Thursday, March 20, 2014

Adversity, character, penalty and punishment.. *sigh*

A couple of days ago, there was a news story about two students in a Bangalore school committing suicide because of "harassment" from their school teachers. It turns out that the teachers had chided the students for playing Holi and had threatened to complain to their parents. Apparently these students were known for being "mischievous" and unruly, and so were disciplined often by the teachers.

On the face of it, the chiding does not sound like harassment at all. Sure enough, much of the reactions on the net are about how the next generation kids are weak-willed unable to face adversity; or even, how "urban" kids are mollycoddled into becoming sensitive and weak creatures, unlike "rural" kids who are strong and face adversity everyday.

In addition to reminding me of my own school days, where I had seriously contemplated suicide in the 6th standard, but never had the courage to take that step; this episode brings back to me the frustration about why can't these people see what they are doing wrong?

There was one specific comment I recall someone saying that in rural areas nobody bothers about the children, and they grow up strong by facing adversity themselves. But in urban areas, kids are "cared for" so much that they become weak. It is indeed a strange kind of "care" that creates weakness. But that assertion about urban kids may well be true, but not in the way the commentator believed, I'm sure. Let me explain.

Maybe it is true that, "character" is built from facing adversity (whatever that means -- see my post on "Strength of character and the ultimatum game" -- for even this belief is not entirely accurate.)

But what we don't realize is that there are adversities and there are adversities. There are adversities that are "character-building" in nature, and there are adversities that are "ego-crushing, enslaving and personality-breaking" in nature.

The kind of adversity that nature provides is that of "indifference." Nature has no sense of obligation towards our survival. It has endowed us with some skills and it is up to us to invest these skills wisely to maximize our survival. Nature neither loves us nor hates us.

The kind of adversity that "builds character" is adversity of this kind -- an indifferent environment, where the subject is faced with "random failures" in the environment.

But schooling and parenting is often built with the premise that adversity shapes character, without realizing that the kind of adversity they provide to the children is of a very different kind than the kind of adversity that nature provides.

Adversity in social environments are of a "targeted" kind. The adversity here is posed by other people who are observing and judging us over time. A targeted adversarial attack almost always focuses on weakest links -- points that cause the maximum pain. Such an attack is not random -- it is deliberate, measured and targeted. Just like the case of the above students who were targeted in small little ways for "always playing mischief." Playing mischief was their weakest link -- it was their nature, it was who they were as persons. Nothing they could do to change that nature. And they had to live in an environment where this basic nature of them was unacceptable.

Researchers who have studied systems theory have addressed the problem of random failures and targeted attacks. Imagine a simplified model of a society comprising of a group of people who have enough resources with them to establish a relationship with at most one friend. Each such relationship brings benefits because everybody can contribute to others' needs and have their own needs met by others' skills.

Now consider that in this group, people may suddenly die one day. There is no pattern in which people die, and anybody is equally likely as anybody else to meet a natural challenge that they succumb to.

Given this, what is the best way in which the society organizes itself? It turns out, the best form of organization is like a "star" network shown below:
In such a network, the society is organized around a small number of central, parochial figures, to whom, just about anybody is connected. We can see why this is so. The network structure gives short pathways from anywhere to anywhere in the network. Anybody can talk to anybody else, with at most two hops.

But more importantly, such a network is also robust against "random failures." If anybody in the network is just as likely to die as anybody else, then for a network of n nodes, the network can absorb n-1 possible failures without stopping to function. Only one failure (of the central node) can have catastrophic consequences.

Such a social organization is typical of rural societies, most of which are characterized by central, parochial figures, that are revered or even worshiped. The society functions smoothly as long as the parochial figure is around and the death of the parochial figure is typically a game-changing event in the life of the society.

Now consider that there is an adversary who is targeting this network to hit at weakest elements. Who will the adversary hit? The answer is a no-brainer: the central element. Societies like the above, that have grown up in a backdrop of natural adversity, are not equipped to handle targeted attacks.

If we were to let a society (a simplified society as before, where everyone is allowed to make at most one friend) evolve itself to handle targeted attacks, how does it end up? It turns out, the society will look like this:
As we can see, the above is a "symmetric" network in terms of individual connectivity. There is no single central element whose failure can cause maximum damage to the network. This society is much more "individualistic" compared to the previous parochial organization. Everybody in the network is like everybody else -- connected to a small number of other friends. (In the above network, each person has made one friend and is "friended" by one other).

This kind of an organization is characteristic of urban societies. In a people-heavy setting of a large urban center, adversity is in the form of other people. And other people do not pose random, indifferent challenges like nature. They pose targeted, rational, utility maximizing challenges at us.

