17 September, 2010

Strength of character and the ultimatum game

In an increasingly globalizing world, we often need to interact with people who hold a completely different world view, often diametrically opposed to ours in specific respects. Differences of such nature often lead to misunderstandings and traumatic situations.

One such issue is this elusive thing called strength of character. Almost every culture agrees that as people, we need to develop a "strength of character" as part of our growing up. And as the saying goes, "the devil lies in the details" it is only when we get to definitions, there are serious differences. Often these differences are conflicting, but not contradictory to one another. It is hence important to understand such differences and reconcile conflicts in order to develop a better understanding of other cultures and mutual respect.

Here are some specific cases where I've seen conflicts emerge because of differing world views in my setting, (which basically is a place where what is termed as the Western world view often needs to co-exist with a traditional south Indian world view).

* In the outskirts of the city where I work, it is often commonplace to find children from nearby villages walk several kilometers to their school daily. For several years, this has been the norm as infrastructure was scarce. However, in recent times the IT boom has brought a large influx of highways and cars. Unfortunately, the benefit of this boom has not exactly trickled down to everyone and it is still commonplace to see children walking several kilometers to their school. Two colleagues of mine were traveling by car when they saw some children trudge along with heavy bags on their shoulders. Seeing this, one of them suggested that they stop the car and give the children a drop to their school. The other colleague (who has returned from the US) immediately stiffens up, saying, "Oh no! Don't do that!!" Seeing the horror on her face, the other colleague realized what she was thinking -- basically, terms that are too unscrupulous to be put up on a blog like this. You can only imagine the hurt that he in turn would have felt on even being associated with such things.

* On a recent visit to Europe, I was invited to the country house of my host where the conversation veered to cultural practices. And his wife said, "I have an Indian friend who still lives with his parents even after he is married!!" And as before, looking at the expression on her face, I could imagine her thinking "Where is his strength of character? Why can't he act like a man and stand on his own feet?" or something such. And to think when I wanted to shift to a different house from that of my parents because of the long commute to office, they were so depressed at the idea. And to add to it, others started "showing sympathy" (!) with my parents, and started saying things like "Oh, he has grown too big, after returning from foreign.." making them feel even more depressed! Sigh :-) Unfortunately, there is no smiley for head banging! :-)

Obviously, it is clear that what constitutes goodness in the behaviour of a person is very different in different parts of the world. And if development of character means development of goodness, what then is the way to develop character? Or more fundamentally, what then constitutes strength of character?

In the Western world, strength of character is predominantly (note the emphasis) defined by our ability to stand up to adversity and face it bravely. A person of strong character does not break his/her integrity under pressure, and fights for his/her rightful place in this world.

This can perhaps be epitomized by the quote by Ayn Rand: Nobody can make you a victim without your consent.

Of course, I am aware that Western society is far more complicated than Ayn Rand who is now basically seen as the philosopher for teenagers.. :-) But, the predominant definition of strength of character that seems to drive people's world view is one of standing up to adversity.

In India (and perhaps in other Eastern countries), strength of character can perhaps be epitomized by Mahatma Gandhi's quote: A man's strength of character is determined by how he treats people (and other animals) weaker than himself.

In the society that I was brought up in, a man of strong character is someone who is humble and genuinely cares for others, especially towards those who are in a weaker position than himself.

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to work out how the above differences in world views can explain the case study misunderstandings mentioned earlier.

It is not like the alternative views have not been valued in the other cultures at all. For instance, Abraham Lincoln once said: Any man can face adversity. To really test a man's character, give him power.

Analogously, Swami Vivekananda once said: If there is sin, this is the only sin to say that you are weak.

However, the predominant emphasis in the Western world view seems to be that of facing adversity and in the Eastern world view to be that of acting with humility.

As it turns out, differences like the above are far from being superficial traits and have shown to be innate characteristics of cultures around the world. This is demonstrated by a nice little experiment in game theory called the Ultimatum game. The game is as follows:

Two players, A and B have to divide a sum of money between them. They are given the following scheme. Player A has to propose a division (like 50:50, 80:20, etc). If player B accepts the scheme, then the money is split according to the proposed scheme; and if player B rejects the scheme, then both players forfeit the money.

So what should player A do when given such a commanding position, and what should player B do when put in such a defending position?

It turns out that cultures differ vastly in the way the two players act1,2.

In some cultures, players in the A position try their luck in getting more than a "fair" (50%) share and try to convince player B that if he rejects the offer, he would not get anything, and something is better than nothing. And in some other cultures, players in the A position have a strong sense of a reputation for fairness and propose a 50-50 cut or sometimes even a discount for themselves.

Similarly, in some cultures players in the B position seem to just accept what they get as long as it is not nothing. And in some other cultures, players in the B position simply reject anything that is even a little unfair to them ("to teach A a lesson"), even if it means that they forfeit all the money.

Even more interestingly, chimpanzees are rational maximizers, meaning that they don't value fairness when in a position of B and accept anything they get as long as it is more than nothing.

Coming back to our two definitions of "strength of character" we can see that player A's dilemma is a test of character in the Gandhian sense (what do you do when in a position of power and how do you view people weaker than yourself?); while player B's dilemma is a test of strength of character is the Ayn Randian sense (nobody makes a victim out of you unless you consent to it, do you teach him a lesson if he is unfair or do you give in and acquiesce?)

In real life though, we occupy positions of A as well as that of B in different situations. And if we have only one predominant world view of what constitutes goodness in behaviour, it can be very confusing.

For instance, someone in a position of A going by the Gandhian definition, may want to genuinely do good to others. But for someone who is immersed in the Ayn Randian definition, who only thinks of fighting for rights, such goodness may appear suspicious, causing them to stiffen up and bristle. Similarly, the defiant nature of an Ayn Randian strength of character, may be construed as arrogance and abuse of power by someone in the Gandhian definition of strength of character.

