Sunday, August 10, 2014

On the social psychology of teasing and sarcasm

Some time ago, I found an interesting article on Quora about the differences in a "sense of humour" between India and the US (specifically, the east coast where the author was situated).

In India, the concept of teasing is quite common among family members, friends and even professional colleagues. It is quite common for instance, among college students, that someone looking rather happy, or wearing new clothes, or showing any other signs of something brewing in their personal lives, would be subject to a variety of tease. Similarly in family circles, teasing is quite commonly seen among siblings, cousins and even across generational lines. Bollywood movies showing scenes of "joint family" often show ample amounts of teasing as a way of depicting how "happy" the family is.

On the other hand, what really gets the Indians' goat is sarcasm. A sarcastic remark will almost always be interpreted in an offensive manner. In the TV serials of today for example, the vile and vengeful mother-in-law almost always speaks in sarcastic taunts.

Quite interestingly, as the Quora author noted, and as I've been observing myself subsequently, quite the opposite is true in the US east coast culture.

A tease is almost always taken as an unnecessary intrusion into one's personal space. While a sarcastic remark is quite the norm, and is even used as a "coolness" statement. A sarcastic perspective on something is often seen as asset -- an indicator of how "differently" the person thinks and how "witty" they are.

This one piece of insight that I encountered on the web, has helped me tide through several situations of cultural gaps when interacting with folks from across the world. I can now understand why some friendly teasing remark from an Indian can blow things out of proportion, and put them into serious trouble. Similarly, I can understand why some folks here are extremely offended by the "witty put-downs" of the Americans (which are usually witty sarcasms).

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As always, my understanding is complete only after I can build a model to explain this discrepancy in preferences. 

A quick search on the net did not reveal any convincing theory explaining the psychology behind teasing and sarcasm and for when a population prefers one over the other. Perhaps a more exhaustive search will turn up something, but then it is more fun to build hypotheses ourselves. So here goes: 

American east coast culture has some significant differences from the Indian cultural worldview, in that it places much more emphasis on objectivity and impersonal discussions. Specifically, there is emphasis on the issue being discussed and separating the people from the issue. 

Given this, a sarcastic remark is almost always a humorous perspective on the issue being talked about. It has nothing to do with the people involved in the discussion. While a teasing remark is violating the focus on the issue and is targeting the person instead. This can explain why a tease causes offence, while sarcasm doesn't. 

As an example, I remember some years ago, there were a few students visiting us from Boston. One of them, during our lunch together, was remarking about the practice of arranged marriages in India. While another made a witty remark about arranged marriages, comparing it with slave trade. And I could see how this was instantly taken as offensive by some of the Indians. On the other hand, one of the Indian hosts teased the guy who had started the discussion about how his parents would now be worried about his marriage. And the instant look of disapproval on his face was revealing about how this was considered a totally inappropriate thing to say. 

To explain the Indian perspective of things, it helps to remember that Indian society is extremely focused on people. When someone is talking, it is that someone who is the focus of attention, rather than the contents of what is being talked. When something is being said, the contents of what is being said is just one of the several things that is being processed by the listener. Other things that are being processed are the tone of the message, the choice of words, supposed intention behind the message, supposed people behind the person giving the message, etc. 

In addition, the contents of the message are also interpreted in terms of what is expected of us and what they are trying to say about us, rather than simply what the message is trying to say. 

So, a sarcastic remark in this context, is a direct "put-down" of the other person's intelligence, rather than a witty perspective on the issue. So, the witty perspective of slave trade as applied to arranged marriages, is seen as an insult to the intelligence of the people who practice arranged marriages. Given that, arranged marriages are common even among highly educated families, surely, it is not exactly identical to slave trade. 

While the people-centric worldview can explain why sarcasm is seen as offensive, there is still this question about teasing. Surely, a tease, that is directly targeted at the person, ought to be seen as even more offensive? 

