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Social Media: The Most Dangerous Echo Chamber


social media

With every passing day of my settling down in India, I am finding how the change in India and USA has been parallel. In USA I have seen the two political parties getting increasingly polarized and it has been the same in India. People have extremely strong opinions about things, even simple things, ridiculous and irrelevant things. And the level of passion and heat in an argument quickly reaches stratosphere. Use of inflammatory words is very common. Conspiracy theories are abound. The words “Fascist”, “Nazi”, “Traitor”, “Treason” are being thrown around like candy.

I was wondering what happened. And then it dawned to me.

Social media. Bang.

There are multiple major problems with this social media influenced thinking.

  • Polarization and rigidity of opinions – People are used to post things, about their political and religious beliefs and inclinations on social media and get comments from their friends and family, an audience who is very much similar to them. The opinions they hear are mostly like theirs, as if they are hearing their own echo, hence echo chamber. Hearing the same opinions again and again, just like a magnet exposed to same type of magnetic field repeatedly, their own mind gets completely polarized.
  • Selective empathy – People who have brain washed themselves for long time suffer from selective empathy. They show empathy to one side and completely lack any empathy to other. Granted we are not Mother Theresa or Dalai Lama to feel love for everyone. We have preferences. But at least there should not be dehumanization. The people we don’t like get dehumanized and refused the right to basic human emotions and human reactions.
  • Confirmation bias– People seek out only the information that already confirms what they know, or they think. They avoid the information or publications that might prove them wrong. If the argument is irrefutable, they will cast the doubt on intentions of the writer. There is no tolerance for opposing viewpoint. The quality of objective thinking is severely eroded because of confirmation bias.
  • Emotional reasoning– When you say something and someone agrees with you, it gives you validation, a sense of being right, being appreciated, being valuable. It helps bonding and brotherhood and can generate good feelings and emotions. Since these are desirable emotions, our reasoning often gets clouded. We think, perhaps subconsciously, that whatever makes us feel good must be right. We enjoy agreeing with friends more than we enjoy being truthful, and the cycle of agreeing goes on. After a while, people get into discussion just to agree and to make it a bonding exercise. Truth does not matter.

Over the time, same thing get repeated again and again and again. In our mind, a thought or conjecture is promoted to a hypothesis or a theory. A hypothesis or a theory is promoted to the truth. And eventually the truth becomes an assumption or  forgone conclusion. Original thought, which was probably a guess at best, which has undergoes no scrutiny, is now used as a reference to prove or disprove other similar thoughts. This results in circular reasoning. Since A is true, B must be true. Since we now conclude B is true, A must be true.

And almost all people I have known to be in this trap claim to be fair, to be centered in their preferences. They are completely in denial of the trap.

One strong sign, a red flag that you are biased. If you cannot find anything good in the other side, if you cannot find any common ground with the people with whom you disagree, you are in this trap.

What about Hitler? you might say. Do you find common ground with Hitler too?

And their lies the problem. Hitler was bad, but there aren’t that many Hitlers in the world. If you are seeing Hitler everywhere, there is something wrong with you.

How to get yourself out of these mental traps?

  • First, open and accept that you, and everyone is vulnerable to these traps. The best way to equip yourself against these is knowledge. Google the terms “cognitive bias”, “confirmation bias”, “emotional reasoning”, “echo chamber”, “groupthink”. And read information. These are well known cognitive traps and a psychologists have done a lot of research on them.
  • Second, to check the confirmation bias, actively seek out information that is contradictory to your viewpoint. It can cause short term distress when you are forcing your mind to adjust with a complicated perspective, but eventually it will broaden your understanding and point you to the truth which will result in much less distress.
  • Third, practice all encompassing empathy. Showing empathy to someone does not mean you are agreeing with them or you will surrender your position or you will cease to fight. It just means that you give them right of human emotions such as fear, greed, and do not directly link their choices to being sociopath or evil.  It means that you accept that they are fallible human beings just like you and in different time and circumstances, they could be you or you could be them. May be it’s not hate, may be it’s fear? May be it’s not arrogance, may be it’s insecurity? Give your adversary benefit of doubt at least once or twice.
  • Fourth, when you get a message that gives you some information that just seems too good to be true, seems to prove you are right beyond doubt, put a hat of skeptic and cross check. Find references from reputed sources. Use your common sense. Put yourself in that situation and ask yourself if you would do that?
  • Fifth, and most important, get the hell out and interact with real people and put yourself back into reality. Shake hands, smile, chat, walk in their shoes. Get to know them. Don’t just form your opinions about them based on what you are reading , form it based on personal experience.

How to be Mindful?


I have asked this question to others and others have asked it to me. Along this journey, I have some answers.

Mindfulness traditional definition is non judgmental present moment awareness. We understand the meaning of the words on some level. But you understand it whole lot differently when you experience it once.

