Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sometimes, I wonder, the outcome of a psychological study is too implicit or well known that it has consumed so much of grant to conduct it. Maybe, this is a cultural thing; why, I will divulge in a moment after briefing a recent study.

The brilliant Harvard psychologist, Daniel Gilbert’s March paper in Science talks about his latest study. Two groups were made to predict how much they would enjoy a date with a man. One group get to see the personal profile of the date; and the other, get to know the date through how another girl who dated this guy rates him. The first group had, as Gilbert puts it, simulation information and the second, surrogation information. The outcome: using surrogation information, the women could predict more accurately. But when asked which one would help them predict better, the women voted for simulation information.

So, an offshoot of this study is that tap your neighbor while deciding on which is the best movie around or the girl who recently dumped. Here comes in the cultural viewpoint. In the Western, especially the American, society, hardly do neighbors talk frequently. But in India it is nearly the opposite: neighbors would want to advice you. I’ve seen this in the city where am living for more than a year: my neighbor, a senior citizen does throw in some free advice when she sees a veggie bag in my hand (where I can get the groceries for less).

So Gilbert’s research may seem too implicit for an Indian mindset, but not for an American’s. In the western society, individuals are left to choose for themselves on most occasions (except parents, they almost chose everything). As Gilbert suggests, one of the most critical decision-making zones is choosing the martial partner. Someone who is already married may be worth an ear. Gilbert humorously reveals something from his own life to drive home his point: “My first wife wouldn't be able to predict very well what my current wife would experience” (Time). And he immediately recoils at his biases, but makes an interesting point that acknowledging biases doesn’t mean they have gone away.

On, Gilbert has written about a prominent and overarching bias: God. He uses the famous Necker cube to explain to unfurl the “illusion of external agency” (god) and “our tendency to underestimate the power of random processes to create order leads us to seek explanations where none are needed.” Necker cube is an ambiguous object which puzzles the brain with multiple views of a static image. But as Gilbert points out, if a reward is thrown at one view of the image, the brain latches onto it. And if that’s the case with objects, then life events are multifarious and come in too many varieties. Rewards are what will make the brain anchor to the most rewarding event. So “if there is a God who watches over us, who guides our hand when we are uncertain, who leads us to places we might not otherwise go, then unanticipated good fortune makes perfect sense. Things turn out for the best because someone who knows what is best for us is making them turn out that way.”

Then, Gilbert talks about a research, which suggests that “people may mistakenly attribute the good fortune that is the natural product of a helpful brain to the intervention of a helpful agent.” Female volunteers were asked to randomly choose one among four folders and that one folder contained description of their teammate. The experimenter did some hara-kiri here: all folders contained the biography of the same person, whose description was untrustworthy and speculative. In the folder they chose, the volunteers’ brains filtered out likeable information about the teammate and stick to that view. Then the volunteers were given the three biographies they missed out on and were asked to rate the four. Of course, they did rate their teammate above others.

Then the experimenter expanded his mischief: he told the volunteer in isolation that he gave a “subliminal message” to the volunteer to help choose the best possible partner. Thought this wasn’t true, volunteers later linked their folder choice to the message. Gilbert concludes: “Brains strive to provide the best view of things, but because the owners of those brains don't know this, they are surprised when things seem to turn out for the best. To explain this surprising fact, people sometimes invoke an external source — a subliminal message in the laboratory, God in everyday life.”

Another viewpoint to why belief in god still exists is provided by the skeptic, Michael Shermer. He points out that humans are pattern-seeking primates wanting to “get along” with others. A moral sense is an evolved universal trait, essential to survive in a group. At least in India, social pressures coax people to buy into religion. I would always respect those who say that they chose a certain belief out of deep experience and discovery of an affinity with such a belief. That’s understandable but children are made to fear god from an early age that s/he will punish them for any wrongdoing and reward for any good deed. Actually, Indian thought (popularly called Hinduism) was hardly a rift between good and evil (as is the case with Western religions). It was more of being good and not good, being truthful to one’s own calling or not. And the consequences of the choice made have to be borne in this life itself. The notion of afterlife and carryover of bad karma to the next life was meant to be a deterrent, not a norm.

This is made more clear in a paper (Eidelman et al) in the Nov issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It is a study demonstrating that people tend to treat mere existence of something as evidence of its goodness. This, the authors call the existence bias that indicates that the “status quo is seen as desirable”. Earlier research suggested “simple, repeated exposure to stimuli enhances positive affect toward these stimuli contrast.” In contrast, the authors suggest that an “existence bias is due to the perception that something is, has been, or will be established and the assumption that this existence implies goodness. The link between existence and goodness should occur in the absence of exposure; all that is needed is the belief that an event or outcome represents an existing state of affairs.” So now you can understand why god is all-pervading as a (rewarding) belief.

Oops! How can I not mention Richard Dawkins who wants us to rid of the “God Delusion”. He voices his worry over the “indoctrination” ritual that children go through – making them acquire what he calls “slavish gullibility”. But if children have an innate belief in god (like the innate language module that our brains are supposed to have), then what? "I am thoroughly happy with believing that children are predisposed to believe in invisible gods - I always was," says Dawkins. "But I also find the indoctrination hypothesis plausible. The two influences could, and I suspect do, reinforce one another."

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