Have you thought about (HYTA) how language and numbers can deceive?

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          Christian televangelist Pat Robertson once polled more than a thousand of his followers on whether they would prefer having evolution or creationism taught in schools. After surveying the results, he came to the dramatic conclusion that most Americans universally preferred a biblical explanation of our origin story. The data was irrefutable. More than 90% of those he surveyed wanted creationism. The sample size was suitably large, and he reached out to the young and old alike. Yet, something’s obviously amiss. What went wrong? It turned out that he had deliberately chosen to survey only a very specific group of people: those who were completely brainwashed by Christianity. Poll the members of ISIS and ask them if they think Islam should be the ruling religion of the world and you will get unanimous approval even if you surveyed 100,000 members.

          In order to invest their claims with authority, you will find that cunning advertisers, religious loons and even our closest friends will bend and twist numbers in order to persuade us of many things. In fact, some of these arguments may sound very familiar: 4 in 5 dentists recommend Oral B; this belief is true because so many people believe it; or in the case of gamblers, they would think that if they lost 10 times in a row, they would surely win the next game. Everyone thinks they understand how numbers and probability work. Yet, as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed, even esteemed Math professors and statisticians alike were just as terrible at overcoming statistical bias.

          Our minds are not good at measuring impartial outcomes or circumventing statistical bias. Consider that when we run into a friend we have not met for a long time, we are often quick to chalk it up as an incredible coincidence, or even a miracle. We have chosen to remember this one event of meeting him / her but have conveniently neglected the millions of times we saw other unfamiliar faces. It wasn’t really a miracle. Statistically, it was a likely occurrence. Likewise, it’s easy to assume that if you won 8 out of 10 rounds of blackjack, it might be due to your fervent prayer to a deity. But you will find that if you did the measurements over a much larger sample size, say ten thousand rounds, you will find that prayer or no prayer, the results don’t vary much, if at all.

          It’s also partly why it’s important to call out prayers, ‘blessed’ amulets or ‘sacred’ words for the bullshit they are. Like cheap horoscopes, deceptive advertisements and ‘reputable’ fortune-telling, these religious ploys and cons prey on weak minds that are already determined to see what they want to see. If the prayer works, God is real and listening. If nothing happens, then apparently God has other plans in mind. By either manipulating numbers or failing to understand their implications, we can be too easily misled by those who claim to have proof, or are trying to convince you to part with your money.

          But it doesn’t just end with numbers. As George Orwell once warned, languages can also be as cunning, if not more. The two sentences below express the exact same idea but are phrased differently.

Muslim injures 20 civilians. What do you feel about it?

Muslim terrorist inflicts carnage on 20 unwary civilians. Should you be angry about it?

          The phrasing is extremely powerful. In the second example, it unconsciously plants ideas and suggestions in the respondent’s mind and only pushes him / her to give the answer the surveyor wants to hear. The careful manipulation of language is especially true of most national newspapers. Headlines are often written in a way so that one’s beloved country is rarely the conflicting party or the aggressor. Even if the government was inefficient, numbers and words can be phrased in ambiguous ways to hide the hard truth. It’s an effective method of mass control, especially if the intent is to incite or breed patriotism.

          Though it is easy to understand the above examples, real world situations are often far more complicated. A pastor for example, may distract you from his many fallacious arguments by speaking louder and more confidently; someone might put you under a great deal of pressure in order to prevent you from thinking clearer; and even businessmen know how to use numbers to falsely generate scarcity or to appeal to your emotional irrationality. It’s inevitable that we will, at one point or the other, be an unsuspecting victim of such deceptions, perhaps even repeatedly. However, what matters is that each mistake continues to fortify our guard so that we can quickly sieve out those who are sincere from those who trade in falsehoods.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) how language and numbers deceive us?

Have you thought about (HYTA) why some people prefer to die than to live?

 

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          Life and death have always been the two impossible to miss revolving doors. At any point, you are either at one door or the other, not both, and while you can transition from one state to the next, few would voluntarily wish to die. Yet going by statistical data, more and more people are choosing to die and within certain age groups, suicide is among the three leading causes of death.

          Within a single lifetime, we may know a few people who choose to take their lives, whatever their reasons are. Death then, must be a pleasant enough release, for it to be so preferable over living. Or perhaps the reverse is true: living is so painfully taxing, dreary and void of meaning, that the alternative is more alluring. For most cases, I suspect the latter holds true.

