for us to quickly make sense of our surroundings, they also make us miss out on some important things happening around us and that is where mindfulness practice can come to our aid.

There are, of course, more powerful reasons for practicing mindfulness which has increasing acceptance around the world.

We now know that reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of that reality depends on the beliefs that we hold at any given time. Michael Shermer called this process as ‘Belief-Dependent Realism’. It may sound strange if I claim, that the brain is not that much interested in truth or reality. The brain is fundamentally focused on self-preservation and is constantly trying to create its own sense of reality through beliefs.

Shankar Vedantam, author of ‘Hidden Brain’, says that facts do not matter as much as people generally believe. Telling people facts that go against their strongly held beliefs can in-fact be counter-productive. It makes them dig-in their heels even deeper.

Thanks to this belief-driven human society the world is witnessing conflicts at many levels – nations engaged in wars, couples fighting over who does more chores, women demanding equal opportunities with men etc. While these conflicts occur in part because we think that we are only right and that the other nation, person or people are wrong. But the truth is that both the parties suffer from biased perceptions engendered by their own belief systems. Mindfulness practice can bring down the level of this dissonance and bring more harmony. Next time your spouse says something that you do not agree, try to understand that he or she is not necessarily wrong but has a different perspective due to different belief system conditioning.


Racial prejudices that plague almost all societies today are due to our unconscious biases and unfortunately these biases lead to discriminatory evaluation of persons or groups based on stereotypes.

Kabat-Zinn, recognised as father of mindfulness, says “Just as our brains fill in the details of an image our eyes recorded with partial information, so 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, and at times wishful thinking. More unfortunately, our prior beliefs based on ethnic stereotypes also play a significant part in this reconstruction of the individual. And we normally accept these impressions as real without realizing the extent to which they are the guesses of our unconscious mind. We are also not aware of factors our unconscious mind is employing to make those guesses or impressions”.

Even people who value equality and diversity tend to exhibit negative reactions to people of different races. These subtle biased responses are called implicit associations and they occur automatically, outside of our conscious awareness.


The implicit bias is so deep in the subconscious that it is next to impossible to become aware of its existence. Read this interesting story.

A 34-year old white woman from Washington who had a demonstrated passion for civil rights was also a senior activist in national gay rights organization fighting against bias and discrimination on many fronts. She agreed to take the psychological bias test called Implicit Association Test (IAT) developed by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. When the result appeared on the screen, the activist could not believe what she was seeing. The test found that she had a clear bias for whites over blacks.

“It surprises me that I have any preferences at all,” she said. “By the work I do, by my education, my background, I’m progressive, and I think I have no bias. Being a minority myself, I don’t feel I should or would have biases.”



Fortunately, recent research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation reduces implicit race and age bias by weakening the associations of the target group with negative constructs. Social psychology researchers Adam Leuke and Bryan Gibson from the University of Central Michigan conducted experiments to prove that just ten minutes of mindful meditation significantly lowered racially biased behaviour.

All of us have a natural tendency to assume that people’s actions and accomplishments reflect their innate traits and latent abilities. We do not for a moment think that some external factors might have been at work influencing the outcomes. So, if a student doesn’t pass his test in mathematics, we conclude that he is either not good in mathematics or perhaps lazy to apply his mind. We ignore the possibility that he could have missed a good night’s sleep before the test.

This tendency known as the correspondence bias refers to the idea that people sometimes give undue weight to dispositional rather than situational factors when explaining behaviours and attitudes.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many white Americans assumed that the residents who stayed were stubborn, rather than simply too poor to evacuate. The fact was, many people lacked the resources to escape. Having no money, no mode of transportation and no friends or family in safe places, they had no choice but to weather the storm literally.

Research also suggests that this bias plays a role in the courtroom, where juries often dismiss mitigating circumstances when assigning punishment, especially when the punishment is for people of colour.

Extended period of mindfulness practice builds more empathy towards others and helps us to consider various possibilities and that someone may be acting in a certain way due to pressures they are facing or situations they find themselves in.

There is enough research to show that we pay more attention to and react more strongly to negative events than positive events in our lives—a phenomenon called the negativity bias. This bias in entrenched in us due to our early evolutionary history, where our survival heavily depended on being ever vigilant.