Managing against targeted adversity makes people individualistic and distrustful of others by default. This is often seen as urban "arrogance" -- while in fact the folks in such a society are lonely and suffering inside, not knowing whom to trust.

Coming back to the question of schooling, teachers and parents should be very careful when working under the assumption that "adversity builds character." For, if they have to pose adversarial conditions, they have to pose it in a way that nature does -- indifferent, non-judgmental and random. Not, targeted, judgmental and specific, like it is often done.


This also brings me to another related issue -- that of the difference between penalty and punishment

A new acronym I recently learned is called PDA. No, not Personal Digital Assistant, but "Public Display of Affection." Apparently, PDA is something that is strongly advised against in schools at students and even by police at the public. 

It is easy to see the rationale behind the squeamishness against PDA -- especially in our "morally superior" society.. ;-) 

I really have no problems against the spirit of this -- I'm not too fond of people expressing affections publicly anyway. But the problem is not that. The problem is how this issue is approached. 

Public display of affection is frowned upon, and students who indulge in it are often "disciplined" by handing out "punishments." 

And while affection is frowned upon, there is nothing against (say) public display of anger or public display of contempt.

Now look at how this pans out: 

A "punishment" is different from a "penalty." A penalty is simply a cost that we pay for non-compliance. There is no judgment against our character, in a penalty. But a "punishment" is much harsher than a penalty. It makes a statement about our character -- about our person, not just about our actions. A punishment basically says that "you are not legitimate as a person because you did this." A punishment is to be administered only in response to an unpardonable, cognizable crime -- not in response to indiscipline or non-conformance to a social norm. A cognizable crime is far more intense than non-compliance. 

When students are punished for public display of affection -- they end up feeling guilty about their emotions surrounding affection. While their emotions surrounding anger or contempt do not face the same level of guilt that their affectionate feelings face. 

And that is the reason why in our society, people openly express contempt and anger, while at the same time, are greatly fearful and greatly subdue their feelings of affection. 

If someone does not see a problem with the above state of affairs, I think there is a problem with them as a person, and I would strongly advise them to get some real psychiatric help. 

I am not advocating that we should go about publicly displaying affection. A certain level of prudishness is perfectly fine. But violations of such prudish norms should not be seen as a crime, but simply as something inappropriate. Such transgressions should be responded to with a penalty, where they are made to "pay a price" for their transgressions in some way, but at the same time, they are also told that this penalty is nothing personal, and that their emotions are respected. 

Somewhat like how in the good old days of the free market, policemen in the then liberal Western world supposedly used to penalize traffic offenders -- with a smile and a "Have a nice day!" greeting after the motorists paid up their fine. A fine for a traffic violation is a penalty -- not a punishment. 

Except in the context of judiciary, I don't see a real need for the concept of "punishment" in any other context of civil society. A penalty is simply a cost that someone pays for a breach, while a punishment is a moral accusation with associated guilt that the bearer has to live with.

Increasingly I feel, this is changing for the worse even in the Western world, but I digress..

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Mindfully connecting with ourselves

Several times in the past, I've written about my traumatic and depressive childhood, stemming primarily from what I consider to be severe philosophical defects in our approach to education and social life in general. Our schooling primarily emphasized on conformance, passive compliance, operational-skill building and performance within strict boundaries. It didn't emphasize on elements like curiosity, insight-building, contemplation, argumentation, empowerment, problem-solving skills, etc.

And the emphasis on conformance was so high that, curiosity to ask questions beyond what is taught, or any form of non-conformance was seen as something immoral. Let me emphasize on the word "immoral" again.. Like for example, in our English-medium school, speaking in Kannada or any of our mother tongues was considered "immoral" enough to be subject to punishments like being humiliated publicly, beatings, being locked up in the bathroom, and such.

I've often compared this kind of schooling with "slave-training," and it indeed stems from what our society has been through over the last several centuries. This form of schooling (and even our approach to governance, law-making and law-enforcing, for example), is still very very rampant all over, even today.

Recently, I heard a statistic -- suicide rates in Bangalore is pretty high and comparable with that of Sweden. Except that in Sweden, suicides are primarily caused by physical reasons (inadequate light in winters), while in Bangalore, suicides are almost wholly due to social reasons. That should put things in perspective!

It is one thing to appreciate the beauty that is latent in a harmonious, obsequious and compliant lifestyle, but it is yet another thing to adopt it as a philosophy of life -- by stifling away curiosity, accepting ideas without judgment, and compromising the search for truth with faith in our beliefs.