It is futile to argue as to which is the "better" definition. There is no such thing -- we will be in positions of player B as well as in positions of player A in different points in our life. And it is good to have both definitions in mind and use them judiciously.

  1. Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, and Herbert Gintis (2004). Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies. Oxford University Press.
  2. Oosterbeek, Hessel, Randolph Sloof, and Gijs van de Kuilen (2004). "Differences in Ultimatum Game Experiments: Evidence from a Meta-Analysis". Experimental Economics 7: 171–188. doi:10.1023/B:EXEC.0000026978.14316.74

27 January, 2010

Synergistic thinking - VII: Resistance to depth

Synergistic thinking - I
Synergistic thinking - II
Synergistic thinking - III
Synergistic thinking - IV
Synergistic thinking - V
Synergistic thinking - VI

In this post, I'll not repeat myself and define synergistic thinking and contrast it with imperative thinking again.. Please read the earlier posts in this series for my theory of synergistic thinking.


As a teacher, one of the very common traits I see among students is what I call "resistance to depth." This is the mental reluctance to explore deeper in a given topic and instead, try to want to move sideways and work on several diverse projects -- albeit in a superficial manner.

There is nothing "morally" wrong about resistance to depth and it should not be treated as such, whenever I urge students to dig deeper. It is a very human tendency -- I display the very same resistance myself; and I'm sure most others do as well.

Resistance to depth is a fundamental survival tactic as I will explain below. Except that, the tactic manifests itself for very different reasons for the imperative thinker and the synergistic thinker.

Imperative thinking, as I'd mentioned earlier is "how-to" thinking. The imperative thinker registers to a course or a project with a "how-to" reasoning something like: "How to increase the chances that I will get a well-paying job in a prestigious company?"

(Again, to reiterate, there is nothing morally wrong about wishing good for oneself).

With this as the underlying question, it is clear now why resistance to depth makes sense. Working on a number of disparate projects in different fields "hedges risks" and increase the "catchment area" of companies that are in the fray for employment. This kind of "hedging of risks" is a fundamental survival instinct.

Unfortunately, the above reasoning is a bit incomplete; and it would still make sense for the imperative thinker to obtain depth in at least one field of expertise. The reason is competition.

Consider two contenders in the job market -- let's call them A and B. Suppose that A has superficial knowledge in 10 different fields, while B has in-depth knowledge and expertise in one or two fields. Now whenever a company that is looking for employees in the field of B's expertise comes looking, B would win over A.

And the more competition there is, the more likely it would be that no matter what field A chooses, there will always be someone else who would have more expertise than A in that field, at the cost of the breadth of knowledge that A has.

On the other hand of course, it does not make sense to just focus on one field of expertise only and get into tunnel vision. It amounts to keeping all eggs in the same basket. The answer then for the imperative thinker lies in striking the right balance between depth and breadth.


Synergistic thinkers on the other hand, are also reluctant towards depth -- but for a very different reason. As I'd defined earlier, synergistic thinking is "model building" or "theory forming" or "what-is" thinking.

Synergistic thinkers typically have problems focusing on one thing -- and especially in execution, or getting things done. They are rarely task masters and resist over-specification of requirements. Instead, they value freedom of thought and expression and favour loosely defined requirements for projects.

But then, the resistance to depth by the synergistic thinker is not because digging deeper somehow is akin to getting focus and practising discipline (as in task mastery).

The main reason for resistance to depth is the possibility of cognitive dissonance. Theories and models, by definition are incomplete descriptions of the world around us. They are typically based on axiomatic assumptions that may have certain simplifications embedded into them. Digging deeper typically requires us to challenge our deeply-held axioms, endangering the very model that we've based our lives on.

Let me give a rather trite, but elucidating example. There is this young relative of mine, (let me call her N) who's all of 4 years old. I think she is one of the best insights I've got into synergistic thinking -- because, as a kid, her thinking is unhindered by other hang-ups and put-ons that adults typically have.

The other day, there was a conversation something like the following, between N and her mom.

N: Mummy, why do I need to go to school?

Mom: Because you can grow up to be smart and intelligent

N: But I thought you said, eating cereals made me strong, smart and intelligent? Why do I need to go to school then?

There you have it -- classic cognitive dissonance :-)

If doing one unpleasant thing (like eating cereals) can achieve a superset of goals than another unpleasant thing (like going to school), why do we need to perform the latter? Occam's razor! :-)

I've seen metaphorically similar behaviour from my students those which are predominantly synergistic thinkers. They are typically not thinking about payoffs for themselves (increasing job prospects, for example) when they resist deeper exploration. They're resisting it because the depth is opening up some can of worms that is causing conflicts with their mental models.


Digging deeper for the imperative thinker typically means obtaining specialized skills. For the synergistic thinker, digging deeper means going meta.

I encountered this classic divide once when arguing with a colleague of mine who wanted to offer a course on "Advanced DBMS." (DBMS is database management systems). Our ideas of what constitutes "advanced" topics in DBMS basically went off on tangents.

According to my colleague, a course on advanced DBMS should open up the internals of a fairly large DBMS like Oracle or DB2 or MySQL, and look into how it is implemented.

According to me, a course on advanced DBMS should look into the limitations of the relational data model (which is by far the most widely used data model for commercial DBMS) and address the more general challenge of data management itself (as opposed to "database management").

Finally we agreed that using ambiguous terms like "advanced" in the title of a course does not make sense at all. Instead, we should perhaps have courses with more specific titles like "DBMS design" or "Challenges in Data Management" -- to label the above two versions of course contents.