          The causes of suicide are numerous and together, they span enough categories to humble a modern dictionary. Yet, if we were to discount some difficult to explain disorders and various genetic predispositions to mental illnesses, the main reason for suicide is probably not difficult to understand. A key part of happiness (and a meaningful life) is wanting other people to depend on you.

          Put simply, the more people depend on us, the better we feel about ourselves. It makes us feel just a bit more important, and perhaps even arrogantly, we secretly hope others cannot function properly without our existence. I believe even the most passive and laid-back individual can at least feel this much. We want to be noticed.

          It’s no secret that most doctors and lawyers (among other jobs) find their work fulfilling. It feels good knowing that many patients (or clients) depend on them in order to find direction in their life. These elite careers require the possession of an uncommon ability, so much so that though one isn’t a God by any means, it’s as close as it gets to role-playing a deity: the quality of a life is in your hands.

          Another way of looking at it is that these jobs are dependent on how much suffering there is in this world. The more people that suffer or incur injustice, the more meaningful (and profitable) it becomes. A doctor may very much wish to heal a patient, but likely won’t mind if someone becomes very sick. It lets them improve their diagnostic and surgical skills. How else would they find fulfillment? How else would they get better at their jobs? We feel important when people need us.

          This need for self-importance also extends to other situations. A missionary doing religious conversions feels reassured knowing that her God has tasked her to carry out his work. Her God depends on her. She feels wanted. Similarly, a spouse is far more likely to cheat if they repeatedly feel unacknowledged and unimportant. In such cases, they may feel that whether they are at home or not makes no difference. Their existence is painfully invalidated.

          If someone else values them for something, anything, even if the primary motive is raw animal lust or materialistic ambitions, it doesn’t matter. They feel wanted for something, even if it means throwing money away or knowing their actions will likely lead to a disastrous scandal. Would it be wrong then to seek attention in the arms of someone who can provide more and better? The answer will probably remain contentious at worst and morally ambiguous at best.

          In Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, a timeless classic popular among adults and children alike, the Skin Horse gently suggests to the Rabbit that having someone who loves him for who he is, who values his very being, who really, really cares for him, will make him real, whole and complete. That little bit of insight is remarkably lucid and makes for wonderful literature.

          On the surface, it’s sound advice for friendship or romantic endeavours: hold on to the rare few who embrace our vulnerabilities and see us for who we truly are. But it may also be understood that to be a real human being, we want to be part of another’s equation for happiness. We want to be the primary reason for which someone feels happy. Then, we are complete, and only then do we feel spiritually important and useful.

          Wanting others to depend on us might also explain why the green eyed monster, jealousy, lingers in our hearts. In deeply significant relationships, we sometimes deliberately create moments of pull and push, all perhaps for the sole reason of ascertaining and measuring how important we are to the other person. Does this relationship affect him as deeply as it affects me? If I do this, will I measure up to someone else she knows? Will I be forgotten easily? Do I matter?

          Somehow, I suspect there’s a perverse pleasure to be had in knowing that one has left an indelible mark on another’s life – because the opposite is worst. Who wants to spend years together and feel like they aren’t even able to weave their existence into the fabric of someone they value deeply? It’s exhilarating and egotistically fulfilling, even if it is also psychopathically selfish, to know that we are vital to another person, that they depend (or depended) upon us first for everything else.

          When we are made to feel like a nonperson (stripped of status and not recognised), living becomes a hellish tar pit. There’s little reason to wake up today, let alone tomorrow, and you are left sapped of motivation, with a silent emptiness that’s so loud and invasive, it’s almost impossible to function purposefully. Death then, I suppose is a valid albeit short sighted response to a long standing problem.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) whether you enjoy having others being dependent on you?

Have you thought about (HYTA) whether critical thinking can make us unhappy?

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Thinking deeply is not an uncommon occurrence. But thinking correctly and logically is rare, and hardest when we need it most. After all, it’s difficult, and sometimes perilous, to break apart and scrutinise our belief systems and moral values. Some people may never put themselves back again.

Yet, I have always considered critical thinking to be the finest battalion of the mind, with skepticism and knowledge as the left and right vanguards, and logic as the sharpest point of the spear. Aligned in such a formation, we save ourselves from some very bad beliefs and make higher quality life decisions.