Do you exercise? If yes, how many of you exercise with a set goal in mind? To lose weight? To gain muscles? To look a certain way, or not to look a certain way? To regain health? To reduce blood pressure or diabetes? Whatever.

For me it was allure of a certain self image. I loved the idea of me looking very buff and muscular. I had that self image of how I was supposed to look. I found a sense of self worth, a sense of emotional security in that self image. I strived towards it without questioning the validity of that self image.

As long as I was working for that self image, I was enjoying exercise in an indirect way. The exercise itself was painful, because I was pushing myself, lifting more weights and running more miles. But I liked the thought that I am making progress towards the revered self image.

Then one day I was mindful of this whole game. I decided to let go of the self image. I had to face the insecurity that came with the thought that “I will not look that way”. But it was far easier to deal with this insecurity than I thought.

I started focusing on immediate reality and my sensations. I started lifting weights just enough that made me feel food. Made my muscles feel stretched and exercised. I ran just fast enough for me to enjoy running. I felt the runner’s high. The flood of good feeling endorphins running through my body. And I loved exercise in that very present moment. There was no goal except to enjoy the very moment.

As I practiced it, I settled into much lighter but enjoyable exercise routine. I started to look forward to going to the gym. My ‘calories burned’ went down, but my attendance to the gym got far more regular. I am nowhere closer to my buff and muscular image. But I am healthy and happy.

We all have this images of happy and secure life. They include a certain type of job, relationship, social status, appearance, possessions. What if we let these images go? And focus on being in this very moment?

Well, “what is a man without ambition?”, you might say.  Would human beings have reached the moon if they did not have ambitions and goals and strived towards it?

The real important question is not whether humans would have reached moon. The real important question is are you at peace right now?

If you are not, and are striving for being happy in a certain point of time in future, there is a good chance that even if you were to reach your goal, you will not be mentally present to enjoy that achievement. You will be working harder to achieve some next future goal. Because you are cultivating a habit of working towards future happiness than finding present happiness.

So you get the picture.

Anyway, here is what you can do to being mindfulness in your life.

  1. Meditate – Cliche. But important. Can’t find time for meditation? That challange will only last for six months. First six months you make time for meditation. For rest of the life, meditation will make time for you. With the increased focus, clarity, you will drop the counterproductive pursuits, unimportant crusades and will find yourself more lighter and free. Download “insight meditation” app on your phone. That will help you get in routine.
  2. Listen – There are plenty of good talks on mindfulness. Search Youtube and podcasts by Joseph Goldstein, John Kabat Zinn. Listen to them while walking ,traveling, relaxing. Read books if you are more into reading. There are plenty of blogs.
  3. Plan for mindful moments – May be set a reminder or two on your phone every day? All you do in that moment come back to your immediate sensations. How does it feel? Is it cold? Hot? Fan or A/c blowing? Are there any sensations of sights, sounds? physical sensations? Try not to judge. Just let them be there.

Mindfulness ! What is it?


buddha-lotus-pond

Long long back, I was living in Virginia. It was particularly stressful time in my life. On recommendation of a friend, I joined a mindfulness course.

Right on the first day, when the teacher described the classic paradox of mind, the less you try to be happy, the more you are happy, something resonated with me. It was beginning of a journey.

Often times people ask me what is it about. I give an example. Have you been in a situation when you were frantically running to catch a flight or a train? You were huffing and puffing, running with your luggage in hand, ultimately to reach the gate only to realize that the plane has left. Do you remember the sensation? Do you remember the end of the struggle and the wave of peace that follows?

You missed the flight. There is inconvenience. There is extra cost and wasted time. All that caused you to stress out and struggle is still there. But there is no struggle. You have surrendered to reality. Your flight is gone. And you are at peace. You are free to browse the books on the stalls, may be get a coffee.

Mindfulness is realizing that in life there is going to be some pain, some inconvenience, some loss, and there is going to be death. It is being more open, more accepting, less judgmental in face of reality of life. It is realizing that you have missed the flight of immortality, perfection, perpetual gratification. It is dropping the futile and often counterproductive struggles in life and then suddenly finding yourself free to check out life in this very moment. When you process it intellectually, it may sound depressing. But when you let it sink in your body and soul, it is immensely liberating. You stop wasting your energy and you start living the present moment. There is new found peace and joy.

Mindfulness is accepting that you will never be perfect and neither will be the world around you and still having compassion for yourself and the world. Mindfulness is stopping the self abuse and abuse of others in servitude of the fictions in your mind . Mindfulness is not about achieving anything. Mindfulness is stopping to overreact to life like a pendulum that keeps swinging, and coming back at the center. Mindfulness is learning to embrace even negative thoughts, emotions, negative experiences as openly as positive ones. We all have innate capacity to do that. Mindfulness only makes you realize this capacity.