Whether it is a disabled person walking into the workplace or an African American student entering a predominantly white university – a history of experiences of rejection based on one’s status can create doubts about acceptance in these social institutions. Even after removal or discontinuation of such structural barriers, research suggests that some members of historically excluded or marginalised groups continue to experience such doubts in social institutions.

But mindfulness can help reduce our negativity bias and consequently can help us to be less wary of negative social encounters. Support for this claim comes from several experiments looking at how mindfulness impacts our emotional reactivity to negative stimuli.

Another study led by Andrew Hafenbrack of INSEAD examined the impact of mindfulness meditation on the “sunk cost” bias which is our tendency to stick to something like an investment or a relationship even when it is clearly not serving us well any more. We overvalue our past investment of time, effort or money, in other words our “sunk costs”, and are therefore unwilling to cut our losses and move on even when logic clearly dictates such action.

Hafenbrack and his team reasoned that our wandering minds lead us to dwell too much on the past and the future, thus providing fuel for the sunk cost bias. By focusing more on the present, they hypothesized, we allow the bias much less of a foothold.

The team then conducted a series of experiments in which some groups were encouraged to let their minds wander before being asked to make a series of decisions that were designed to evoke the sunk cost bias. Other groups were guided through a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session prior to being presented with the same decisions. The mindful group was significantly less influenced by the sunk cost bias.

Over the years we have gathered overwhelming evidence that mindfulness practice can substantially increase our awareness levels of what is going on in our minds, thus helping to reduce the automatic or habitual responses that is characteristic of all cognitive biases.

Let us now discuss what we mean by mindfulness.

Mindfulness-Quote.jpgKabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as intentional, non-judgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experience.

Despite the fact that mindfulness has been practised for thousands of years in the East, it was Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn who first recognised its potential for therapy in modern day clinical settings. He established that mindfulness-based interventions could effectively reduce negative factors such as psychological distress in those living with chronic back pain.

Thus, acceptance of things as they come, without evaluating or attempting to change them, is a skill developed through mindfulness exercises in and out of session.

Another central topic of mindfulness is paying attention to body and breathing, from a certain “distance”. This allows people to adopt a detached attitude towards the objects and the contents of their mind – like emotions and thoughts. Practitioners over a period of time develop a sense of equanimity without getting absorbed into their own mental processes. They realize that the mental phenomena observed like thoughts, emotions and feeling are distinct and are outside of the mind that is actually observing them.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of mindfulness based therapy which was started in 1980 theorizing that greater well-being can be attained by overcoming negative thoughts and feelings. We know that acceptance of things as they come, without evaluating or attempting to change them, is a skill developed through mindfulness exercises. ACT does not attempt to directly change or stop unwanted thoughts or feelings but instead encourages people to develop a new and compassionate relationship with those experiences. This shift can free people from difficulties attempting to control their experiences and helps them become more open to actions consistent with their own values.

ACT patients learn to stop their attempts to avoid, deny or struggle with their inner emotions. Instead, they start accepting that these deeper feelings are appropriate responses to certain situations and therefore recognise that these feelings should not prevent them from living their normal peaceful lives.

As mindfulness practice increases an individual’s ability to detach from thoughts, painful feelings related to the past lose their intensity and gradually even disappear. Acceptance, in a sense, builds the capability to allow internal and external experiences to naturally occur and reduces the urge to fight or avoid these experiences.

The science of mindfulness is still developing, but to date over 4,500 scientific studies support the practice of mindfulness. These studies show that the practice makes us less anxious, less depressed, less stressed and less judgmental. The practice also makes us more focused, more resilient, more innovative and more compassionate.


It should therefore come as no surprise that very many organizations around the world have embraced mindfulness with very successful outcomes. Employees of healthcare insurance giant Aetna decreased their stress levels by one third after doing just one hour of yoga every week, which reduced the company’s healthcare costs by an average of $2,000 per employee. Similarly, fifteen billion dollar consumer giant General Mills instituted a seven-week employee meditation program resulting in 83 percent of participating employees reporting 60 percent increase in daily productivity once they had time to optimise their work.

The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School had more than 22,000 people complete the school’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MSBR) and had more than 6,000 medical doctors and healthcare professionals refer their patients to the program as of 2017. Participants reported a 38 percent reduction in medical symptoms, a 43 percent reduction in psychological and emotional distress and a 26 percent reduction in perceived stress.

One country which strongly believes in mindfulness is UK. Its parliamentary group called Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) published a report called “Mindful Nation UK” in October 2015.