Well, it is, actually. A tease can elicit vastly different reactions depending on how the teaser and the one who is being teased, view each other. Among close friends and family, a tease is seen as a sign of fondness. If the fondness is reciprocated by all the parties involved, a tease party is seen as fun and frolic. Watch a group of close friends from college having dinner at a restaurant, and it is common to see just about everyone, "pulling the leg" (slang for teasing) of everyone else. It is just a way for the group to express its fondness towards one another. 

However, teasing in a setting where there is no mutual fondness is treated as even more offensive than sarcasm. And it is easy to see why. A tease is a witty put-down directed at a person. When tempered with fondness, the witty put-down actually means the opposite of what is being said. When a close friend teases another saying, "Oh God! I have to put up with you!" and is smiling fondly, it actually means the opposite of what is being said. But when the fondness is missing, this can be a recipe for a disastrous interaction. 

So using teasing as a strategy for "ice breaking" can be really risky -- its success depends on how much mutual fondness existed prior to the ice breaking, and a failure could have negative consequences. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The four pillars of great learning environments

Recently, my facebook timeline was abuzz with some news feature saying that the environment in our schools are worse than prisons. Apparently the annual suicide rate in our schools are several times more than the annual suicide rate in our prisons.

Unfortunately, this is not surprising at all. Being an academician by choice in a society that I love and care about, I am deeply pained about our approach towards education. My own educational experience (especially, primary education) was traumatic leaving me with several emotional scars. So much so, that one of my great curiosity these days is to understand the concept of slavery -- because at a fundamental level, I think that was what our schooling was about. We were conditioned to value certain things and think of ourselves in a particular manner, which I now understand, is the typical self-image of a slave. Basically, we were encouraged to be compliant workers, rather than thinkers and problem-solvers. I do not know whether this was by design or whether this was just the way the society as a whole was in those days (I suspect it is the latter). This has made me curious about its psychological, emotional, and social dimensions, and recognize how it continues to thrive in its various forms even today. According to walkfree.org, our country has the highest number of people living in a visible state of slavery in the world! And several invisible forms of slavery still permeate throughout our domestic and professional lives.

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Two of the most abused terms I see today in educational environments are discipline and integrity. Both of them are basically used as excuses to enforce compliance and obedience to ill-thought out or ill-explained rules. I've even seen arguments like "fear is a great motivator" used in educational environments. Using fear as a deterrent is one thing, but using fear as a motivator says a lot about the underlying paradigm.

Behaviourism seems to be the predominant model for imparting education, which involves conditioning and molding the student's behaviour by mechanisms of reward and punishment. There seems to be a copious lack of understanding of other models of learning or even about how behaviour conditioning can go horribly wrong.

After the IT revolution, while several sectors underwent fundamental reforms, there was just some small changes in the educational sector. And in the wrong direction, in my opinion.

There were these viewpoints about education as a business or a service. Students were seen as "customers" and learning was seen as a "process." Recently, I had argued that production, service and learning are three different things. A learning environment cannot be modeled as a production or a service environment.

This set me thinking about what are the essential elements of a great learning environment. And I've cornered on these four: Objectivity, Participation, Immersiveness, Positivity.

And I would like to argue that these four elements are essential for all kinds of learning environments. Be they primary education or higher education, be they science education, arts education or professional training. Let me elaborate on the four pillars below.

Objectivity 

Objectivity in learning environments means separating ideas from people and keeping the focus on the ideas or the object of inquiry. This is a discipline that needs to be built over time with deliberate effort. And of course, to build this discipline, we cannot be using conditioning based on rewards and punishments -- we should be using objective and dispassionate argumentation.

Just about every idea should be subject to inquiry. Students have to be taught how to question an idea without sounding arrogant or sarcastic. Teachers have to be trained on how to manage questions and keep debates objective.