Our state of affairs pained me and continues to pain me at such a deep level. It provokes a visceral response whenever I see or are asked to conform to some ritualistic activity or notion, or to go with the herd.

Perhaps naively, several years ago, I had decided that even though I'm pained no end to simply lead a normal life here, I will not run away from here, but instead, do my bit to bring about some change in our society. I'd been inspired by several parables like the following:
A man walking on the beach saw that the tide had turned at the beach and the sea had receded, leaving behind several thousands of fish that were suddenly separated from water and writhing in the sand. There was a boy who was diligently picking up one fish after another and throwing them back in the water. But there were so many of them.. "It is no use," said the man.. "you will never be able to save them all." The boy picked a fish, threw it back into the water, and said, "Well, I saved that one!" and went about his activity.. 
After looking around aimlessly for several years, I thought I'd found my calling -- in doing my bit towards re-educating and re-wiring our society. It was of course a naive belief. Our current ideas are so deeply entrenched and so rampant, it was not before long that I've encountered all kinds of things that has pained and outraged me no end.

Soon, it became clear that I need to be dispassionate, objective and not react emotionally to keep myself sane. And slowly I began to ignore what I felt about things and subdue my emotions in order to keep my judgment engine working.

Every morning, I developed a ritual to tell myself several times over: "How you feel about things, does not matter.."

It worked for a while and helped be become level-headed and dispassionate. How I felt about stuff, indeed didn't matter to the world at large. Only hard-headed argumentation showing and demonstrating flaws in our current beliefs, could send some messages across.

But, how I felt, did indeed matter to me -- to my body. An emotional reaction is a physical response to stimuli. My body was reacting when someone spoke in a patronizing, head-patting tone or made a moral issue over some kind of unfamiliar idea, without applying their minds to it. But I had told myself that my body's response didn't matter and had subdued my emotional responses.

This in turn had started to affect my health in a slow and insidious manner -- affecting everything from general health to overall efficiency in leading a routine life.

Finally, fighting stereotypes and societal stigma against mental health, I went to several psychiatrists. But it only made things worse. The shrinks turned out to be preachers in the guise of doctors, preaching me back into conformance and submission -- and prescribing drugs to keep my emotional response subdued. They worked under the assumption that there was something wrong with me and I need to be "corrected" to fit in back into the society. They were the epitome of the very ideas that I was fighting against!

I realized what I was doing wrong. My emotional response may not matter to the world -- but it is not wrong or immoral to respond emotionally! There is no need for it to be subdued! My emotional responses are innate -- it is nature speaking! My body was protesting against injustice in its own way and by subduing it, I was subjecting it to even more injustice! The problem that I was fighting against, indeed lay outside of me, and here I was, punishing myself for protesting against beliefs that are indeed wrong! Those beliefs preaching unquestioning submission and conformance -- they are what are immoral, not the ones who don't conform to them!

Needless to say, I threw away all those prescription anti-depressants. There is no way I was going to punish my body for a crime that it didn't commit.

Some time ago, I met this person, let me call him P. Ironically, he is a preacher by profession. But he taught me something, which even the psychiatrists could not. He taught me to "mindfully" and amorally (not immorally) connect with my emotional self.

Till now, either my emotional response was coloring my judgment or it was being forcefully subdued by my judgment engine. It was as though they were both at war with one another -- trying to prove who is more powerful. My judgment engine was "unmindfully" engaging with my emotional engine.

Mindfulness is the opposite of this -- it is a means to obtain internal harmony before trying to bring about external harmony. It is a way by which we can allow our emotional self that also controls our physical response, to express what it is feeling, without passing a judgment or without jumping to conclusions based on what it is expressing.

Mindful connections with ourselves requires us to feel fully and wholly our emotional responses to stuff that are stored away in our episodic memory. But this has to be done in a fully conscious manner -- knowing fully well that this is only a physical response -- not a semantic response. These emotions are not to cloud our judgment and our balance in perspectives. They just need to be expressed.

Meditating in a mindful manner is all about the concept of mindfulness. It has got nothing to do with watching our breathing, posture, etc. (which are the stuff of what I was preached about meditation. I could never understand why focusing on our breathing will help us in giving an answer to why do we have such a slave mentality and how to get out of it.)

With the help of P, I've been practicing mindfulness for some time now. It has been a very painful and tumultuous journey so far. So many episodes, right from my childhood came hitting back at me in full force. So many pains re-emerged so much so that my body started paining in all those places that I'd been hurt earlier. I remember once my school principal had pulled me up by pinching my shoulder and had started slapping me. That pain came back in full force! I was even limping for several days after one such mindful connection sessions.