The report said

“We have been impressed by the quality and range of evidence for the benefits of mindfulness and believe it has the potential to help many people to better health and flourishing. On a number of issues ranging from improving mental health and boosting productivity and creativity in the economy through to helping people with long-term conditions such as diabetes and obesity, mindfulness appears to have an impact. This is a reason for government to take notice and we urge serious consideration of our report”.

Their first recommendation was

“MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) should be commissioned in the NHS in line with NICE guidelines so that it is available to the 580,000 adults each year who will be at risk of recurrent depression. As a first step, MBCT should be available to 15% of this group by 2020, a total of 87,000 each year. This should be conditional on standard outcome monitoring of the progress of those receiving help”.

The report talking about mindful parenting has this to say.

“There is an emerging body of evidence that suggests that extending the influence of mindfulness into families can support both parents and children. Mindful parenting programmes aimed at parents in socio-economically disadvantaged families, who are at greater risk of stress, can reduce parents’ destructive behaviour, increase their ability to disengage from emotionally charged stimuli, reduce parents’ stress and enhance their emotional availability and improve children’s behaviour”.

In conclusion, the important thing we learn from mindfulness is “the deep humility of not knowing”. As we practice mindfulness, we discover successively deeper and deeper layers of our biases. Recognising these patterns arising in our minds, we can begin to study their origins and observe their operation in real time. We can then gradually relate these feelings to past experiences and conditioning that is stored in our memories.

Once you become more aware of a particular bias and its origins, it holds less sway over your actions. Again, once you become aware of the tendency to lean in one direction or another, you can consciously choose a new response. Each time you recognise and become cognizant of a previously unconscious bias, your world expands.

While by definition, we can’t see our own blind spots, over time, we start realizing how little we actually know about our perceptions. With each new awareness or shift in perspective, our humility deepens. It dawns on us that there are too many things that we do not understand and there is really no need to reach some ideal state of perfection. Thus we learn to rest in the deep humility of not knowing. This kind of acceptance and openness is the most fertile ground for learning and human development.


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15 Minutes to a Less Biased Mind

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Mindfulness and Transforming Bias

We are mostly driven by our subconscious mind


The Idea of Respect

Respect has been called, with good reason, the single most powerful ingredient in nourishing relationships and creating a just society.

Respect for others involves understanding and acknowledging the feelings and opinions of others even though we may not always agree with them. Respect comes from understanding the differences in perspectives, but not passing any value judgments. It involves being courteous and using appropriate language that includes phrases like “please”, “thank you”, and “you’re welcome”. It involves not taking advantage of vulnerabilities of others and treating every one of them as being important. It involves developing mutual trust which research has shown to be the most important factor in successful relationships.


Organizational change expert Paul Meshanko has studied how the human brain responds to various workplace situations and has come to the interesting conclusion that people perform at their highest level when they are treated with respect. Conversely, he has found that when an employee is emotionally harassed by disrespectful behaviour, he or she shuts down. In his book The Respect Effect, Meshanko elucidates the transformational power that respect has in the workplace.

It should therefore come as no surprise that employees in the USA ranked “respect” as the most important job quality in a 2014 survey co-produced by the Harvard Business Review. Similarly, employees in the UK also bestowed highest value to dignity and respect, according to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Respect sets the stage for engagement, it promotes collaboration and inclusion and it unleashes extraordinary creativity and resilience in the workplace. What is therefore difficult to understand is why very little systematic research has been done so far in this important area.

Management Professor Christine Porath wrote a piece in HBR titled “Half of Employees Don’t Feel Respected by Their Bosses”. She says, that over the 18 years that she studied the effects of civility, which she defines as behaviour involving politeness and regard for others in the workplace, she has learned that the vast majority of disrespectful behaviour stems from a lack of self-awareness. People may have good intentions, but they fail to see how their behaviour is perceived by others. For example, a top doctor in a Masters of Medical Management program that she taught, told her that until he received some harsh 360-degree feedback, he was clueless that so many people thought that he was such a jerk. He was simply treating residents the same way that he had been trained several years ago.

In the current turbulent times, when we are witnessing a disturbing and alarming trend of large scale disrespectful behaviour across the board in our society, there is an urgent need for better understanding of ‘respect’. We need to gain insights into cultural origins of both respect and disrespect and examine how and when these tendencies develop in a person. It is generally agreed that respectful children tend to become respectful, civil, courteous and tolerant adults when they grow up. Conversely, we can trace the origins of incivility, disrespect, intolerance, and other problems of adults to their caustic environment during childhood and adolescence.

