From God Natha to grease devils

Monday, 22 August 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Kautilya’s advice: If people are gullible, exploit them

Kautilya, the fourth century BCE Indian economist, strategist and statesman of ‘The Arthashastra’ fame, had a fine piece of advice to his king.

When the king’s treasury runs low, he should use extraordinary measures to build the treasury. Collecting money by exploiting the gullibility of people to superstitious beliefs is one such measure he has suggested. He has in fact described several ways which the king can exploit people’s gullibility in Book V of ‘The Arthashastra’.

They include common ways of fooling people with all kinds miracles, wonders and tricks: ‘building overnight as if it happened by a miracle, a temple or a sanctuary and promote the holding of fairs and festivals in honour of the miraculous deity; exploiting an unnatural happening such as an unseasoned flower or fruit by making it into a divine phenomenon; using secret agents to frighten people into making offerings to drive away an evil spirit; playing tricks on people by showing a cobra apparently with many heads or a stone cobra coming alive and finally selling remedies against evil occult manifestations.’

Kautilya further recommends that if people are not easily taken in, they should be frightened into doing so. Secret agents who include wandering ascetics working for the king as well should give unbelievers an anaesthetic in water and blame their condition on a curse of the gods or kill a condemned criminal by poison and attribute his death to divine retribution.

Kautilya lived 2,400 years ago and 200 years after the Buddha. But the people were so superstitious and fearful of natural events that they could be easily fooled by anyone using a trick on them. Kautilya’s logic in this case was simple: why should the king allow others to profit from people’s fear and ignorance when the king himself can make money out of it? Apparently, others may exploit people to their excesses and the king could keep it to a minimum.

This is in line with today’s popular public policy: the state should step into government monopolies because the private monopolies exploit the consumers and a state monopoly through conscious public policy could avoid doing it or if it is unavoidable, could keep it to a minimum.

Many exploiters of men’s fear

Thus, from very ancient times, smart and crafty people have exploited emotions and fear in others to make money for themselves. The list is long, but some prominent exploiters have been the marketers, religious preachers, politicians, charlatan physicians, star readers and social activists.

Of course, today’s rulers do not have to promote and sell fear to make money for the government. But, according to what behavioural psychologists and a new breed of economists called behavioural economists tell us, they could do so easily even today because people are all driven by emotions that have caused deep rooted fear within them. This is not unusual because, as the Buddha has preached his disciples in Dhagagga Sutra or the Discourse on the End of Flags in the Samyutta Nikaya, even God Shakra has not shed greed, hatred and delusion.

Hence, he is not free of fear and would flee, with goose bumps all over and body hairs standing erect, when faced with greater fear. So, if God Shakra, the Overlord of the Four Heavens, is not free of fear, then, there is no question of all other mortals getting inflicted by fear.

The rational man

The concept of ‘man driven by emotions associated with fear’ attacks one of the foundations of economics. That is the ‘assumption of the rational man’ on which all economic theories have been framed, justified and validated.

A rational man has several features. He chooses the best for him which economists call the optimal choice after carefully considering all the costs and benefits of his choice. To do so, he acquires all the relevant information necessary. Once he makes his choice, he is consistent and does not contradict himself later. He is motivated by incentives and if there is a profit opportunity, he never misses it.

To be able to make optimal choices for himself, he builds a store of knowledge within himself or within easy reach. He continuously updates his knowledge by being a constant learner. He does not intellectually depend on anyone else and, given a situation, can make rationa l and best choices for him. Thus, in terms of the popular usage, the rational man makes decisions not from his heart, but from his head.

All economic theories have been based on this rational man. When irrationality is introduced, economic theories collapse because then there is no man with capability and willingness to make optimal choices. It affects the utility maximising consumer, profit maximising firm and public good maximising government. In other words, no maximisation takes place across an economy and it, therefore, stands at a sub-standard level.

The first attack on rationality: The concept of bounded rationality

It was the Carnegie Mellon University Professor Herbert A. Simon who suggested as far back as 1957 that the concept of unbounded rationality in economics had several flaws. Using his multi-disciplinary knowledge of sociology, psychology, political science and economics, Simon suggested that men are inflicted by three handicaps.

