Why we *still* gossip

As the popular saying goes, we may not have descended from fearful men, but we certainly did from gossipers. Gossip played a pivotal role in human evolution.

Why does gossip flood our news streams in the place of several other issues that are far more worthy of our attention? Why does gossip take the place of historical rulings, technological breakthroughs and pressing global problems? It is perhaps because we started caring about the behaviour of our neighbours far before history, technology or the world mattered.

Humans are able to cooperate in larger groups and in more complex ways than any other animal. Initially, we were able to do this purely on the basis of gossip. By means of gossip, everybody within the tribe knew about each other’s virtues and vices. They knew with whom they could trust their baby while going on a hunt, who was pulling their share of the collective load and who was sleeping around with whom. It also focused on negative information, for it was far more important for the tribe to single out detractors. Even today, gossip continues to revolve around a person’s character – especially on their negative traits. For the same reason we, as individuals, are also sensitive to what other the people around us think about us.

Yuval Harari calls gossip the original fourth estate. It was here before the media, performing the same role – disseminating the most compelling information about the people around us. Thanks to our innate propensity towards gossip, we are more interested in movie star hook-ups, royal weddings and celebrity stunts than saving coral reefs or applauding technological breakthroughs.

While that is still a pity, at least it comes as no surprise.

Inspiration – Sapiens: Yuval Noah Harari

Explore the opposite

It wasn’t land explorers who created our best land maps. It was sailors. And the sailors are not alone in exploring the opposite.

Buddhist monks understand happiness by studying suffering.

Doctors tell us about good health by learning about all manners of disease.

Neuroscience tells us about good health by studying patients who suffer from mental disorders.

Psychologists tell us how our mind works by looking at cognitive biases – by exploring the systematic errors of our minds.

The Stoics have taught us how we are unable to appreciate pleasure until we have pushed ourselves to the boundaries of abstinence.

To study something difficult and the elusive, try and explore its opposite. 

A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of even the best answers. – Mortimer Adler

An alternative to “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“What would you do if money were no object?”

The philosopher Alan Watts used to ask this question to students would told him how they have no idea about what they ought to do for a living. I find it to be an excellent alternative to what we normally ask kids: “What you you want to be when you grow up?”

The problem with the latter is that is has the phrase “grow up”. Those two words pollute the question. Instead of thinking about what they truly enjoy, they are likely to look at the grown ups around them and ask themselves which of those people they wish to emulate. And that leads to two pitfalls.

Firstly, grown ups are at least a couple of decades ahead of the children who seek to emulate them. Therefore, their careers and world-view is already outdated by the time the kids grow up

Secondly,  grown-ups are preoccupied with furthering their own careers and making ends meet – the careers that they, in-turn, inherited from their grown-up advisors. Therefore, they  inevitably lead youngsters down a path that is the safest bet to put money on the table based on their present reality.

Of course, making enough money is important. But it doesn’t have the same relevance to a child picking a line of interest, as it does to the grown-up who advises her. We are talking about interest that is innate here – not interest that banks collect. And as grown-ups, we have a conflict of interest here.

The genius behind Watts’ question is that it deliberately removes money from the picture. If that were the case, what you would willingly do with your time? All of it? If you answer that question early enough in your life, along the way you will find out how you can make it pay the bills.

The regulator knob

Fire feeds on itself. The more fuel it has at hand, the faster it burns. That is why our ovens, stoves, lighters, heaters and kettles come with mechanisms for regulation – an external means to control their fire’s insatiable appetite.

Busyness works the same way. Left to its means, it feeds off itself to create more busyness. It multiplies and eats up large tracts of our life, just as fires consume forests, leaving a smouldering pile of ash behind.

Does your busyness come with its regulator knob?

A few moments to look away

When a car is new, you notice its extra spunk, its glitzy features and the sparkle it has on the finish. In a couple of months, you won’t notice it.

When deciding between Colorado and California for a new move, you think about how the weather is a factor. But it isn’t – not as much as you think it is. In a couple of months, you will adapt to the weather. Scandinavians are among the happiest people in the world, and it isn’t because they have lovely weather.