Interestingly, in cross-cultural comparisons, Thailand is regarded as having a tradition and culture where respect is shown universally and freely to all members of the society. Bruce Bonta and Douglas Fry while writing about ‘Learning from Peaceful Societies’ give the example of the Thai culture that goes to the extreme of emphasizing the need for respecting the essential dignity of young children and even babies. When parents in Thailand are unable to convince their children to behave in a certain way through coaxing, persuasion and other softer means, they will simply give up the effort saying that the children have the right to decide what they will or will not do and such wishes must be respected.

Even outside Thailand, as children, we are all taught to respect our parents, our teachers and our elders. We are told to respect school rules & traffic laws, family & cultural traditions and feelings & rights of other people. As we grew up we were expected to respect our country’s flag, our leaders and show respect to differing opinions of people. After being fully brainwashed to value and respect such things, we spontaneously disapprove of  people who seem not to respect these important elements. 




In the Indian culture, obedience and subservience is mistakenly viewed as showing respect. Also, allowing the other person to decide on what legitimately is ‘our list of choices’ is considered displaying respect to the other person who may or may not understand our preferences. In India gender inequality and debilitating caste considerations imbibed over generations raise their ugly manifestations both at home and in public. This is a serious problem and the government and civil society are struggling to correct these prejudices where respect is more out of fear and lack of it is due to inability to confront community pressures.

On a different dimension, it is a very Indian tradition for a women’s parents to provide anything their sons-in-law ask for and also treat them as princes. It is an old custom dating back to the days when women were fully dependent on their parents or husbands. For instance, it is customary for women in Indian families to show respect to all men in general. Similarly, married woman’s family members are expected to show respect to her husband’s family members. The upper caste members  expect to receive respect from others. The list of discrimination goes on and on and any changes to this mind set are painfully slow to come.




I came across a couple of internet sites advising visitors to India on some cultural aspects. This particular one was interesting.

“Pointing a finger at someone would be considered rude and disrespectful in India. If you need to get the attention of the waiter in a restaurant make eye contact or try to gesture to him with your right hand/arm stretched out, palm facing down and moving your fingers towards yourself.”

Let us turn our attention to societal issues involving respect. Calls to respect and support for one or other causes are increasingly part of our public life: environmentalists exhort us to respect nature, opponents of abortion and capital punishment insist on respect for human life, members of racial, religious and ethnic minorities demand respect for their cultural differences and those discriminated against because of their gender, sexual orientation or economic status demand respect as equals with others. What is central to resolving such inequities in giving and receiving respect is the widely acknowledged need for mutual respect.

While we are discussing this subject of respect which is implicated in a wide array of areas like racism, sexism, homophobia, culture wars, harassment and so on, let us first clarify what we mean by ‘respect’ and ‘disrespect’.

For example, great scientist Einstein remarked “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.” Einstein seemed to emphasize that respect is how you communicate with people

Bruce Lee, martial artist, actor, philosopher and filmmaker, on the other hand, said

“Knowledge will give you power, but character, respect.”  His take was that while you can be knowledgeable, such knowledge doesn’t earn admiration unless your mental and physical qualities and actions find acceptance as desirable traits.

Mutual respect between those in different economic strata is waning. This is  partly due to the widening of inequality in resources which has created a “respect gap” between classes. This in turn is breeding a sense of powerlessness among the people at the lower end of resource chain. Powerless people receive less respect and sometimes get even disrespected.

Teacher David Birch has an interesting perspective published in The Guardian. “When we tell pupils to respect each other, we are actually telling them not to disrespect each other. To disrespect someone is to belittle them, treat them as worthless and of little importance. Respect maintains an equality of status and value in the classroom.

While this sounds like an admirable aim, it’s also a high-stakes approach because disrespect then becomes a kind of theft – to be disrespected is to be robbed of our worth. The question is then, how can we get it back? If one pupil tells another to shut up, then he has disrespected him and what often follows is retaliation and resentment. It becomes a race to the bottom where each pupil attempts to recover his worth by taking from the other”.