First, men are unable to calculate the relevant probabilities of an outcome of an action they have taken. This pertains to the inability of gathering the required information to make a choice. Second, even if they can gather the relevant information, they have the limitation of understanding and interpreting such information.

This he called the limitation on the cognitive power of people, that is, their ability to think, learn, understand, reason and remember. As a result, human memories are weak, incapable and unreliable when it comes to making optimal choices. Third, people do not have time to make optimal choices by considering all the facts.

Hence, they make decisions but those decisions are not optimal decisions. They are rational, but not to the extent of the unbounded rationality assumed in economics. This special rationality which is constrained by the above boundaries, namely, lack of information, lack of brain power and lack of time, was termed by Simon as ‘bounded rationality’.

Then, if people do not optimise, what do they do? They would simply make the first choice by considering only the available information and available time based on their brain capacity rather than going for the best.

Simon coined a special term to describe this by combining the two words ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’. That term was ‘satisfice’ and those who practice satisficing were called ‘satisficers’.

Even after five and a half decades of coining this term, it is yet to get into standard Oxford or Cambridge Dictionaries, though it is widely used in behavioural economics, management and strategy.

Simon’s bounded rationality offered immense opportunities for decision making science in economics and management. For this unique contribution he made, he was awarded Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978.

The attack on rationality without mentioning rationality

Two decades after Simon, two other psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky of Stanford University at that time, came up with a new decision making process by people based on the trial and error learning method of their intuitive understanding and the allegiance to such intuitive understanding.

The trial and learning method was called heuristic and the allegiance bias; hence, the approach was known as ‘heuristic biased approach’. For a layman, it is simply the use of rules of thumb (heuristics) influenced by most recent experiences (bias) when making decisions in cases where they do not know the full outcomes.

The simple explanation of this approach is that people have an intuitive pool of knowledge which they build up through emotions and fears and that pool is brought into action when they make a choice.

For instance, if people believe that a certain politician is corrupt, whenever they are asked to make a choice about him, their view on him gets coloured by that built in bias, despite the convincing logic contrary to that view. Thus, people have lifelong loyalties to religions, cults, political parties, political leaders, brands or economic systems based on these biases and aversion to some others based on built in prejudices.

The Canadian journalist Dan Gardener in a book titled ‘Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear’ and published in 2008, has presented the Kahneman – Tversky theory full of psychology jargons in simple language. According to the two psychologists, there are three components in making these choices: anchoring and adjustment heuristic, representativeness heuristic and the availability heuristic.

Anchoring and adjustment heuristic is that when we make choices, we remember only the most recent event relating to the situation and we anchor ourselves to that event. So, the rule of thumb is, according to Gardener, ‘the Anchoring Rule’. If we are asked about a politician and all we remember is something nasty he has spoken about women, we like a herd, decide on him based on that anchor, even without considering the logic of his saying about women.

Representativeness heuristic is simply that we form an opinion about an event before us based on our pool of emotional knowledge. There was a friend of mine who argued with me for hours that tobacco companies are bent on destroying Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist culture despite my saying that even the Buddhist priests chew a little bit of tobacco as a routine when they chew betel. But for him, driven by fear, tobacco companies are a typical representation of destroying a wide and established culture. Gardener calls this ‘the Rule of Typical Things’

The availability heuristic is a rule of thumb about a common example which we bring to play when we make choices. There could be many examples in store in our mind relating to the matter; but what we use is simply the easiest one which we can remember and that easiest one is marred by our emotions and fears.

For instance, if we have been frightened by a grease devil prowling in streets in the nights, any male we meet in the street in the night is a grease devil for us. Gardener has termed this ‘the Example Rule’.

The research done by Kahneman and Tversky was used by another economist at Stanford, Richard Thaler, to lay the foundation for a new branch in economics, now known as ‘behavioural economics’. Kahneman was also awarded Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for his contribution to economic decision making. Many believe that Tversky too would have been a co-recipient in this event had he not pre-deceased.

Amartya Sen’s attack on rationality: ‘The rational fool’

Amartya Sen, another Nobel Laureate, made a different type attack on rationality. In a paper titled ‘Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioural Foundation of Economic Theory’ and published in 1977, Sen argued that a choice by a typical person from within a given set of choices is sub optimal because he has no opportunity to choose from a wider spectrum of choices.