My mobile banking app has a cool feature – if I waved my hand across the screen, it blurs out sensitive data like my account balance. But I never really used this feature. Not once. At the outset, we cannot imagine our lives without some apps on our phone. But by going for 30 days without them, we learn how we don’t miss them much.

Breaking news. It’s live! We’re first at the scene, and so are you. So pay attention! Just wait for a day, though, and it’s yesterday’s news. Can you remember what was on the news a month ago? How about 6 months ago? What other information do we value so much, whose relevance is merely one day?

The loud, the shiny and the urgent are all designed to hijack our attention. But look away even for a moment, and they lose their importance.

Let us spare a few moments to look away.

We will match your donations

Large institutions matching donations in charitable appeals have often struck me as being odd. Why should that be the case? If I care about a cause, why should somebody else’s matching donation influence my decision. Moreover, as a large institution contributing to charity, why am I holding up my generosity until several other people volunteer their money?

Imagine that a flood has rampaged a particular Indian state. Let’s say that the Tata Trusts has set aside Rs 10 million towards this cause. On the one hand, the trust directly donates this amount towards flood relief, while on the other, it offers to match donations made by the general public. Put yourself in those two situations. Where are you likely to contribute more? The appeal to match donations isn’t as much about holding back as it is about inspiring other people to chip in.

We humans are quid-pro-quo creatures. When we see our actions are being reciprocated, we are far more likely to act. We do unto others what we would have them do to us. When we see someone’s else’s generosity, we match it with ours.

Give, and thou shalt receive.

Practice like a taxi driver

Whose brain would you rather have? That of a bus driver or a taxi driver?

A few neuroscientists decided to take that question seriously. They compared the brains of London cab drivers and taxi drivers, while controlling for driving experience and stress levels. They found that the taxi drivers had more grey matter in their hippocampi (singular: hippocampus). Their brains literally grew on the job, giving them an ability to snake the city’s intricate nooks and crannies.

It is interesting that driving experience did not correlate to this change in the brains structure. Nor did stress levels.  Both taxi drivers and bus drivers spend hours on roads amidst stressful traffic. It’s just that while one of them drove around new parts of the city each day, the other followed a fixed set of routes. It isn’t as much about how much of something you do. It is about how demanding the task inherently is.

If your practice feels entirely comfortable, you might not be learning. On the other hand, if it causes your head to hurt, take that as a good sign – of the brain strengthening existing neural pathways or forging new ones. Also, long hours on your job doing the same task do not develop your brain as much as new ones do.

“Just a couple of minutes”

Here’s a tiny list of things that take longer than we imagine they do:

– Buying three items or fewer from the supermarket
– Eating at a restaurant
– Taking a flight
– Writing a program
– Almost every large infrastructure project
– Installing plumbing
– Cooking a meal
– A drive across the city (going by Google Map’s estimates)
– A visit to the doctor
– Household contract work
– Fixing a bicycle
– Checking email
– Going to bed

If you don’t believe me, try measuring with a stopwatch.

The problem isn’t that we do not have enough time. It is just that the more time we have on our hands, the more optimistic our estimates seem to get.

When machines run people

People build machines to run them, hoping that they enhance our lives. But when machines run people, the opposite tends to happen.

Consider night shifts in factories, which the industrial age introduced to humanity. Humans are built to sleep through the night – staying up and working instead can wreak untold damage on one’s health. Strong evidence tells us that working night shifts is probably carcinogenic. Why do we do this? Because it is efficient to run the machine around the clock rather than spend a few hours each day warming it up. The large industrial machine has humans working in shifts to keep it turning around the clock.

The smartest minds in the world are huddled today in Silicon Valley, running large corporations that spare no opportunity in manipulating people into clicking on ads or buying stuff they don’t really need. Now if you asked these clever folks, they would tell you how they are innovators, artists and harbingers of the future – not malicious manipulators of human behaviour. But the machine that they work for, with its attractive stock options and incentive structures, aligns them to its goal without their explicit knowledge or consent. Once again, the machine is running the humans.