Bringing up children with patience and showing them respect is a difficult task but is extremely important. Developmental Neuroscientist Douglas Fields claims that the latest scientific research backs up with detailed molecular and cellular mechanisms that during early phase from childhood through adolescence, the human brain is moulded by the social environment in which a child is reared. A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and the psyche, and more importantly, the scars that get created are permanent.

A series of studies by a group of psychiatrists and brain imaging scientists anchored by Martin Teicher, of Harvard Medical School, show that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause damaging brain changes and create enduring psychiatric risks for young adults. In a study published in 2006, the researchers showed that parental verbal abuse has stronger detrimental effects on the brain than parental physical abuse. The main causes are stress hormones, changes in inhibitory neurotransmitters and the damaging effect in the formation of myelin electrical insulation on nerve fibres. We need to appreciate that the most sensitive period when verbal abuse seriously impairs the brain development is during the middle school years.

All parents are familiar with scenes of their teens rolling their eyes, ignoring people and going straight to their rooms and closing the doors shut with a bang, arguing with them all the time and other such manifestations of disrespect. Developmental Psychologist Diana Divecha explains that what appears to most parents as disrespectful behaviour is in fact the teens’ desire to run their own lives with a certain degree of autonomy. She says that a number of changes conspire during adolescence to make autonomy more important than at any other time in their lives. The hormonal changes that come with puberty tend to act on the teen’s brain and bias their motivation in certain ways, perhaps preparing them for adulthood. One of these changes is in testosterone whose rise in both boys and girls in adolescence is correlated with respect-seeking.

Clifton Parker of Stanford warns that disrespect towards people based on group affiliations will give rise to anti-social behaviour by the affected. The consequence of such threats to social identity can harm the future prospects of these people for achieving success in work, school and society. For instance, students are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour in school if they believe that their teachers and school authorities view them simply through the lens of a negative stereotype. People in general may feel compelled to retaliate if they believe that they have been unfairly passed over from their dues simply because of their gender or race.

Healthy relationships are reliant on respect. This is why being “disrespected” is socially painful.

It may be counter-intuitive but redistribution that is necessary to achieve greater material equality may in-fact undermine respect between citizens. In particular, the funders of social assistance may be resentful and the recipients may feel stigma or shame. Feelings of such stigma may be further accentuated if the ways in which the resources are delivered are not properly communicated.

Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson provides an extreme example in the form of a letter sent by an imagined State Equality Agency, along with the dole out:

“How sad that you are so repulsive to people around you that no one wants to be your friend or lifetime companion. We won’t make it up to you by being your friend or your marriage partner— we have our own freedom of association to exercise—but you can console yourself in your miserable loneliness by consuming these material goods which we, the beautiful and charming ones, will provide. And who knows? Maybe you won’t be such a loser once potential dates see how rich you are”.

While such a letter will never be sent, the receivers of any social assistance may harbour similar kinds of thoughts with a certain amount of resentment towards such doles.

It is now generally recognized that higher socioeconomic status doesn’t necessarily translate into a greater sense of well-being and happiness. The question then is what does? Psychological scientist Cameron Anderson and his colleagues hypothesized that higher sociometric status which is respect and admiration in your face-to-face groups, such as your friendship network, your neighbourhood, or your athletic team – might make a difference in your overall happiness. “Having higher standing in your local ladder, makes a difference as it leads to receiving more respect, having more influence, and being more integrated into the group’s social fabric,” Anderson said.

Human society over the years has given preeminence to meritocracy than aristocracy of birth or inherited wealth. While meritocrats do receive full respect from others for their efforts and their achievements, there is a downside when it comes to others who lack merit. These under-achievers experience a loss of self-respectas they had a chance to show their skills, but failed as they simply lacked them. As the society keeps branding them repeatedly as lacking in merit, they are bound to recognize that they do have an inferior status, not because they were denied the opportunity but because they are really inferior. For the first time in our history the inferior man has no buttress or excuse to protect his self-regard.

Thus, while life in a meritocracy is psychologically comfortable for those who possess whatever specific kinds of merits that are valued, it is indeed very hard on those who lack these merit points. This makes them vulnerable with a tendency to jump into any bandwagon that shows empathy for their difficult situation.

One of the reasons attributed to success of Donald Trump in the US elections is that working class Americans felt that he was on their side, spoke their language and not the elitist sermons, showed respect to them and more importantly was not condescending to them.

It is interesting that when a person trains in aikido, he begins and ends each class by bowing at the edge of the mat and saying  “rei”—the Japanese word for “respect.”