He may be rational in his choice by considering all the available information and carefully calculating all the costs and benefits within the given narrow option available. But according to Sen, he is a ‘rational fool’ because his choice is limited by the boundary of the option available to him. Hence, even in ordinary economic rationality, one would not get the best option or choice.  Sen’s argument has nothing to do with emotions and fear. But, it helps one to understand that choosing from limited options is not the best for a person. This very well fits to the political party system in China or Viet Nam or Cuba. People there have to choose candidates fielded by the same political party since there is no multi-party system in those countries. Since the choice is from within a single party, the choosers are rational fools.

A similar situation has arisen in the preferential voting system in Sri Lanka. After voting for a party, choosing candidates fielded by the same party is an act being a rational fool by a Sri Lankan voter. That may be the reason for many voters, after voting for the party, not to cast the preferential vote for individual candidates.

Different types of knowledge

Knowledge gathering is costly in terms of mental strain, brain’s capacity utilisation, time and money. Hence, no one would try to acquire a ‘rational knowledge’ which requires one to spend time, money and brain’s capacity to gather knowledge on a logical basis.

 Instead, a person may tend to maintain ‘rational ignorance’ where he would choose to remain ignorant by depending on someone else to go through the hassle of gaining knowledge and educate him. This strategy obviates the necessity for him to store knowledge within him and recall it whenever he has to make a choice.

Depending on Google search machine is an instance of people choosing to become rationally ignorant. But as the journalist Christopher Carr has mentioned in his book, ‘The Shallows,’ it has created a generation of people with no skills of their own to reason, rationalise and evaluate information.

The danger of rational ignorance is that it incentivises those who have the knowledge to rationally exaggerate the information for personal gains; those who are rationally ignorant have the incentive to irrationally exaggerate it because they are emotionally driven and do not understand the real meaning of the information which they have acquired from some other party.

As a result, people who are afflicted by emotionally driven fears lose power to reason based on sound logic and thinking. Like a herd of cattle, they could be driven by others.

These are the people who are emotionally driven and offer themselves to be fooled by smart and crafty persons as in the case of the gullible people in the days of Kautilya.

God Natha and grease devils

A team of natural scientists from the University of Kelaniya has claimed that they have drawn the hypothesis for their research on the relationship between exposure to arsenic particles and kidney disease in the Rajarata area in Sri Lanka and the testing method of samples suspected of containing arsenic elements from God Natha.

Since Natha means ‘no form,’ there cannot be a deity in physical form for the team to make contact and record his advice as a part of the evidence for research methodology.  So, the team has claimed that the contact was made through a medium that has developed the capability to consult God Natha. This definitely shows an emotional bias. As Montana State University academic Robert Pirsig has said in his philosophical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a hypothesis for a research study is like a ghost because it is a mental thought without its own energy source. Hence, there is nothing wrong for the research team to use a ‘ghost’ for its research; what is wrong is the bias which they exhibit right from the beginning of the research study.

The bias is that the hypothesis and the research methodology were given by God Natha; God Natha should not be displeased by refuting his hypothesis or validating the null hypothesis that arsenic elements have nothing to do with kidney diseases; hence, evidence is gathered to prove God Natha and not to make a free inquiry that could yield opposite results. Hence, at the end, it is declared that the hypothesis is proved without looking at the alternatives available.

Emotions, therefore, lead to irrational choices and many are ready to accept them because they themselves are emotionally driven and have a bias toward the choice which others have made for them.

The incident of grease devils that have scared and frightened many people in some parts of the country bears testimony to the same outcome. People first choose to remain rationally ignorant and depend on others for choosing for them. Others have incentive to both rationally and irrationally exaggerate information relating to the grease devil; rationally to derive a benefit for them and irrationally to let out their emotions and fears.

The result is that people are driven like a herd, some out of fear and some in order to derive a pleasure by being a vigilante. No one has wisdom or patience to look at the logical base of the grease devil who is nothing but a sex pervert smeared with grease to avoid being apprehended.

In my view, the scarcity of rational men is evil; the proliferation of emotionally-driven, irrational men is a greater evil.

(W.A. Wijewardena can be reached at [email protected])

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