The only difference now was that, the "I" was separate from what was happening inside me. I was a mindful spectator of myself -- watching what was stored in my episodic memory and how it had affected my emotional self. I could see how deeply hurt I was -- at a moral, emotional and spiritual level. Except that this hurt was not controlling my judgment anymore. I could see this hurt in a dispassionate and objective fashion by turning my level-headed judgment engine towards observing myself. I could see how at an emotional level, I could not trust anyone -- including anyone who called themselves a friend -- including P, who had taught me mindfulness. Indeed, I could not trust myself fully to not breakdown and lose my head in the face of some kind of emotional stimuli.

Connecting with myself was so painful, it had literally knocked me down several times. I'd slept for almost entire parts of weekends (when I used to practice this). I was urged not to let myself be knocked down, which makes the experience unmindful, and instead, try and keep myself awake and observant.

After several such sessions, one day I suddenly saw myself as my childhood self, emerging from deep within all these stored up episodic memory. I could literally visualize myself as emerging from under a huge rock face that was all my episodic responses, weighing down under me. I could visualize myself hiding under the bed in my childhood home, in sheer terror -- precisely the way I used to react at the prospect of going to school in kindergarden.

I suddenly realized that my entire life till now has been shaped and built by this terrified boy hiding under the bed. Who I am has been shaped by things that are so deep down, that I had no other strong enough emotions at this level, to balance my understanding of the outside world. My distrustfulness emanates right from those days hiding under the bed as a 3-year old.

I do not want to associate yet another emotion towards this discovery. I state the above observations dispassionately, without judgment towards myself or towards the external world. I state this publicly on this blog, in the hope that it can help others mindfully connect with themselves and discover what's been driving them all along.

All of these only reinforce my judgement that we are deeply messed up as a society. Even at a philosophical level, we are damaging our children by not nurturing their thinking and problem solving skills, and instead stressing on performance, compliance and operational skill building. Creating craftsmen from our children is fine, but it should not come at the expense of not creating thinkers from children who want to become thinkers.

We teach children to respect adults, but never teach adults to respect children. But most importantly, we do not realize that the adults treat children this way, because they themselves were treated like this -- this is a problem that has been imposed on us for several centuries. I do not like to call this "abuse" -- because none of these actions were intentional. Even the principal who terrorized us in school, perhaps genuinely believed that this is the "right" way to discipline children. By calling this "abuse" and harassing the adults, we are in fact as a system, abusing a similar terrified child inside these adults, that is hiding under a bed itself.

The only way we can "fight" this problem is by spreading compassion and genuine respect -- among children and adults alike. We have to build a society where people of any age, gender, ethnicity or whatever, can freely express themselves. At least for a start, we should build safe places or supporting communities, where people can express their emotions without fear of being judged or admonished. The child in us never dies -- who we are as adults is just the persona created by our child within, as defenses to deal with the external world.

Who we really are, is the child within. Unless we can "re-parent" the distrustful child and get our emotional and judgment engines to trust one another, we cannot hope to bring about any major changes outside.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The source of mediocrity

It never ceases to amaze and overwhelm me about how people-centric our society is. Please read, and focus on the point being made in this post, not on the people mentioned here.

Recently I wrote on my wall about how we had a much better scientific environment at home, than even in our research labs. And it was not long before respondents started talking about the people behind this culture (my dad and my uncle) and heaping praises on them.

Now, both are cool dudes and awesome and amazing people, no doubt about it at all!

But the point is not that. The point was about the culture that existed at home, which was in great part built by these people -- but also sustained by several others (like my mom, aunt, siblings, cousins, friends, etc.) and was an outcome of several other circumstances of where we lived, where they worked, etc. etc.

Let me make this point by giving another example.

In other times, I've lamented about how emotionally traumatic my childhood was (especially my school life) and how this trauma that I experienced as a child, is hampering my daily operations even today.

The moment I say this though, people look for someone to blame. Not some idea to blame. But some person to blame. And then they find the adults in the vicinity of where I grew up to be very respectable people (which they very much are, even if I repeat myself), so are beyond blame. But the blame has to go somewhere. So they end up blaming me for being not "tough" enough or whatever.

Ever wonder where this culture of "blaming the victim" comes from?

Yes. Our people-centric worldview.

All along, what I have been fighting against are not people, but certain ideas, certain beliefs. Some mistaken beliefs that are variants of "spare the rod and spoil the child," etc that were rampant some time ago, which directly led to several forms of emotional trauma and things like "ragging" in colleges. These beliefs are wrong. Several psychological experiments like the Stanford prison experiment show that legitimizing and justifying dominant or predatory behaviour over others can easily go out of control.