Without rocking the boat over to either Psychology or Philosophy, the unfortunate consequence of thinking in great logical detail appears to be best summarised by John Stuart Mill as “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.” Those with a widely analytical and curious mind are more likely to feel the backlash of thinking deeply on many issues.

In a study of happiness that was conducted in a monastery, although the nuns were mostly insulated from the outside world, they were among some of the happiest people, and also lived longer lives. Did they know much about evolution or about the absurdities of their religion? I doubt it. A certain measure of ignorance buys one happiness. But was it worth it? I honestly don’t know.

The human mind is peculiar and very, very diverse. If you spend your entire life in the mental cage of a belief system, you will often never discover that you were being cheated of something more. I am sure we have met people who were evidently wrong but in their minds, they firmly believed they were in the right, and no amount of reasoning or evidence will sway them – but they are happy.

To make it worse, logic does not run hand in hand with emotions, and if it has to, almost always finds itself at the losing end. Emotions, especially those related to love, hate and power are some of our oldest and most powerful ancestral tools. The greater the conflict between logic and emotions, the more we douse ourselves in misery.

What then at the end? Is this a refutation of critical thinking? I don’t think so.

Even at the cost of happiness by degrees, thinking well outweighs ignorance. Too many bright human lives have been extinguished by really bad thinking. Whether you pin the donkey’s tail on religion, cults or conmen, there’s no doubt some element of good thinking is needed. Though there are (and were) days where emotions and memories get the better of me, I still like to, at least for now, continue seeing the world clearer.

Perhaps to some people, it’s a price that’s too high to pay.

So have you thought (HYTA) about whether critical thinking makes you unhappy?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the many sides of the same face?

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Wherever we go, we tot along an array of exquisitely engraved costume masks.

Fanned out on a flat surface, some of us would marvel at how many different, varied and storied identities we can effortlessly assume, all in a single day and all in a single seating.

All of us wear masks. That is not to be contested.

And we’ve developed situational masks to please, impress or intimidate certain types of people.

Even when we don’t feel that way, we smile and laugh anyway, because it would be impolite to do otherwise.

Sometimes, we applaud a performance not because we thought it was grand, but because everyone is doing it. It would be impolite not to. Peer approval matters.

When it’s someone who has a higher social standing than us, we give them more attention, more time and more of everything. They matter more.

But such performances, at least for some individuals, are tiring: An introvert pretending to be an extrovert quickly feels disconnected from himself; repeatedly impressing people with praises start to feel weary; and trying to fit a group’s artificial dynamics can burden us.

Those who cope well in such situations are often those who never really give too much thought to who they really are, nor do they see why they need to care.

Sometime ago, someone told me that this is how the social jigsaw pieces line up – it would be imprudent to go against it. Social needs, cliques and peer bonding are after all, very, very important.

And maybe there lies both the answer and the problem. We CAN be consistent, honest and authentic, but we are not willing to pay the price of being ostracised. That I can understand because social alienation can inflict a great deal of misery.

But on the side of the equation, is a loss of who we originally were. I honestly believe that among all the different masks we stash away, there is a part of us that’s genuinely consistent. It’s the face that’s under the mask.

It’s this side of us that we are usually most terrified to show. Because it’s vulnerable and individualistic. This side risks the greatest damage, and is the easiest to break, so for that, we have at our disposal, a set of masks.

It’s not to say that we should allow ourselves to be unguarded, or be willing to assume everyone is trustworthy. But the authentic side of us might exhibit honest opinions, blunt words and deep contemplation that we sometimes, really, really need.

And when we can authentically say, do and believe something regardless of the situation or people, it’s empowering and refreshing. How many of us I wonder, had to say things we never really meant?

It reminds me of a person who, in order to make friends, had to develop an entirely new mask – a chirpy, quasi-naive and socially outgoing self in order to fit in. Her more serious – somewhat philosophical self – had trouble resonating.

Perhaps at some point, there will a merger of our masks, and what’s left is an even average of all distributed personalities, but that I think is a little sad: to have something essential die inside us, and have no-one to mourn it.

Maybe there isn’t really a clear answer to be had here. Our masks are tools of survival, and who am I to denounce one method over the other?

But I had a taste of authenticity, and I know the price I pay for staying consistent across all points of my life, and I also know that what I say (either to get them to think more or defend a point) can be disagreeable to certain groups of people.

But it’s how I have lived my life for a long time, and even if it costs me power, money or social bonds, I simply don’t value these concepts the way most people do. I rather be closer to who I am – and that is still something I am learning.