The machines can take different forms – like that of nationalistic fervour. When neighbouring countries are at war, people who might share ethnicity, cuisines and even languages, want nothing more than to blow each other’s brains out. If they met outside their countries, in faraway lands, they would share only warmth and bonhomie. Yet, within their own borders, they brand each other as the enemy. This machinery of nationalism, with its slogans, anthems and symbols, breaks the world down into narrow domestic walls.

Science fiction is replete with the stereotype of robots and computer programs subordinating human society to a class of slaves, living in the dark ages. But that cliche, like most others, lacks imagination. The machines have always been with us. Can you see through their machinations?

Calibrating your intuition

Every decision we make is informed by our intuition, whether we like it or not. But how reliable is our intuition as an instrument?

I recently ran the same distance twice while measuring my speed, once with earphones that told me my running speed every kilometer, and once without these updates. During both runs, I felt as though I was going fast and pushing hard. But when I looked at the measured speeds, I had clocked 9.64 km/hr without periodic updates, and 12.07 km/hr with a voice telling me how fast I was going. My intuition, in both cases, told me that I was doing well. But the mere act of having immediate feedback improved my performance by 25%.

Our intuition is a versatile, but unreliable instrument that requires constant calibration – one that keeps us within our comfort zone but gives us the illusion that we are pushing ahead. 


Frustration as fuel

The great Indian epic, Ramayana, may have never been authored but for one man’s rage at the thoughtless action of a hunter.

The poet Valmiki, who composed Ramayana entirely in verse, was wandering through the forest, when he saw a pair of cranes frolicking about. He stopped to admire how affectionate they were to each other. All of a sudden, a hunter’s arrow shattered this perfect moment. The male crane dropped dead and the female bird crooned in agony at the loss of her partner. Valmiki, enraged by the hunter’s thoughtless action, uttered a curse in perfect verse. In that moment, he discovered the poet within him.

Anger and frustration often grip us and distort our judgement. Yet, there is beauty within those feelings – beauty that we could express through our creative work.

Read Valmiki’s poem in its original Sanskrit here.

A hack for commute podcasts

Do you listen to podcasts or audiobooks on the way to work? Here’s a little hack that can help you learn better.

1. Listen to the podcast during your regular commute
2. After it’s done, write down what you learnt in bullet points
3. To help with recollection, mentally trace the route you took and try remembering what you listened to in each place

You’d be surprised by how much step 3 helps. One caveat, though, is that if you don’t do the recollection exercise on the same day, the next day’s commute will overwrite those memories.

Our brains are excellent at committing routes to memory. The memory palace technique harnesses this ability to help us organize and remember facts.

The toughest part about using a memory palace is constructing it in the first place. The beauty is that every time you listen to something during your commute, you are unconsciously building a memory palace. All you have to do is to explore it later.

Reduce uncertainty

Traffic signals in India are unpredictable. The same red light could just as easily let you through in 20 seconds or hold you up for three minutes.

One small tweak in their design makes these signals more tolerable – a countdown timer that tells you your waiting time. As a motorist, I used to hate the lights without timers more – even if they were quicker. Once I see the number on the timer, I know that I have about 100 seconds to relax. I can then stop staring at the light, worrying when I would need to scamper ahead amidst a chaotic deluge of vehicular horns.

A large part of an inconvenience we put somebody through is the uncertainty that comes along with it. Reducing this uncertainty could go a long way in mitigating their dissatisfaction.

The behavioural case for preparing your own meals

120 women were asked to prepare a low-calorie smoothie themselves and compare it to an identical recipe made at a store. Any guesses on which one they liked more?

Several arguments exist for making your own meals – ranging from the health benefits from control over ingredients to financial and environmental factors. Now, behavioral science has a contribution to make as well. In the study mentioned above, the women reported how the self-prepared smoothies tasted much better. The very act of preparation adds to a meal’s taste.

We also know how food prepared outside home (including food at fancy restaurants) is full of sugar, salt and empty calories. Meals at these joints lacks that extra bit of taste that self-preparation adds to our own meals. Therefore, these establishments are forced to compensate with more salt, sugar and other substances that aren’t in our best long term interests.