Even notions of integrity and discipline should be questioned by the students. They need to understand why they have to do whatever it is that they are expected to do. Ideally, there should be no rule imposed by the educational institution that does not come with an explanation of the "why" behind the rule. Students should be allowed to suggest alternate forms of complying with the spirit of the rule, which may or may not be implemented because of practical considerations. The important thing is that they should be allowed to give alternate ideas, which should be publicly discussed.

Participation 

Any good learning environment has to be participatory in nature. Students should actively do something and synthesize some output, as part of their learning. Even theoretical studies can be participatory. Students can propose their own hypotheses, build their own theoretical models, or try and attempt to prove a long-standing theorem.

Their activities may not be perfect and indeed may even be deeply flawed. But combine a participatory environment with objectivity, it becomes easy to evaluate one's own participation and understand the complexity of actually doing something.

A participatory environment would have elements of cooperation, competition and individual participation. None of the above would be any more important than the other. The focus is on objective results of the participation and not on the mode of participation.

Our current models of passive and bookish learning have instilled a strange overconfidence in our students who believe that the biggest challenge in the world is to pass exams with well-defined syllabi. Our current model of punishing mistakes have also made students deny or hide their mistakes -- even to themselves, rather than face them head long.

Immersiveness 

In a good learning environment, learning is "in the air" and not just in books and classrooms. Much of our learning happens by osmosis. This is not to say that classrooms are not important. Classrooms are necessary, but not sufficient to impart deep-rooted learning.

Several great universities across the world spend a lot of effort in designing their physical spaces. Just a walk down their corridors would be like a visit to a museum. There are universities that embed puzzles and intriguing questions in their public spaces. Other approaches include designing spaces like cafeterias, lounges and sitting areas towards encouraging academic discussion and debate. For instance, having whiteboards in corridor seating areas, having a small library in the cafeteria, etc.

In great universities, immersiveness is actively practiced by the faculty members too. Great academicians view academics as a lifestyle, not as a job. It is a lifestyle driven by a burning curiosity and unending thirst. It is a lifestyle that refuses to "settle down" in life. It is a lifestyle that strives to get to the bottom of things to understand them deeply, rather than get on top of things to control them.

Positivity 

The last and certainly not the least trait of good educational institutions is a culture of positivity. This means that positive emotions like compassion, empathy, trust, happiness, joy, etc. are actively discussed, advocated and pursued in daily affairs.

The pursuit of knowledge is a very unsettling process. As the saying goes -- the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge or the ignorance of ignorance. Breaking through this comforting illusion of knowledge is an emotionally unsettling experience. To counter this, educational environments should actively promote positive emotions, while at the at the same time keeping the environment immersive, objective and participatory. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Development in pairs

A hot topic these days is about "economic development" and its associated strengths and ills.

Unfortunately, much of these debates on social media or mass media degenerates into mudslinging between opposing camps, and at the end of it, an esoteric entity called people's "attitude" is blamed for all our ills.

From the way I see the debates going, we have almost zero understanding of an important element of any kind of economic or social change -- that of "non-linearity." Non-linearity is used in systems theory to indicate phenomena of positive feedback, where the effect of some cause in turn affects the cause itself.

For instance, a large city is likely to have more job opportunities than a small town, which in turn attracts more migrant population to the large city over the small town. Phenomena like rich getting richer, 80-20 rule and such, are all the outcomes of underlying non-linear processes.

Non-linearity is the reason why many aspects of economic and social phenomena are counter-intuitive. If we think linearly, we tend to approach problems with immediate, symptomatic solutions and often end up making the problem worse.

For instance, suppose the problem we are addressing is that of managing depleting oil supply. One common way of approaching this problem is to build more fuel-efficient vehicles so that they burn less fuel for the same usage. But what likely happens is that, now that vehicles give more mileage, people have a rational incentive to buy and use more such vehicles, thus aggravating the fuel shortage.

I am not saying we should not design fuel efficient cars. Not the point at all. The point is about strategizing in "pairs" which I'll come to in a moment.