It is the ideas, the beliefs, the assumptions that are the culprit, not the people. There are so many beliefs that we ourselves may be adopting today, which may turn out to be harmful in the long run. When we recognize that it is the ideas that are the culprit and not the people, it makes it easier to look inwards and look for potentially harmful ideas within our own minds.

But to recognize this, we need to learn to separate people from ideas. Culture is built by people, but people are not the culture. Culture is the set of ideas that they espouse and stand by.

The same is true for any situation or event. An accident is not caused by a person, but by things like "lapse of judgement" or "mental fatigue" by the person in charge. We need to address the problem of preventing lapse of judgement or mental fatigue in the people behind the accident. But instead we go about "punishing" the person.

A person being the cause of an accident means that the person intended to cause the accident -- in which case it is not an accident at all in the first place.

Our people-centric worldview is the source of our intensely high levels of mediocrity -- to the extent that it is cruel. Unfortunately I do not see any light at the end of this tunnel, I do not see how or whether we will ever emerge out of mediocrity by building an objective, and in turn, a kind and empathetic society.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Control versus harmony

When faced with uncertainty and possible danger, humans tend to adopt a "strategy" to deal with the uncertainty. These strategies fall on a continuum -- on the one end of which, is what may be called the control strategy, and at the other end is what might be termed the harmony strategy.

A control strategy is one which works under the assumption that uncertainty and possible danger, can be mitigated if we have our lives in our control. And if controlling our lives requires controlling our environment as well, so be it. This can be epitomized by Coco Chanel's quote: My life didn't please me, so I created my life.

The harmony strategy works under the assumption that uncertainty and possible danger, can be best mitigated if we establish harmony between our inner selves and the outer environment. This is epitomized by Gandhi's quote: Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

The control strategy is dominant in cultures that have developed in an environment of scarcity like deserts, wastelands and cold and inhospitable regions. The harmony strategy is dominant in cultures that have developed in resource-rich environments that were or are teeming with life.

The control strategy is often associated with the "male" stereotype and the harmony strategy is often associated with the "female" stereotype. But I think this is inaccurate and misleading -- men can advocate harmony as much as women can advocate control. The quotes chosen above were deliberate -- to drive home this point.

Control and harmony are also closely associated with two other human tendencies: territorial instinct and the herding instinct. Territorial instinct seeks to emphasize personal spaces, boundaries and ownership; while herding instinct seeks to emphasize group behaviour, norms, conformance and compliance. Territoriality is justified by the control-over-your-life hypothesis, while preaching conformance is justified using the harmony hypothesis.

For a person who lives in the control mindset, a person with the harmony mindset may appear to be weak, compromising and lacking integrity. For a person who lives in the harmony mindset, a person with the control mindset may appear like a condescending jerk, arrogant and even as a predatory source of danger.

Indeed, if we over-emphasize (I like to use the term overfit to) the control hypothesis, we may end up becoming a condescending jerk and if we overfit to the harmony hypothesis, we may end up becoming weak.

The thing is -- control requires harmony and harmony requires control.

We can maximize control over our lives if we live in a harmonious environment, which poses no untoward danger or hurdles towards living our lives true to our selves. Similarly, if we want harmony between our inner selves and outer environments, we need to exert some control and take our own decisions and go against the tide if necessary,  to establish this harmony.

We need to have better control of our lives to establish harmony, and we need harmony so that we can have better control of our lives.

Like all significant phenomena in nature, this is a non-linearity -- meaning, if we get it right, we could get into a virtuous cycle of control and harmony; and if we get it wrong, we could get into a vicious cycle of inappropriate control and disharmony.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Information cascades versus emotion cascades

Recently I was attending a talk by a professor, where he was mentioning the kinds of challenges he faced in introducing the notion of banking and an ATM in a rural area. The challenges were nothing new, but perplexing, just the same.

His well-intentioned efforts were met with enormous reluctance, inertia and even hostility. While the specifics of each such case varies, it is generally known that introducing a new idea into an closely-knit, entrenched society is very difficult. This is because of what is known as the conformance effect in psychology.

Anything novel triggers two kinds of emotional responses in humans -- a curiosity driven urge to explore and try out the novel, and a primal fear of the unknown that strives to shun the new, unknown element from our lives.

A closely-knit community is characterized by a state of stable equilibrium in the ways of its daily lives. Its processes and normative structures would be based on a common mental model that everyone in the community is aware of  and follow themselves. Any piece of novelty hence encounters enormous resistance as it means potential instability in the community's processes and norms brought about by the new idea.