The labour of love that we pour into our meals isn’t merely a chore. It is also the secret ingredient that makes our meals taste better while keeping them healthy.



Two paths to inclusion

Why should we include people on the margins? Why should that be our organization’s mission?

The first narrative, and the one that most activists use, is that of justice. Historically, several groups of people have been discriminated against and unfairly denied opportunities. And yes, that is true. This approach relies on the “goodness” of the individuals who are already in power. It appeals to the conscience of the predominantly white, male leaders of organizations to change the status quo. It appeals to people of privilege to accommodate more immigrants and refugees. But it does so by using pity and shame.

The second narrative is underutilized – that of potential. Copious research shows how adopting a truly inclusive approach has incredible benefits. Organizations become more effective and profitable. Countries become more vibrant, peaceful and harmonious. In Seth Godin’s words, when you have only knives in your kitchen, what you can cook is very limited. When you have ladles, bowls, whisks and colanders, you can conjure up a wider variety of delicacies.

We have been appealing to people’s conscience for far too long. We now have data to support another argument – one that recognizes how inclusion leads to a better world not just through a moral lens, but also through creativity and profitability. Despite our best intentions, we continue to do disservice to the worthy, but marginalized by neglecting their potential, .

Resolving tension to change behaviour

What does the high school physics image of two springs holding a block between them teach us about behaviour change?

The psychologist Kurt Lewin described our behaviour as an equilibrium between “driving forces” that push us in one direction, and “restraining forces” that push us the other way. Behaviour change can be brought about by either increasing the driving force or decreasing the restraining force. If we wanted the block to move to the left, we could either increase the driving forces pulling it leftward or decrease the restraining forces pulling it to the right.

Driving vs. Restraining 1Our default response is to increase the driving force – to shout slogans, run campaigns, bombard people with messages about company culture and shame them into changing behaviour. But this approach is often less effective than intended.

An alternative is to decrease the restraining forces that sustain the status quo. If the proposed change is as good as we think it is, why aren’t people doing it already? By asking that question, we understand whatever is holding people back from changing their behaviour and address it.

If you wish for people to reduce their consumption of factory farmed meat, making organic alternatives affordable and easily accessible will go a longer way than sloganeering and shaming people into changing their dietary habits.

But why is the approach of reducing restraining forces superior? When we increase driving forces, in effect, we create more tension in the system. Both sets of springs coil pull the block tighter. Whereas reducing the restraining forces reduces the overall tension in the system. All concerned parties are more at ease with the latter form of behaviour change. A tense equilibrium is more unstable than a relaxed one.

What change do you intend to carry out? And what are the forces that restrain it?

Driving vs Restraining 2

Inspiration: An interview with Daniel Kahneman on the Knowledge Project podcast

Say it like I’m five

We all think of how Western Classical music and children do not mix too well. Leonard Bernstein, one of the greatest conductors in the world, didn’t agree.

Children often get angsty and have little patience for the intricate and elaborate art form of  symphonic Western Classical music, with its long winding pieces and hundreds of instruments. But Bernstein does a fantastic job of breaking this art form down and explaining it to children in his Young People’s Concert series. And it isn’t just for young people. I have listened to his lectures and have found them more instructive, captivating and illuminating than any musical performance, instructional or otherwise, that I have yet encountered.

True masters of their field can often convey its essence to children. The clarity they have allows them to step from the intricacies of their field and summarize it in a form that anybody else could understand. Just listen to how Richard Feynman explains the profundity in a common phenomenon that we seldom think so deeply about.

Maria Popova reads and reviews substantial works of arts on her famous site Brain Pickings. Amidst philosophers like Thoreau, psychologists like Schopenhauer and authors like Virginia Wood, Popova also throws in reviews of children’s books.

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.” – E.B. White

A litmus test of your understanding of a subject is your skill to engage a five year old in conversation about it.

The reset button

Have you seen one of those tare buttons on a weighing scale? No matter how much weight you put on a machine, hitting the tare button resets the scale’s reading to zero.

Drunk people are famously poor judges of their own driving skill. Despite their reaction speeds being substantially slower than their sober selves, their minds aren’t able to discern the difference.