Another example is the Cobra Effect story from the colonial days, when the ruling British government, who were afraid of cobras, offered a monetary incentive for people to kill cobras. This incentive, even though initially successful, had the opposite effect overall. Sensing a way of making money, people started breeding cobras instead of hunting them. And when the government sensed this and stopped the incentive, people who were breeding cobras released them into the open, thus making the original problem worse!

The thing with social and economic systems is that they are not inanimate physical systems with static characteristics. They are thinking, scheming, rational entities that responds to your input with a "best response" function that maximizes its own benefit, which need not be what we expected as the outcome.

There are two elements to non-linear systems: growth and saturation. Growth is typically visible, while the dynamics of saturation is much harder to measure and understand.

Growth happens when the system responds positively to our inputs resulting in a "honeymoon" phase. In the cobra effect example, when the monetary incentive was introduced, the people responded to it positively, hunting down cobras and depositing them. The positive response in turn gave an incentive to the government to respond promptly with their reward and to spread more awareness of this program. And hence started the initial "growth" phase of this engagement.

But a positively reinforced growth soon starts depleting resources (in this case, the cobras), that is when the strange effects of saturation sets in. Saturation happens when resources deplete globally and the system is unprepared to handle this depletion. And it is extremely hard to predict how a system will end up responding to a state of saturation. In this case, the system resorted to artificially sustaining the growth, because resources (cobras) could be artificially replenished.

All other "breakdown" phenomena like riots, looting, hoarding, etc. can be seen as a form of saturation dynamics. Something has saturated -- some critical resource has depleted and the system is unprepared to handle this, resulting in large-scale breakdown.

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One way to manage saturation dynamics is to approach developmental strategy in "pairs" with two positive feedback loops posing as an alternative to one another.
Consider the above figure where two mobile service providers are competing for market share. Market share dynamics are replete with non-linearity. A service provider with a high market share can afford to spend more on advertising and can capitalize on "network effects" by users attracting other users. This results in a positive feedback loop.

However, at some time, the growth starts saturating. The number of users and the amount of use would have gone up so high that the infrastructure starts creaking.

At such times, nothing is more attractive than having an alternative.

So A and B above are competing over the same resource pool (users). Say A wins the game and gets into a positive feedback loop. It is a matter of time before resources saturate in A. At which time B is rationally attractive to users resulting in a migration exodus to B. Soon B may start saturating and a reverse migration begins. This back and forth eventually settles down to an equilibrium.

In order to tackle saturation this way, two things are necessary. First, A and B should be sufficiently distinct in order to pose as an alternative to one another. And second, the cost of shifting between A and B should not be so high that it would make rational sense to suffer the effects of saturation, than look for alternatives.

Consider another example of growth of cities, like say Bangalore. Recently, Bangalore grew from a mid-sized town of less than 3 million to a burgeoning metropolis of more than 10 million in a matter of 15 years. This growth was largely spurred by the IT revolution that attracted tech talent, which in turn attracted more companies, which in turn attracted more talent, and so on.

We are now seeing several signs of saturation in Bangalore. Not least of which is water supply. Bangalore does not lie on the banks of on any large river or lake. In fact, it is situated on almost 3000 feet of dry granite rock. A large portion of water needs of Bangalore are met from the Cauvery river, which is more than 100 kilometres away and almost 600 feet below in altitude. It is an extremely expensive proposition to pump tons of water up 600 feet to a distance of more than 100 kilometres. And yet, the socio-economic forces that are spurring growth in Bangalore, hardly factor this saturation constraint.

It is very hard to predict how the city will respond to saturation, and I am very scared to speculate. Being a native of this city, I know in whatever way saturation dynamics will get played out, those of us who have long roots in the city will in some sense, bear the brunt of saturation.

Several efforts to decongest the city have met with little or no success. For example, satellite towns like Kengeri and Yelahanka that were once meant to decongest Bangalore are now part of Bangalore.