What do I get from mindfulness? Well, freedom. Till I started practicing mindfulness, I was not really living. I was acting out my conditioning and deeply imbibed behavioral patterns. When I was driving and someone cut me, I thought I always had to be angry.  I had my hardwired reasoning why it was necessary, which I was not conscious of, and which caused sort of compulsion. After practicing mindfulness I realized it was more of a choice to be angry and I had many more choices available to respond to the situation. As the judgmental voice in my head takes a back seat, the range of choices I have in a moment is more. This is freedom. This is empowering.

So, what does stopping struggle really mean? Am I not going to put on my clothes and go to office? Am I not going to put on seatbelt or am I not going to save for retirement? Of course I am going to do all of that. It is again game of mind that is taking the idea and extrapolating it to the stratosphere. Mindfulness is all about finding the balance. The middle way ,as Buddha termed it. It’s doing enough, but not too much.

Ultimately, mindfulness is fully embracing the present moment with all it brings, the good, the bad and everything in between.

Elementary Watson! Trump is Moral Arbitrage for Media.


Long time back my friend in finance explained me the concept of Arbitrage. Apparently there are computers dedicated to searching stock prices on many stock exchanges. And every now and then a computer finds that a particular stock XYZ is being sold on exchange 1 at 99$ and is being bought at exchange 2 at 100$. Then the computer buys in a chunk of that stock from exchange 1 and sells on exchange 2, making small but sure profit. The opportunity may not come that frequently and the sizes of profit can vary. But if such an opportunity is found, then it must be jumped on because profit is guaranteed.

Before I write anything further, I must declare that I do not like Trump as a person. I do not think he should have become president. I did not vote for Trump.

But his rise from a fringe candidate to main candidate to president continued to baffle me. Throughout the primaries and in election and even right now, I continued to get amazed about how much coverage he was getting and he is getting even right now. This is the post about my attempt to understand the obsession of the media, both professional media and social media, with Trump. My AHA moment was thinking about this as arbitrage.

I think Trump as no friends. He only has enemies of enemies. And the continued media coverage helped him make more enemies and thus in a very convoluted way, get more people on his side by ‘enemies of enemies’ rule.

Just the way financial institutions love ‘financial arbitrage’ the people and media loves ‘moral arbitrage’. Instead of tackling complex issues that do not have good and bad sides clearly marked, they prefer to focus on small, irrelevant issues that have good and bad very clearly defined. So they can take the “good” side and feel good about themselves. This way no one has to face the uncomfortable, inconvenient truths about themselves. No reflection is required. No change to be made within ourselves.

Let’s keep the common people and social media out here. Because portraying the current affairs accurately is not really their job. But what the professional media did is inexcusable. They went after cheap headlines with ‘moral arbitrage’ with far more vigor than after complex issues that really mattered. All they cared about was staying in the positive light. And Trump gave them the perfect opportunity.

If we have to make sure another Trump does not rise in future, someone has to break this frenzied search for moral arbitrage in media. We need media that takes moral risk, handles inconvenient truth and is less judgmental than informative.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People?


Ah, just some random musing today.

The title question has always puzzled me and I am sure to thousands or millions of people before me. Why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. If good and ethical behavior is no insurance against misfortune and pain, then what point is it?

Religions explain this unexplained balance is by introducing the concept of afterlife and almighty.

We cannot explain what we see,  so we conclude there must be something we can explain but cannot see, with the assumption that balance must be preserved. If we cannot explain things in terms of actions of humans and animals around us, then there must be something or someone beyond seen life i.e. God. If we cannot explain the contents of life of humans and animals, then there must be life beyond death, i.e. afterlife.

A while back I posted the Story of Tao. About how your perception is a “catch-up” between your expectations and state of the world. And your expectations can change and the same state of the world is interpreted totally differently by you.

On one of my walks, I stumbled upon an hypothesis. Ethical behavior is not so much about avoiding bad experiences and pain. They simply cannot be avoided. Good and bad is part of life. It will always be there.

But with ethical behavior you will find yourself in cognitive resonance with the universe. You will gain insights and wisdom. That will eventually lead to enlightenment.

If you were to keep an account of material gains, it will be pretty much the same for ethical and unethical behavior in the long run.

If you are unethical, you will find yourself in a state of “cognitive dissonance” with the universe. This will lead to ignorance, clouded vision, muddied intellect and loss of freedom.

Some days back, I had read an article about management styles. How the symptoms of bad management when managers are trying to control too much are ironically same as symptoms of too little control. This is a situation where cognitive dissonance can happen. It’s a level of wisdom that can lead you to discern the right thing from symptoms.

What use is this wisdom if we cannot avoid pain? Tremendous. Answers Buddha. This is where the gem of Mahayana philosophy comes in. There is a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Pain is a sensation, an experience, an activity of nature. Suffering is an activity of mind. For an enlightened mind which is perfectly at peace, there is no suffering in the gravest pain.