What about you?

So have you thought (HYTA) about what your different masks are?

Have you thought about (HYTA) our self-inflicted miseries?

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Among the many curious truths about human life, this is perhaps the most unusual: we often, and knowingly, act in ways that will sow the seeds of unhappiness.

We incur consequences and inherit bad decisions not necessarily because we picked an obviously bad choice. But sometimes wisdom comes to us only much later – so we fail to see through the thinly veiled illusions of our immediate choices. And then we come to regret our decisions.

Ware, a nurse working in palliative care for many years, compiled the common regrets of patients, who on the precarious edge of death, gain the phenomenal clarity of vision.

The most common regret is listed first.

Regret (1): I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

For a great deal of people, most of our time is spent worrying about what others think of us. We are not sure if we are perceived as a good leader, wonder if our superior will grace us with a praise today or spend time trying spruce up a portfolio. We worry so much about something that we forget to think about ourselves.

It doesn’t stop there. We also pick the battlefield that makes us miserable. For example, we know leadership is a political game that’s often painful and sometimes morally bankrupt, but we choose to play in it anyway; we install ourselves in the company of people who provide us pleasure but limited room for self-growth; we sometimes squander relationships with careless abundance.

And after everything’s worn off, the haze of regret sets in.

Regret (2): I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

We run the hamster wheel because we have bills to pay, and whether we like our jobs or not, it can frequently become a numb mechanical routine. And time spent excessively working is dedication lost somewhere else.

Balance between work and life is not simply an allocation of hours. It’s a careful consideration of knowing what’s really, really important to us in our lives, and then giving up our time to pursue it. But do we really know what’s important in our lives?

It’s worth remembering that a company (or an organisation) is a construct, and though it always, always calls for our loyalties, we will never be rewarded in the same spirit of a wonderful, deep, heart to heart talk with someone we love. It is after all, a thing, not a being.

Regret (3): I wish I had the courage to express my feelings

Sometimes to maintain friendships, we say what our friends want to hear, even at the risk of being dishonest with ourselves. When we want to keep our business partners around, we suppress our feelings to keep an equal pacing with them. But what’s left of us?

Few of us have truly honest and spiritually uplifting conversations – the sort that warms the heart, expands our limited understanding non-judgementally, and graces the mind so joyously that short of the threat of starvation, we really just want to keep the conversation going. In a world where lying is the default position, an honest talk is a rare gem to have.

Somewhere out there, we have lost ourselves and have forgotten what it means to hold such an earnest conversation. Even with our parents and spouses, secrets are kept, feelings are played down and eyes are sometimes averted. And who can be blamed?

No one taught us that personal communication skills, thinking skills and raw honesty are the most important things to be in possession of. Yet ironically, we receive no grades for them – education provides little emphasis, and we are left short-changed for the entirety of our adult life.

It’s a pity that the recurring tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late. Our miseries are by our own hands.

So have you thought (HYTA) about what your regrets are?

Have you thought about (HYTA) what it means to gossip?

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We have all been there before: someone walks in as words tumble out of our mouths. This is followed by the ensuing awkward silence, the uncomfortable fidget, a slight blush. Eyes are averted and relationships are often irrevocably strained.

To gossip is to talk about someone who if they were present, would not appreciate what we had to say. Though we may revel in it, we do feel a slight twinge, almost as if our conscience is reminding us that we are engaged in an activity that’s potentially harmful.

Gossiping therefore, is a moral act. Words can hurt people and break bones. Every sentence we utter lines up with our convictions. Our voices, our words, our conversational gestures, they all seek to reinforce our core beliefs – to persuade or dissuade others. Words change minds. Words revise opinions.

Because we use gossip to establish intimacy within a group, it also means some people will be excluded. We take pleasure in affirming our moral code repeatedly. And we usually position ourselves as nigh infallible – we seat around a scared round table from which our judgements are handed down unkindly.

Perched from our haughty stone towers, we hope to feel superior – after all, there’s safety in numbers, and the larger the crowing flock, the greater the comfort. Such an act is a fine example of groupthink: our tendency to act, think and speak differently when we are with a crowd.

The worst kinds of human behaviour always begin with groupthink. Look no further than religious persecutions or political rhetoric.

Yet amusingly, though we do not wish for others to gossip about us, we rarely use that as a base to justify why we shouldn’t talk bad about others. For most people, it completely escapes them that the very act of a conversation (not just gossiping) is a great moral force.