One of the reasons why decongestion efforts have failed is that there is no alternative attractor for growth. If Bangalore is the A loop above, there is no B loop that can pose a serious alternative to A, and which is easy to reach from A.

One possibility could have been to have a city like Mysore act as the alternative. And facilitate easy movement between the two cities with the international airport somewhere in between Bangalore and Mysore; and with high speed rail and road connections between the two cities. Now that is not possible because the airport is built at the other end serving no other major alternative growth centre that can compete with Bangalore. In fact, the ideal would have been a multi-transfer hub somewhere between Bangalore and Mysore, where people can fly in, and hop into a high speed train or a bus to either Bangalore or Mysore.

We should be thinking in pairs for every major developmental effort. Because, development is a non-linear process and the very success of a developmental effort could be the cause of its eventual failure due to saturation.

You know the folk wisdom that married people are "settled down" to a more stable life than singles? You know the definition of a "couple" in physics? Two forces that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction? It is the same thing. :-)

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So what happens if the A-B pair itself saturates?

This can be addressed at the next level by pairing two A-B pairs together. For instance, let's say we have a well connected Bangalore-Mysore pair each attracting growth to itself, and (say) a well connected Hubli/Dharwad-Belgaum pair up north in the state, contending with each other. We can now pair these two pairs by connecting the B-M hub with the H/D-B hub with sufficient air, train and road links. Other such pairs in the state could be similarly connected to form hubs at different levels. Now anyone from any part of the state will find it easy to travel to any other part of the state by first going to the nearest paired hub, from where they will find several connections to all other hubs, from where they will find connections to their town of interest.

The same pattern can be replicated in other states and the respective paired hubs tightly connected.

This kind of pattern results in a characteristic property of complex networks that are efficient in daily operations and robust against random (routine) failures. (But not necessarily robust against targeted attacks, which is a different matter.) But let me not go into the mathematical details here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Actor, agent and dissonance

Our notion of "self" encapsulates a complex ensemble of properties. It contains our desires, our strategies, our priorities, our fears, our delusions, just about everything about who we are. The "self" is the "operating system" over which we run external world applications, like how we react to something and how we analyze something, etc.

There is however, one important element of the "self" -- it is its ability to "virtualize." All of us have at least two "selves"* -- an outward looking self called the actor which determines the personality we project to the outside world, and a "core" self called the agent, which embodies our characteristics self-interest and autonomous action.

Our sense of agency starts forming itself only when we reach adulthood. Till then, we are socially conditioned with a sense of self, based on the environment in which we live in. We accept those characteristics without question. Even in adult life, we are constantly molded and influenced by social forces which causes the actor to remain separate from the agent.

In a sense, the actor is the "virtual machine" that is built on top of the real machine that is the agent. It is the actor that responds to the outside world, while ultimately, the actor's responses are built and conditioned by the agent. The actor gives the impression to the application programs (external interactions) that it is the operating system. However, it is just a hypervisor running on top of a real operating system, which is the agent.

The external facing actor is also our "moral" selves, which encapsulates our measured and politically correct responses to external stimuli. The internal agent is our "selfish" selves, which embodies our desires, our self interests, our delusions, etc.

Our "selfish" self is basically built from information encoded in our genes, and it represents characteristics that are deeply rooted across several generations. Our "moral" self on the other hand, is primarily a result of social conditioning. And there is likely to be large differences between the two.

When the actor and the agent do not agree on something, there is said to be "dissonance." It is the constant dissonance that causes our routine unhappiness like frustration, cynicism, insecurity, etc. that rules over us for most of our lives. And much of what "spiritual healing" does is to bring the agent and actor in harmony with each other.

The actor is a persona that is responding to external social stimuli. It basically is responding in a way that others want us to respond. So in a sense, the actor is responding to the expectations of a "collective self" that is formed by the society around us.

This "collective self" is the aggregate, emergent characteristics of several individual selves. And here is where things start to get interesting.