For good and bad people pain remains the same. But for good people, suffering goes on diminishing.

The Charge Of Thoughts


There is something reflective about the fall season that is very contemplative. May be it’s the cool crisp air that reminds you to slow down, or may be it’s the leaves drifting on air that hint at the transitional nature of t his world.

But it’s calming for sure.

So here I was. Trying to be mindful on my train ride. And I had a unique experience. Let me describe it if I can.

There were a bunch of things in my awareness that had potential to start a snowball of thoughts. But as I tried not to resist them and just be mindful, I was able to just rest in the cluster of neural and physical sensations. Each one of them was like a seed for more mind activity. But with mindfulness, they just remained the seed. They did not develop into mind activity. They did not start a thought process. In a moment of mature mindfulness, a sensation just remains that, a sensation.

So there were sensations and there was awareness. And in that moment there was peace.

There was a realization that the events happening in outside world only result in sensations. The events, or the sensations they generate, do not have any charge by themselves. The charge comes from inside the mind. There is a certain projection and certain resistance or affinity. That’s where the charge comes from.

This is the charge that develops that sensation into the thought. Like a pinball machine, that charge propels the sensation on a different trajectory with great speed. Thus a thought is born.

Why We Fail To Understand Each Other?


conflict

On two corners of this world, I am watching two divides. India Pakistan divide in Southeast Asia and another Democrat Republican divide in USA. Of course the first divide has lot more sinister dimension of possibility of nuclear war. And that has historical context too. But more on that in next post.

The Democrat Republican divide is interesting because it’s happening even when there is no reason for this divide to be that strong. After all, both parties support capitalism, human rights and more or less agree on constitution.

What makes the public opinion about each other diverge? Why people completely fail to understand each other’s viewpoints.

And then one of my walks, I made a discovery. I am sure people have made this discovery before. But here it is in my words.

When thinking about someone else, people expect them to behave in a rational and ethical way. But when thinking about themselves, people make decisions based on emotions.

It reminds me of an psychological experiment described to me by a friend of mine. Forgive me for not providing a link, but it was just part of a conversation.

People were divided into two groups and asked to make a choice.

A. Select an airplane ticket at certain price for flying on the route where bad weather and heavy turbulence was expected.

B. Or select a ticket on the route for double the price where good weather was expected.

Everything else was supposed to be same about planes. There was no known technical difficulties and both airplanes were statistically supposed to have the same probability of safe journey.

One group had to pick this ticket for an unknown person. They mostly picked the cheap but turbulent route, because that was rational choice, scary but still statistically safe and cheap. The other group had to pick for their own, they mostly picked the calm route with double the price.

After this, both groups were shown a movie narrating horrible turbulence experience. Then they were asked to make a choice again.

Again if they had to pick the ticket for other person, they picked the scary but cheap route with almost the same probability.

But here is the real kick. When they had to pick for themselves, they picked the safe but costly route even in significantly higher numbers. That means they were more inclined to avoid the fearful experience for themselves after watching the movie. But still they thought it’s OK for the other person to face the fear, as long as it was in their rational interest.

It’s not that people hated the unknown passenger. They  underestimated the importance of emotions to the other person.

When thinking about others, people underestimate the erosion to the quality of life by negative emotions like fear  and enhancement to the quality of life by positive emotions like self esteem boost.

But when it comes to them, they overestimate those exact things things. They want to avoid negative emotions and go for positive emotions, even if it means making a choice that seems not rational.

Two primal emotions  – desire to increase self esteem and desire to reduce fear play a huge role. If you leave room for these two emotions, you would understand the response much better.

Take an example. Think of a recent incident when white cop shot black person.

When white person is thinking about the incident of black person being shot by white cop, their first thought is whether the black person followed cop’s instructions? If yes and still shooting happened, then white people are willing to investigate further. If not, then the case closed. The black person should have followed the instructions.

When black  person thinks about the same incident, their first thought is whether the police followed the procedure. No matter the victim followed the instructions or not, the black person would conclude that if the victim did not pose danger to the officer, the shooting was not justified. The situation when cop arrests you is stressful to both ends and may be the victim was too stressed or confused ?

The white people are more likely to identify with police and allow them some emotional slack, like fear and anxiety. The black person is more likely to identify with the victim and allow them emotional slack, like fear and anxiety.

Who is right? I am afraid both are.

(I am generalizing too much. I know. There are plenty of white people that see black angle and vice versa.)

Next time if you don’t understand the choice made by other person, think of two things. Self esteem and fear. Or rather Self-Love and Fear. If the person has to not only make a rational choice, but also make sure it helps them to do self-love and reduce fear, what choice would they make? And you will surely have a lightbulb moment.