In the past couple of decades, several researchers had tried to understand and model the spread of ideas -- or what are called information cascades. The notion of information cascades became especially interesting once the world was connected with the Internet.

One of the first methods that researchers used to model information cascades was to think of them as an epidemic akin to the spread of a virus. There were already several people studying the spread of epidemics and several models existed to explain how different diseases spread. But regardless of the model, one thing was common -- infectious diseases spread faster in areas that had more inter-personal contact, than in areas that had less inter-personal contact. In a generic sense, the density of inter-personal connections can be seen as a key indicator of an epidemic outbreak.

And this is where, models of epidemics differed from information cascades. As seen earlier, an entrenched community is less conducive for the spread of ideas, while it is more conducive for the spread of epidemics. Of course, if people are not connected with communication infrastructure at all, ideas do not spread. But if people are too much connected with communication infrastructure, then too ideas find it hard to spread. There is hence a "golden band" of connectivity that is conducive to the spread of ideas -- not too little, not too much. And there are pretty neat mathematical models to characterize this golden band of connectivity.

This post however, is about yet another form of information spread -- that of emotions. An emotion is a state of mind that influences our physio-cognitive state. A state of panic for example, produces more amounts of adrenalin and primes our body into a fight or flight response. It also affects the mental model with which we interpret what we see. The same observation may lead us to different interpretations in our heads based on whether we are in a state of panic or in a state of calm.

Strong emotions usually result in unpredictable physical actions. And there is this little property of emotions called the emotional contagion. Emotions are known to be contagious -- an emotional state in one person may induce a similar emotional state in others who are interacting with, or simply near this person.

While emotions can spread through communication infrastructure like TV and the Internet, emotions are different from ideas. Two people may have the same emotional state, but vastly different ideas. And when we try to promote ideas with an emotional appeal, often times, only the emotional state is spread, while the ideas themselves do not latch on, and encounter resistance from conformance effects.

This is often the characteristic of mob dynamics. A mob is a group of people sharing the same emotion -- whether it be a murderous riot mob, or an exuberant mob in a football stadium. Mobs are very unpredictable simply because there is a potent emotion, but no common idea or goal. No one can predict when a "Mexican wave" starts in a stadium, or when an exuberant set of spectators suddenly can start rioting.

The spread of emotions differs from the spread of ideas in that, entrenched communities are more conducive for emotional contagion -- like for diseases and unlike for ideas. So the more strong a community is, the greater we need to be wary of unintended emotion cascades and the more work we have to do for obtaining the intended information cascades

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Existential, Logical and Epistemological thinking

It is quite well known that cognition or "thinking" happens in several layers. One of the most popular theories today is by the works of Kahnemann and Tversky about Systems 1 and 2.

System 1 is our intuitive brain. It performs fast, subconscious computations and jumps to conclusions. It also embodies our emotional state, intentions, desires and dispositions in its computations. It can compare across dimensions and is innately "rational" -- that is, it is driven by self-interest and biased by who we are.

For most of our lives, we live by System 1. However, System 1 occasionally requires the services of "System 2" -- which is our conscious and deliberate reasoning process.

System 1 includes all activities of a perceptive nature. This includes, for example, reading a word written in a language we understand. System 2 on the other hand, is semantic in nature. It tries to understand the meaning of what is being asked for and does justice to it.

Consider the following example that shows dissonance within System 1 requiring the services of System 2. In the following set of words, say out loud whether they are written in upper case or lower case:


We see that our System 1, first tries to just "read" what is written, rather than answer the question. System 2 then kicks in to make deliberate judgements based on what the question requires us to do. Answering this question requires a degree of "self-control" on ourselves to refrain from just reading out what we see, and to address what is being asked of us.

System 2 requires much more energy to run and is far more slower and inefficient than System 1. Also, System 2 is "lazy" (I'd like to use the term "rational") in the sense that, if System 1 already has computed an answer, System 2 would rather ratify the answer with an explanation, instead of invest resources in recomputing the solution.

The post-facto rationalizations we make to justify an impulse buying of say, a car or a camera, is an example of System 2 in action, ratifying the decisions taken by System 1, rather than computing the merits of the decision on its own.

Basically, System 2 is an "imperative engine" -- it performs logical inferences and derives conclusions from premises.

But -- and this is important -- it does its work within the confines of a mental model. The mental model comprises of the underlying premises on which inferences are made. System 1 often implicitly provides the "box" or the mental model within which System 2 performs. The post-facto ratification is an example.

This brings me to the point of this post, where I would like to propose the existence of a third layer of cognition. Rather than just calling it System 3, let me give specific names to each of these layers.