Let us consider that there is a "collective self" that is formed by a society of several people. The individuals who form this collective self may be contributing to this in two ways -- as an actor or as an agent.

In the first case where the collective self is predominantly made up of individual actors, it means that the collective characteristics of the society is created by individuals who are not contributing their real characteristics to it! In the second case where the collective self is predominantly made up of individual agents, it means that the collective characteristics of the society is made from individuals contributing their real characteristics to the collective.

The first case of collective self tends to be ceremonial in nature, and breeds a high level of individual dissonance in its members. Individuals would say something publicly, but value very different things in private. In the second case, the collective characteristics are derived from individual agents contributing their real characteristics. As a result, the collective characteristics would be much stronger than in the first case. In addition, since not all agents have the same characteristics, there is bound to be visible conflict in the society as part of the creation of its collective characteristics. In other words, there is bound to be much higher levels of collective dissonance in societies that are built from individual agency.

A society made of individual actors is likely to be more peaceful, as its members are acting out their roles in public and conforming to set norms and practices; but at the same time such a society would also see individuals experiencing dissonance at a personal level and breaking down. On the other hand, a society made of individual agents are much more passionate, taking pride in their way of life, in their culture, etc. Individuals in such societies are also much more motivated and enthusiastic, as they are being themselves. However, such societies also see much more collective dissonance in the form of visible conflict, controversies and such as the individual selves conflict with one another.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The flagpole of entitlements and obligations

Since the last few years, I've been interested in how the web is affecting our lives and changing the way we think. While trying to understand this, I came across the question of how our sense of "entitlement" and "obligation" affect the way we think.

The reason I came across this dilemma itself is a different question. It had to do with the wide disparities I observed in the emphasis placed on different aspects of online privacy and security, by different people.

Nevertheless, this post is not about online privacy and security, but on our sense of entitlement and obligation. Here is a theory that I've developed:

The Flagpole Model

Imagine that inside each of us is a tall flagpole. A flagpole has some element of it over the ground and some element of it buried underground.

The part of the flagpole that is overground is our sense of entitlement. It is what we think the external world owes us.

The part of the flagpole that is underground is our sense of obligation. It is what we feel we owe to the external world.

The flagpole deeply affects our strategic disposition with which we approach the world. When we are predisposed with a sense of entitlement, we tend to be aggressive, obdurate, righteous, judgmental and assertive. When we are predisposed with a sense of obligation, we tend to be empathetic, compassionate, cooperative and accommodating.

Each of us are born with a certain ratio of the flagpole above ground and the rest underground. Our innate sense of entitlement versus obligation is visible approximately when we are two years old. Take a set of two year old kids and we will probably see that the distribution of pole-lengths above ground is a Gaussian bell curve. That is, there are a small number of kids who would have an innately high sense of entitlement, and a small number of kids who would have an innately high sense of obligation. Most of the kids would be somewhere in the middle, with an almost equal sense of entitlement and obligation. They are more or less, as selfish as they are friendly.

As we grow up, our culture and system of education gently adjusts our flagpole over the years.

In some cultures, the flagpole is pulled up as people are reminded about their rights and entitlements by their culture that celebrates gumption. In some other cultures that celebrates compliance, the flagpole is pushed in and people are reminded more about their duties and obligations, rather than rights and entitlements.

Stability of a system of flagpoles

Given a society where everybody has a flagpole inside themselves, there is often a clash of entitlements. This beings us to a concept of "stability" of the society.

A society is said to be stable if a sense of entitlement by someone can be matched with a sense of obligation or duty on the part of others. In other words, the total amount of flagpole lengths that is above ground should match the total amount of flagpole lengths that is underground, for the society to be stable.

If we see a society where some folks seem to have inordinately high levels of entitlement, and the society still seems to be stable without any upheavals, it means that their high sense of entitlement is matched by several others in the society living with an inordinately high sense of duty or obligation.