Let me end this blog exhorting “let us respect the idea of respect and propagate respectfor a better society”.



Pluralistic Ignorance and Diffusion of Responsibility

The term “pluralistic ignorance” was coined by American social psychologists Floyd Allport and Daniel Katz to describe the situation in which almost all members of a group privately reject certain group norms but publicly support them with the erroneous assumption that the other group members accept these norms. It is a social phenomenon in which “no one believes, but everyone believes that everyone else believes” .

This socio-psychological phenomenon thus describes the systematic discrepancy between people’s private beliefs on the one side and public behaviour by them on the other side.

Take the scenario when we are out with a group of friends, when one of our friends behaves in a way that we personally disapprove and would like to admonish. While we contemplate expressing our displeasure, we suddenly notice that everybody else in the group seems to be not that worried about this behaviour. We then decide to keep quiet and not to do anything. What we fail to realize is that all our friends are also equally unhappy with the behaviour, but just like us, they also keep quiet thinking the same way like us.

While pluralistic ignorance is unhealthy and avoidable many such situations are fortunately quite fragile. All it takes to remove the negative effects of pluralistic ignorance in such situations is for just one person to openly share his or her personal belief and immediately the group dissolves the ignorance.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, two swindlers sell imaginary clothes to the emperor and assert that those who cannot see these clothes are either unfit for their posts or unusually stupid. As no one raises any doubts on the claim, everybody in the town, despite clearly seeing that the emperor is not wearing any clothes comes to believe that he/she alone is not able to see the clothes and plays along with the majority. It takes a little boy from the crowd to reveal the truth when he cries out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all when the whole town realizes the mistake.

In most of the cases of sexual harassment of women the same pluralistic ignorance makes the affected woman believe that she alone is feeling the harassment as other women that she knows, who are encountering similar harassments do not appear to show any discomfort or may have valid reasons for keeping quiet about it. This explains why even though sexual harassment is rampant and very stressful and many a times quite traumatic, there is very little reporting of such cases.

The unfortunate consequences of pluralistic ignorance can be seen in class rooms where students do not raise their doubts even when they are asked by the teacher since they believe that other students by their silence appear to have fully understood the lesson and they do not want to be the only ones exposing their ignorance.

Similarly in the company board discussions when a senior member is presenting important decisions, the other members do not question the rationale or assumptions behind these decisions as each one thinks that other members understand and appear comfortable.

Reacting to boss

On the positive side, when large scale opinion building is required, pluralistic ignorance can be recruited by a mass leader to evangelise his personal view and convert it into a public opinion. Mahatma Gandhi understood this and leveraged the concept of social proof, also known as informational social influence, when people assume that the thinking and actions of more knowledgeable members in their social group reflect the correct thinking and behaviour and hence should be followed. He went on to convince his main followers that a true Indian will non-violently respond to all beatings by the British. Once he made sure that the senior leaders accepted this and made it their own firm belief, social proof and pluralistic ignorance took control and blew away any doubts in the minds of reluctant followers. This resulted in a whole mass of Indian people truly believing that non-violent protest would eventually topple the British regime culminating in one of the largest non-violent movements in the world.

We need to be aware of the ugly manifestation of pluralistic ignorance which is bigotry where some overzealous members of a group try to enforce group norms on all the reluctant members by resorting to severe criticism and even punishment. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes a party conference in which Joseph Stalin was given a standing ovation that went on and on for full eleven minutes, until a factory director finally sat down to the relief of everyone. The man was arrested later the same night and sent to the gulag for a decade.

It is common knowledge that powerful ideologically driven groups use fringe elements to punish and discipline members who raise any doubts about group norms. India, for instance, is struggling to embrace critical social reforms to change well entrenched attitudes and habits which is tearing apart the social fabric of the society. Unfortunately, the leaders of the powerful groups, in order to retain their own power and influence over people, strongly oppose such reforms even when majority of the members of these groups desire such changes. It is sad that Indian Supreme Court had to step in and rule that the self-appointed village courts or Khap Panchayats cannot stop a marriage between two consenting adults in these villages.


What is further disturbing about pluralistic ignorance is that it lends itself to control by the powerful and most visible who can create an aura of  “false consensus” forcing people to erroneously believe that they are part of the minority and hence need to keep quiet. This results in the extremists gaining influence out of all proportion to their numbers, while the views of the silent majority end up being suppressed.