System 1 is the "existential" layer of cognition. It is an embodiment of our Person. Its thinking is driven by who we are, what we like, what we are afraid of, and such. It is oriented towards making quick, intuitive "blink"-type decisions.

System 2 is the "logical" layer. It can perform deliberate, systematic logical entailments from premises. It innately knows the rules of logic and can build an argument towards a conclusion. However, System 2 works within the confines of a mental model -- the axiomatic framework within which inferences are made. The mental model within which System 2 performs its computation, is often influenced by System 1. In that sense, System 2 is more of a "rationalizer" of the decisions of System 1 and System 1 can often "manipulate" System 2 to rationalize its leaps of intuition.

Sometimes however, we need to think beyond the confines of a mental model, and question the premises within which our System 2 is doing its thinking. This is where System 3, or the "epistemological" layer kicks in.

Consider the following question: What is 423 x 7? Answer this without using any pen or paper.

This is a typical problem that involves the operations of System 2, where we mentally calculate how to add 423 to itself 7 times.

But then, System 2 does not ask what is meant by 423, 7 and what is meant by 'x' in the question? We just assumed that their interpretations are known. Suppose I were to say that "423" and "7" are strings and 'x' is the concatenation operator, and the answer is 4237.. this constitutes a re-interpretation of the problem in a different model.

Consider the following problem:

Let's say, it is your birthday today and your friends have planned a surprise party for you. You come home in the evening after work, and your friends are all in there and yell, "Surprise!" And, you show surprise on your face. 

But suppose, you come to know of the surprise party that your friends have planned for you. When you come home and they yell "Surprise!" can you still show surprise?

The answer is yes! Because, your friends don't know that you know about their surprise.

Suppose your friends know that you know about their surprise? Can you still show surprise? 

The answer is still yes! Because, you don't know that your friends know that you know about their surprise!

This kind of a problem is characteristically different from that of "What is 423 x 7?" It requires deliberate thinking -- but deliberate thinking of a totally different kind than that used in System 2.

Epistemological thinking requires us to question our premises and perform multiple interpretations as part of its thinking.

The epistemological layer is required in many strategic situations where we need to think across different mental models. We not only have to question the basis of our own premises, but also have an understanding of what other interpretations can exist for the question at hand.

Most questions requiring us to reason about ethics and morality have this characteristic. Consider the following question:

A 10-year old argues in court that he should be allowed to be adopted by the rich childless couple in the next neighbourhood as requested by them, as they can provide him with a better life, and they also want him as their son. Besides, he argues, he cannot be held responsible for his "accident of birth" -- he did not choose his parents while being born. How should the court rule? 

This problem is complex simply because there are several models within which it can be interpreted, each giving different answers about what is the "right" thing to do. We can keep adding several additional points to this problem, making the decision sway in different directions. Suppose, we added a dimension to this problem that the current parents of the boy were living in penury and had problems of abusive behaviour. Or, perhaps that the current parents of they boy were middle class, hard working couple, who just couldn't match the wealth that the rich couple could afford. Now what?

Most strategic thinking, requires us to invoke the services of System 3, while rational thinking requires the use of System 2.

System 1 coupled with System 2 is "rational" -- in that they can both work towards fulfilling self-interest (managed by System 1) in a way that results in utility maximization (managed by System 2).

However, the activities of System 3 are synergistic and is about "enlightened self-interest."  Its aim is not to maximize utility for oneself, but to find a harmonious interpretation across several mental models to result in overall net gains in utility.

In other words: strategizing for a win is System 2, while strategizing for a win-win is System 3.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Mandate oriented classroom design

Updated from the previous version. 

"Our engineers were building a bridge across a river, when suddenly there was a flash flood and everything got washed away. What did they do? They protested, saying it was an out-of-syllabus question"              -- An old joke among engineering college teachers.
Some problems with our current modes of teaching are well known. Education is too exam-oriented, and among students, there is a tendency to study for exams, rather than study to learn something. Coursework reduces to a competitive activity, leading to a lot of personal stress and overall inefficiency in the class' ability to grasp essential concepts.

However, our current model of homogenized, standardized, calibration and metrics-based system, has its merits. From a country, which was reeling under rampant illiteracy and drought, a century ago, our education system has created one of the world's largest talented pool of engineers and other professionals.

A standardized, process-oriented system is somewhat like a factory -- it can mass produce acceptable quality outputs at acceptable costs.

A process-based system also goes through several phases of evolution. Anyone familiar with capability maturity models can recognize the following phases of process maturity: ad hoc, repeatable, measured and optimized.