If a society comprises of all people with a high sense of entitlement, it will result in conflict and clashes, till a point when some of the flagpoles are forcibly pushed underground.

Alternatively, what happens to a society where everyone lives with a high sense of obligation? On the face of it, such a society will appear to be stable too, since a sense of obligation will not seek anything from others. But such a society is not evolutionarily stable in game theoretic parlance. It means that a small set of incumbent actors with a high sense of entitlement can easily overwhelm the society. In addition, such a society is prone to a variant of the tragedy of the commons that is also well known in game theory. Since everyone in the society has a high sense of duty, selflessness and service, there is a temptation for everyone to slowly increase their own sense of entitlement over time, as it can be easily matched by a sense of obligation on the part of someone or the other. A society with an inordinate sense of obligation is also not in Nash equilibrium. As long as everybody else remains in a state of heightened sense of duty, there is a rational incentive for any given actor to give up this state and adopt a heightened sense of entitlement instead. That is one of the sources of my skepticism about the widespread practices of "bhakti" and "devotion." A society comprising of all "bhakts" may be very peaceful and empathetic, but such a society is not likely to exist for long.

Phase transitions

The sense of entitlement and the sense of obligation are like Yin and Yang. If we try to increase one of them without limit, we end up with the other. As the saying goes: "If you go too far into the East, you end up in the West." Or the Andy Grove quote: "Every successful organization contains the seeds of its own downfall."

If as a society we emphasize too much on one of the above senses, there appears a point at which there is a "phase transition" and the flagpole goes in the opposite direction of the emphasis.

If our environment emphasizes too much on a sense of duty then there comes a point when our sense of entitlement becomes close to zero. A sense of entitlement is very important for survival. Once it becomes zero, there is no mechanism for our body to convince itself to even live. But then, nature does not allow us to reach a zero sense of entitlement, without putting up a good fight. When our sense of entitlement becomes too low, our primal survival instincts surface and starts a desperate push of the flagpole upwards, resulting in rebellion, defiance and revolt.

When our sense of entitlement becomes too much, there comes a point when we start feeling hollow from within. A sense of obligation is very important for our notion of self worth. Our sense of self worth is based on how much we are needed by others. When we have lived all our lives pursuing only our self interest, there comes a point when we start feeling "soulless" and superficial living only for ourselves. This starts a desperate push of the flagpole downwards, explaining why some very wealthy people suddenly turn spiritual or go off into depression and abdication.

The entire history of the world can be seen from the lens of how this flagpole has been manipulated within ourselves and over others. Much of leadership, governance and persuasion has been about fiddling with our and others' flagpoles. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Models of learning environments

Learning environments in schools and universities often mirror or are greatly influenced by the approach taken towards learning by the society outside of it. And of course, the learning environments in schools and universities in turn mold and shape the way the society evolves over time.

It is then interesting to ask what kinds of learning environments exist. A learning environment is not the same as pedagogy or teaching styles. It is much more basic and fundamental -- it comprises of the axioms on which the institution and even the society is based on. A learning environment is everything that supports a place of learning -- including practices, norms, design of public places, kinds of interactions that happen outside of classes, and so on.

Here are some of the approaches towards learning environments I have seen. I've taken labels from concepts that are close enough in spirit to describe the respective environments.

Behaviourism

These kinds of learning environments are based on molding and conditioning observable behaviour among its members. They create environments that are replete with rules and procedures, and conditioning is carried out by different kinds of reward and punishment mechanisms. 

Proponents of behaviourism argue about its ability to instill a sense of discipline and order among the students. And it is also argued that, achieving anything else becomes easier once there is discipline and order. Behaviourism had been very prominent in large parts of the Western world and colonized parts of the rest of the world, well into the 20th century. The behaviourist approach is still widely followed in several parts of the world, which includes the Anglicized education system in India. 