Einstein Quote

A very interesting case cited in research literature involves male employees in Japan who were reluctant to take paternity leave, a family-friendly policy universally followed by all Japanese companies. It was earlier argued that the low rate of usage of such leave could be due to stigma attached to breaking the social rule accepted in Japan that  ‘men make houses and women make homes’. However a later survey showed that the majority of male employees actually did wish to take paternity leave but were reluctant to do so because of pluralistic ignorance and not due to any social norm.

We need to appreciate that pluralistic Ignorance and organizational culture go hand in hand. Values and beliefs entrenched in any organization become social norms to be followed by every employee, even if some of the employees have differing personal views. This makes organizations with good values to thrive while others with questionable values to suffer. For example, if the organizational culture leads employees to believe that unethical practices are quite common among senior management, then, even if they do not agree with such practices individually, they will nevertheless tend to follow such unethical practices. Interestingly a former employee of Enron declared that, as he had never worked in any other place, he thought that the unethical practices of his superiors were normal, acceptable and to be followed even though he personally did not agree with them.

OECD Integrity Forum published an interesting article by Jonathan Rusch of Georgetown University Law Centre, on ‘Social Psychology of Corruption’. The author  argues that the three factors namely social proof, diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance which together powerfully influence organizational members can be misused to condone corrupt practices. Thus even when most of the members themselves neither receive nor make corrupt payments, they will remain silent as others indulge in corrupt practices in the organization. The first factor social proof which is the tendency to take cues from other members in the organization makes them take no notice of corrupt practices. The second factor which is diffusion of responsibility makes them assume that others either are responsible for taking action or would do so if they thought it necessary. The third factor pluralistic ignorance makes these individuals to conclude that as others are silent witnesses to what is happening, these practices must be acceptable for some reason.

Since I touched upon a couple of new concepts, let me elaborate on them. Diffusion of responsibility or bystander effect is the phenomenon when an individual does not take action because a large group of other people are present. As the size of the group increases, it’s generally less likely that an individual will take any action. The diffusion of responsibility is most common in larger groups, when nobody has been appointed as the leader, and when the individual does not feel personally responsible for taking action.

'Sorry, I don't want to get involved.'

This results in the failure of entire group of bystanders from stepping in and helping out the victims who desperately need quick and timely help like in the case of a car accident.

Social psychologists attribute two possible reasons for the diffusion of responsibility. The individual may believe that someone else who is present will take action and therefore chooses to not take action personally. He may also believe that he will not be found personally responsible for inaction because there are so many other people present.

In such situations a single individual, uninfluenced by the non-reaction of a crowd, can react and save the day. Thus, if you are witnessing a health emergency like possible heart attack of a person in a crowd, your best bet, according to social scientists, is to single out a specific individual in the crowd and say, “Hey, you in the blue suit, call 911, I have an emergency” as opposed to thinking that someone out of this large group surely will come to your aid.

I am somebody

There have been many historical examples of the bystander effect. Perhaps one of the most famous is the murder of Kitty Genovese. In Spring of 1964, Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered in a parking lot in New York. Reportedly, 37 people witnessed the attack that lasted about thirty minutes. The witnesses did not call for help or try to aid Kitty due to the diffusion of responsibility.





Pluralistic Ignorance

Click to access pluralistic_ignorance_and_social_change.pdf



Difficult But Necessary Endings

Our relationships are indeed the most important aspect of our lives. Healthy relationships are essential for leading a happy and satisfying life. Starting or ending or fixing or improving our relationships therefore are all very important decisions that we take. However, these efforts are generally clouded with emotions often leading to inappropriate decisions that cause grief, depression, anger or resentment to ourselves and others. The net result of these emotional decisions is that we live our lives bereft of joy and happiness.

Whether your relationship issues revolve around your spouse, partner, business associate, boss or family, they all have some common elements. These common parameters determine whether such a relationship plays a positive part in our lives or a negative part where we struggle to get any peace of mind and general wellbeing.

In both our personal and professional lives, there are times when it becomes necessary and important for us to stand up and “end” something. It could be something whose time has passed or more critically something that could spell destructive consequences if continued.


As Henry Cloud, Clinical Psychologist, Leadership Coach and author of over 20 books explains ‘Life and success require “necessary endings” but unfortunately we are too afraid to execute such endings’.  Please read his wonderful article on the subject using the link provided at the end of article.