Early systems of pedagogic processes were ad hoc in nature -- typically dependent on coherence between the teacher and the pupil. But as education needs increased, ad hoc processes became no longer feasible. We needed to scale, and for this we needed processes that gave satisfactory results and were repeatable and replicable in several places. Once, a repeatable process is in place, it is not long before we start calibrating and measuring different elements of the process. And once we have metrics, we can optimize on different elements and produce the best possible output for a given input.

However, process maturity does not stop at optimality -- and this is often overlooked. Unbridled optimization invariably eventually leads to overfitting. Overfitting is a state where the system becomes hypersensitive to metrics and starts reacting to, and trying to optimize on every measurable element.

Somewhat similar concerns must have prompted Andy Grove (founder of Intel Corp.) to say, "Every successful organization contains the seeds of its own destruction."

Success breeds overfitting. And this is not just with education. Consider media overfitting to TRP ratings, and you see what I mean. Overfitting gives specific narrowly defined metrics, much more importance than the underlying spirit of the activity.

The solution to overfitting, is to shift the focus from processes to principles. We need to shift the focus from asking how to conduct a course, to what is the course meant to achieve.


This kind of background reasoning led me to experiment with a new kind of participatory learning model, in which the class functions as one unit, and students are required to be active participants and contribute to the course continuously.

I've embarked on this exploration after having a teaching experience of over 8 years, in the conventional model of lectures, tutorials, assignments and exams.

The proposed model is called: Mandate-oriented learning. I have been implementing it for the past three years and it has evolved over time with greater clarity.

The underlying assumptions behind the model are the following:
  • This model is applicable for a higher-education setting, where the teacher can assume a reasonable level of maturity and background proficiency from the students
  • This model assumes that the students are genuinely interested in learning the subject
In this model, the course is organized in the form of mandates. A mandate is a set of desirable learning goals, in which the class as a whole, has to gain familiarity with a set of topics and proficiency in some of them.

The class as a whole (including the teacher) works towards fulfilling a given mandate. The teacher contributes to the mandate by providing lectures, facilitating discussions, etc. Students contribute to the mandate in several ways -- by offering talks themselves, writing essays, leading and contributing to forum discussions, contributing to the classroom glossary, working on a collaborative project, etc.

Each mandate runs for about 4-5 weeks. At the end of a mandate, there is a “reflection” session in which the class reflects back on how they have fared with respect to the mandate. The reflection session may involve an oral quiz or a written test conducted by the teacher to assess how well the mandate was achieved.
However, there are some important differences between conventional quizzes and tests. Here, the test scores are evaluated against the class as a whole, based on the average score, and the overall outcome of this would be either “satisfactory” (in which case the current mandate is closed and the next mandate begins), or “unsatisfactory” (in which case, the class goes back to contribute to the mandate and there is another reflection session.)
Only if the class as a whole is found to be satisfactory with respect to the mandate, the current mandate is closed and the course moves to the next mandate. This means that, if there are some very weak students who are bringing down the overall scores, it is the responsibility of the entire class to help them learn better so that collectively the class can meet the mandate.
Hence, the classroom acts as a collaborative community, rather than a set of competitive individuals. However, it does not mean that there is no element of competition at all. The model is basically “co-opetitive” in nature – having both elements of cooperation and competition.
Individual grading is still based on competitive metrics. Individual grading is based on the evidence shown by the students (on an online platform like Moodle) towards their contribution to the mandate. The more evidence that students show that they are helping the class meet the mandate, the better it is for their individual grades. The students can either offer seminar classes, create notes, help others in solving problems, manage a forum discussion, contribute to the glossary, etc. to help the class achieve the mandate. All these contributions will be graded for their quality. Hence, the more contributions a student makes towards helping others, and the better the quality of these contributions, the better it is for their individual grades.

Hence, students compete not only towards getting high scores for themselves, but also in this process, they compete for doing overall good to the class.

The design objectives behind the above model are as follows:
  • View learning as a collaborative activity, rather than as a competitive sport. The entire class is assessed against a mandate and students have to help one another to ensure that the entire class makes it to the next mandate
  • Allow the student to discover and develop their unique mode of learning. Not all students are equally good at answering well-defined questions, and not all of them are equally good at implementing something. Learning a subject involves approaching the subject from our own unique vantage point. The flexibility provided by mandate-oriented learning allows a student to discover their own unique learning style.
The model has met considerable success so far, but I have thus far refrained from quantifying its "goodness" against conventional models, to prevent overfitting. Thus far, the goodness of the model is apparent by the (formal) feedback received by students and the (informal) observation that students who have gone through this model in the past seem to be applying their knowledge well, in their professional lives.