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.


We are driven by our Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


We can now detect if you are lying with authenticity

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

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

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

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



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






The need to question and alter our perceptions

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

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

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

                                            -ANAIS NIN



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


                                                                             -FRANZISKA ISELI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IllusionIMAGE SOURCE: COURTESY (L) ; (R) © willustration –


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


Synopsis of talk at TIE Entrepreneurial Summit 2011

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

Click here to read part 1

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

Click here to read part 2