Gossiping should be done intelligently and like criticisms, should be handled with a set of ethics that recognises that every person and every situation is different. We should pay close attention to the words we say because just like looking deep into a person’s eyes can snare one for life, so too can what we say lift a person up high, or hurt them very deeply. And we should blunt our knives even at the worst of times.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) what gossiping means to you?

 

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) why we criticise others so readily, so much, so often?

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“People like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. They feel better then. They find it easier to live”
                                                                                                                    -Geralt of Rivia

This profound observation, even if it’s through the eyes of a fictional character, has always struck me as being a disquietedly accurate truth about our behaviour. We may wear the fresh coat of modernisation and believe we have advanced in all aspects, but we have not really changed much in our behaviour and decision making – we have merely become more cunning, more prone to easy self-justifications just so we won’t feel bad about who we are when we hurt others by words or by deeds, disparage their reputations or knife them in the back.

We make other people monsters, tear them down and usually misattribute their flaws, so that by comparison, our existence is bearable.

Though Geralt’s response is best understood in the setting of The Witcher – a mirthless, bleak backdrop of wretched human existence set against the wide expanse of human gullibility and exploitation – where he eventually comes to the astute conclusion that very often, the humans he tries to protect from the horrors are usually far worse than the clutching, devouring shadows, there’s no denying his response is still an accurate echo of our typical behaviour.

While we don’t invent monsters, we do invent lies and untruths, deliberate distortions and baseless exaggerations, and all of these are spun from the wheel of gossip and casual talk. We form cliques that converge on the same opinions, establish group superiority and exclusivity, and from there, we deride the efforts of others to bolster our standing. It’s not uncommon. From young students, teachers, senior management teams, we like to criticise people from our vaunted, shared, bricked battlements.

Even when we should admit our mistakes, acknowledge the opposition’s success, we instead stubbornly choose to consolidate our position and keep firing away at our arrows anyway. It’s just so much more comforting to hit away at someone, openly or in secret defiance, knowing that we are likely immune to any counter volleys. We thrive on the misery of others. We are one, and they are others – such is the manifestation of group think.

And chances are, without a strong self-awareness, or an exceptional person to guide and develop our thinking, we are likely to default to the natural tendency to criticise others without reflecting on ourselves. After all, the totality of our existence, the measure of our name, the reach of our fame, are achieved by comparing ourselves with others.

Consider a few scenarios:

Even with an average performance, there is SOME comfort knowing others (even friends) have failed dismally.

If someone you disliked got the position you wanted, it’s more fun to laugh and block out their speeches, even though truthfully, it was well-delivered.

It’s easier to blame others than ourselves, in which case, we have a tendency to attribute others’ mistakes to incompetence and ours to convenient bad luck or a misalignment of the planets. In Psychology, we can think of it as a mixed bag of the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias. We have a need to maintain our egos. Admitting to mistakes means we are lesser, not greater.

It’s just nice to know that if we are bad, we are not that bad. These modes of comparisons manifest themselves ever more strongly in moments of intense competitions – romantic, social, educational or financial.

Because we often subscribe to these thoughts, we do a great, great deal of harm when we mount unconstructive criticisms or obscure opportunities to scrutinise our weaknesses (and improve on it). We make our opponents appear as tyrants, and draw the line between good and bad, correct and wrong, with the fatalistic assumption that the morals in the world conform to such a stupid and simplistic definition. And we almost always imagine ourselves as the good guys who can do no wrong.

Some of the finest writings of criticisms come from Ratatouille where Anton, the unreserved, scathing critic, finally admits that  we should acknowledge the goodness in others who offer themselves (and their work) up to our judgements. It’s not to say others are perfect, and I will be the first to say that most systems are biased and flawed, but it doesn’t mean we are free to say anything and everything without sensitivity or contextually linking it back to ourselves.

And it certainly doesn’t excuse us from demonising others, easy or tempting as it seems.

I leave you Anton’s last words, a fitting ending I think, to why we should resolutely make it a point to develop strong self-awareness about our tendencies for self-aggrandising gossip, barbed arrows of criticisms and group assault on “others”:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so…”

Would it be that if we had a better heart and heightened sensibilities, the world would be a slightly nicer place to live in. Alas, both are often sacrificed on the false pedestal in pursuit for glory and inflated egos.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) your attitudes towards gossip and criticisms?