Opponents of the behaviourist approach argue that conditioning of behaviour has nothing directly to do with encouraging learning. Conditioning of behaviour does not address problems like developing curiosity, critical thinking, lateral and imaginative thinking, etc. which are necessary for learning. Indeed, a systematized, disciplined and homogeneous population is likely to behave like a herd -- with hardly any diversity in thinking and ideation. Behaviourism is argued as being more suitable for developing low-skilled, clerical knowledge, rather than an insightful population.

Symbolism

Learning environments based on Symbolism aim to establish relationships between form and meaning. Different elements of daily life are given different meanings in order to help the population in conceptualizing and communicating deeper concepts. 

A learning environment based on Symbolism has a lot of norms and traditions and rituals. There is also a lot of emphasis on language, art and other forms of expression. 

Symbolism provides cognitive handles for rich conceptualization. This is often confused for "abstract thinking." Conceptualization is different from abstract thinking -- the former is about imagining stuff, while the latter is about extracting the essence of something. Maybe I'll write a separate post on the differences between the two. 

The traditional form of learning in India and other Eastern cultures were largely based on Symbolism. Indeed, the often touted cognitive gap between the traditional "Bharat" and the Anglicized "India" can be explained as the contrast between Symbolism and Behaviourism. The "Bharat" folks often speak in oblique metaphors, become slighted at imagined disrespect and value cultural expression and language very seriously. While the "India" folks focus on quantifiable parameters of development like GDP, exchange rate and other such "hard" parameters, and tend to look down upon the former and their "soft" and emotional lifestyles.

Learning environments in India today can be described as a clash between Behaviourism and Symbolism. Often times students experience big dissonance in their heads when their school runs on a Behaviourist model and their home runs under a Symbolism model.

Constructivism

This approach to learning environments are based on synthesis -- or learning by experiencing and doing. Constructivist learning environments are very participatory in nature. It frowns upon didactic models based largely on classrooms and lectures. 

Constructivism as a learning environment have been popular in Scandinavian countries, where their society is often described as a DIY (do it yourself) society. It is the constructivist thinking that has given rise to the hugely popular IKEA that sells ready-to-assemble furniture. 

To contrast constructivism with say, symbolism, here is a scenario:

Suppose we wanted to motivate people to adopt healthy practices like walking, climbing, cycling, etc. how would be go about doing this? The predominant approach in India would be to "create awareness" by means of (often sarcastic and taunting, play on words) Facebook posts, posters, poems, street plays, etc. When these don't work well enough, the next approach would be to impose a "reward" or "penalty" on people who use cycles and those who use cars, etc. Or something along those lines. 

The above approaches are basically "Bharat" and "India" speaking. Ask the Swedes, and they would likely approach it something like this: 
Here, they have created an Arduino based system that modeled a flight of stairs like a piano, where people can make music as they walk on the stairs. See the results for yourself!

Objectivism

Learning environments based on Objectivism have their roots in the stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, where learning is seen as a form of dispassionate argumentation.

Stoicism stresses a lot on objective and critical reasoning. It stresses on the separation of people from issues and ideas.  The Protestant work ethic that fueled the Reformation in medieval Europe is said to be based on Objectivism. Objectivist learning environments end up stressing on respecting individual spaces, public and private ownership, codified law and procedures and the emancipation of individual free will. Respect for the individual takes precedence over respect for social norms, which is perhaps the biggest difference between social environments based on Objectivism and Symbolism. 

Learning environments in some of the major universities in America that fueled their free market economic culture stressed on Objectivism. Objectivism also celebrates the human ego and desire. Human ego is said to be the "fountainhead" of all progress. The objectivist approach is said to have been instrumental for the American society to tide over several social issues including slavery, civil rights, immigration, assimilation of natives, etc. to build an overarching system that is an indifferent, dispassionate "melting pot" of different cultures.

As we get more and more connected by the Web, these different paradigms are clashing at several levels. It remains to be seen whether any one of them will prevail, or will we see an emergent paradigm, that assimilates the best of everything.

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.