Good starting point for this discussion is to ask some searching questions like

Are we unnecessarily creating things that should in fact be getting destroyed?

Are we embracing someone or something that we should rightfully be shunning?

Are we clinging on to things when rightfully we should be letting them go?

As an example, we may be stretching and straining ourselves to help someone without asking the question ‘Are we really trying to help someone who is disabled, incapable, or otherwise infirm or are we struggling to help someone who is simply refusing to grow up and is unwilling to take up any of his/her responsibilities seriously?’ If we are shouldering someone else’s responsibilities, then we need to ponder ‘Are we not going to be  stuck with this responsibility for a long time and in all probability are we not doing the greatest harm by destroying whatever intrinsic capabilities that the individual may have’.

Loyalty is a very misunderstood concept and is one that critically needs definition of boundary conditions. While loyalty is an admirable character, it does not mean that one needs to accept abusive behaviour or unfair treatment to show loyalty. It also does not mean that we take misplaced and unnecessary responsibility for someone else’s life.


Cutting ties with family members is one of the hardest decisions we may face in life because we are conditioned to believe that to terminate relationships with “family” is morally and inherently wrong. The reality is that “family members” are just regular people, some good and some bad, and if the bad people with toxic behaviour were not our family members, we would never allow them to be a part of our lives. False sense of family loyalty makes us spend precious years sacrificing our mental and emotional health in abusive relationships under the notion that we have to somehow put up with it. We are conditioned to believe that if we end relationships with family members, then we will be generally branded as selfish and unethical persons.


Behavioural neuroscience suggests that dealing with uncertainty may be the primary reason which delays necessary endings. Ending a relationship will be perceived as risky  and uncertain, particularly when the relationship has been built over a long period of time. Human beings have a strong bias called ‘loss aversion’. This makes the decision to end a relationship a very difficult one due to perceived losses. Such losses could be uncomfortable changes in our status quo, emotional or financial difficulties, loss of esteem from others etc. This loss aversion bias forces us to completely ignore potential gains of ending a relationship such as getting back peace of mind, feeling more empowered and independent freely doing things that give us satisfaction etc.

There is one more human bias called ‘Endowment Effect’ that comes into play in avoiding ending of relationships. This bias makes us give undue weightage and value to the investments that we have made in our relationships which could be emotional investment, large amounts of time and effort we have spent as well as financial investments. This bias completely overshadows all potential positive gains. This is a phenomenon economists call the “sunk cost fallacy”. The fallacy is the urge to try to recover something from the sunk investment instead of letting it go for other more important benefits.

When we hear people talking about their difficulties in ending a relationship with arguments like “we have gone through so much together” or “we have been together for so long“, we are actually witnessing the endowment effect and sunk cost fallacy in action.

Recently the Supreme Court of India allowed passive euthanasia. This is again a case of difficult but necessary ending of life of a terminally ill person without any consciousness by withdrawing the life support system.

One area where there is a lot of controversy due to various religious beliefs is the case for aborting a baby in the womb who is diagnosed with serious deficiencies. The parents ideally will need to take the call whether they are willing and wanting to take care of such a baby for many long years. If they do and in doing so derive satisfaction in taking care of such a child with love and affection, then they are very much entitled to do so. On the other hand, if they are not willing to take such a big responsibility, then the society should think twice before stopping them from resorting to painful but necessary ending.

We also need to appreciate the need to walk away from toxic environment in our workplaces.

Reporting to work every day where we are surrounded by people we love, respect, and admire can make a world of difference in our day-to-day life. On the other hand, when we find ourselves in the midst of co-workers where relationships are toxic, it is best to cut our losses and move on, because in most situations we may not have the power to drastically change the environment.

Whether we have ended the relationship or plan to end it or want to fix it, the most important part remains the same. It is the realization that we deserve a better life. That the actions, opinions, and mistakes of the people around us do not really define us. We must regain our self-confidence and our self-worth. Without these things, we cannot move forward. There’s no shame in doing what we need to do for ourselves not only for our own career growth but also for our own peace of mind and well-being.


Please remember the adage ‘Even God cannot help those who cannot help themselves’.

In the end, we need to realize that we were not designed just to cope with life but to thrive with enthusiasm, happiness and joy. But just like a rosebush, you can’t thrive without pruning, which means your necessary endings truly are urgent.


― Henry CloudNecessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward




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.”

Some References:


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.