A similar effect results when one is sleep deprived. People who haven’t slept enough often feel fine in the moment. This leads them to burn the candle at both ends, sacrifice precious sleep and damage their health in the long term.

We also know about the hedonic treadmill. Like a spring that is stretched or compressed, our brains often return to a normal level of happiness despite the positive or negative events that happen in our lives. This is why both big money lottery winners and paraplegics return to their base level of happiness a year after their their respective fortunate and tragic accidents.

Our brain comes with a built-in tare button. Undoing this effect requires healthy skepticism, deliberate effort and constant gratitude.

Jevons paradox

Despite numerous technological advances, why do we have so little leisure?

Back in 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons noticed a strange phenomenon. James Watt had recently introduced the Watt steam engine, which was significantly more efficient than his predecessor Thomas Newcomen’s design. Watt’s invention got a lot more work done with the same amount of coal. Therefore, the British government assumed that it would reduce the rate of consumption of their precious stockpile of coal. However, the opposite happened.

This phenomenon is Jevons paradox. It states that when technological progress increases the efficiency of use of a particular resource (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), its rate of consumption increases rather than decrease.

Why does this happen? Because when it is more efficient to use coal, more people start using it. The demand for coal consumption spikes along with the efficiency gains. It becomes cheaper to manufacture clothes, so more people start buying clothes. It becomes cheaper to take trains across the country, so more people start travelling. The efficiency gain achieved through technology has an unintended side-effect – an externality – which spikes up demand for the resource.

Let us consider how this might apply to our leisure. Back when we were hunter gatherers, we worked for merely 30-40 hours a week, including all the domestic chores needed for subsistence. That amount of work was enough for gathering food and cater to our basic material needs. The rest of the time was spent in carefree leisure. In today’s world, despite myriad technological inventions, a 30 hour work-week, even discounting domestic chores, is rare.

Just like coal, our time is a limited, non-renewable resource. In line with Jevons paradox, when technology helps us do something quicker, the market responds with a greater demand for our time. A quick takeaway lunch is soon converted to a “working” lunch. Email and an internet connection lets us work more efficiently, so we end up taking work home. And the job market promptly eliminates anybody who doesn’t follow suit – like he who refuses to answer emails past 4 PM or she who takes long lunch breaks.

Just as Jevons observed, the “invisible hand” of the market will not be mindful of how your time is utilized. In fact, it has the opposite tendency. As governments and individuals, we need to decide what is most precious to us. Certain societies, like the Scandinavian countries, have managed to go back to the 30 hour work week we once enjoyed. But its their culture, not free markets, that have enabled this.

Source: Jevons paradox – Wikipedia

Extending Hanlon’s razor

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” – Robert J. Hanlon

When somebody behaves in ways we do not wish them to, the little voice in our head jumps to the conclusion that they have something against us. When a coworker is rude to us, we conclude that they hold something against us. When a contractor does a sloppy job, we assume they are trying to rip us off. When a person doesn’t repsond to our text or return our call immediately, we assume that they do not care about us.

Hanlon’s razor is the aphorism above that offers an alternate explanation to malice in those situations. Attributing malicious intent seems to be the default programming in the brain’s hardware. But in reality, there could be thousands of reasons for which people behave the way they do. Hanlon’s razor has us explore one of those several other alternatives – stupidity. It states that people are more often stupid than malicious.

While that maybe true, I don’t believe that to be satisfactory either. Somebody’s unpleasant actions can be explained by several reasons more likely than malice or stupidity. Incompetence is one of them. Busyness is another. And so is anxiety or stress. All of those conditions are just as likely to cause people to behave in less generous or courteous ways. 

The incomplete list of of extensions to Hanlon’s razor are:

Do not attribute to malice, that which can be sufficiently explained by anxiety.

Do not attribute to malice, that which can be sufficiently explained by busyness.

Do not attribute to malice, that which can be sufficiently explained by incompetence.

Malicious intent often lies at the bottom of a long-checklist that our minds often overlook.

Inspiration: Tim Ferriss’ conversation with Alain De Botton