Category: General

Our Broken Minds

There’s a special feeling of illumination when two things you have learned separately click together. Recently I had this privilege while going through Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.


Kahneman argues that the human mind operates in 2 modes that he creatively calls System 1 and System 2. The first is fast, impulsive, automatic, emotional, and corresponds to what we would informally call intuition. The latter is slow, lazy, deliberate, effortful, and rational. System 2 is the conscious one that proclaims the I, despite the fact that System 1 does most of the work. When I say the word “elephant” and a mental picture of an elephant comes up in your head, that’s System 1 acting. It’s the same System that says “2” whenever someone says “1 + 1”. System 1 is also present when you’re driving. Think of every activity that occurs involuntarily or can be delegated to autopilot, and you can safely assume it’s an activity of System 1. On the other hand, any activity that demands your attention, then it’s System 2 at work. Activities that require a cognitive load are delegated to System 2. The entire book discusses the cooperation of these two systems, their merits and faults, and the consequences of their cooperation and inner working, which have effects throughout life generally and economics specifically. There’s one aspect of their cooperation that I would like to emphasize: System 1 formulates first impressions and feelings, and System 2 accepts them as draft that may turn into beliefs most of the time. In short, Kahneman puts it as “[i]f System 1 is involved, the conclusion comes first and the arguments follow.”


That particular sentence caught my attention because I have heard it before. Not in that particular phrasing, but it falls along the same line. Jonathan Haidt in his book the Righteous Mind kept hammering the phrase “intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second” throughout the book. The first item in both of them is intuition, and the second one in both is strategy. Though neither have explicitly referenced the other, I believe both of them are talking about the same thing.


As much as we like to believe we’re in total control of our thoughts and behaviour, we aren’t. A lot of behavioral actions and thoughts occur unconsciously. An example of that is mentioned earlier, i.e. the “do not think of an elephant” conjuring a thought of an elephant despite your conscious effort not to. We do have control, but not 100% sort of control. We have conscious control by the virtue of System 2, albeit faulty control. Its faultiness is evident by the list of cognitive biases that have been identified by scientists in various experiments.1 A lovely metaphor Haidt uses is System 1 as the elephant and System 2 as the rider of the elephant. The rider can control so much of the elephant as long as the elephant is willing to be lead down a certain path and the rider has enough energy to steer the elephant. The elephant can affect the path, the time, and the entire experience of the journey. If the elephant desires to sway left, the rider cannot prevent it at all, but will work that sway into the journey and guide the elephant back to the intended path. The effect of that sway is not undone. The marks are still visible on the ground. The elephant’s idiosyncrasies are the cognitive biases.


Let’s start with the anchoring effect. This cognitive bias associates the first piece of information encountered with whatever task comes right after it, regardless whether they’re related or not. Dan Ariely in one of his books talked about an experiment where the last two digits of subjects’ social security number was used as the anchor. The subjects were shown wine bottles, told of its qualities, asked to write down the last two digits of their social security number, then asked to put a price on the bottle. The data show subjects whose social security number ended with big 2-digit numbers priced the bottle higher than those with small 2-digit numbers. Kahneman talks about an experiment where judges were presented with a case of a person who was caught shoplifting, asked to roll a pair of dice, say whether the sentence of months in jail would be higher or lower than what the pair of dice say, then asked to give the actual number of months. The result: “On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence her to 5 months; the anchoring effect was 50%” (Kahneman).

Considering this effect, how much are we in control?


Which do you think is more fatal: sharks or cows? Most people would guess the answer is sharks, but, it turns out, cows cause more deaths than sharks do.2 This is called availability heuristic: the belief that ease of memory recollection correlates with higher significance. We’re subjected to this effect by media reports, for example. Many people fear flying due to fear plane crashes but not as afraid of riding a car, though death rates by car wrecks are far greater than plane crashes. The media has an interesting relationship with this effect. The rarer the event, the more newsworthy it is. The more newsworthy, the easier it is to recall.

Considering this effect, how much are we in control?


Another cognitive bias is the framing effect. Being told a surgical procedure has 90% success rate gets more favorable than when it’s presented as having 10% fail rate or 10% possibility of dying on the table. The gist of the information is not different, but the reaction garnered is different.

Considering this effect, how much are we in control?


Those are only 3 cognitive biases of a long list, not to mention that the discussion is brief and more can be said on them.


The bad news is: our brains are broken due the default mode of System 1 at work in inappropriate times.


The good news is: we have System 2. We might not be able to control all thought, but we can influence thought and control the action.3


The bad news is: there is only so much energy for System 2 before it gets tired and submits to all suggestions of System 1. The phenomenon of System 2 exhaustion and submission to System 1 is known as ego depletion. If you ever been on a strict diet then, one day, you had a wild lack of self-control, then you’ve experienced ego depletion.

Considering this effect, how much are we in control?


What I’m getting at by this discussion is a call to be aware of our thoughts and judgments. We should always keep a check on our conceptions; are they a product of deliberate System 2 thinking, or are they unverified impressions from System 1? We must always be cautious. We must return every thought to be thoroughly processed by System 2 before accepting it. We are responsible; or so believes System 2.




Maybe It’s All a Compromise

I was in Bahrain one day in August of the past year (2015). I witnessed something that shook me deeply.

The mall I went to has a parking building (building B in the diagram) and an intermediate building (building C in the diagram) connecting the mall (building A in the diagram) with the parking building. This mediating building has escalators between different parking lot levels. Naturally, the intermediate building has sliding doors on the parking side and on the mall’s side.

Who is Happy
Figure 1: “A” represents the mall, “B” the parking building, and “C” the intermediate bridge


Here I am entering the mall and there was a family coming out the mall. There was a lady who looks 40ish, a couple of kids, and the paternal looks well into his 40s or 50s holding another man’s hand who also looks to be 40~50 years old and is a bit short and hunchbacked.

The short hunchbacked man was dragging his feet with a genuine look of fear on his face and says with kinda a child-y tone “I’m scared. I’m scared.” The paternal who’s holding this man’s hand kept telling him “it’s alright. You’re not scared. You’ll be alright.” He wasn’t imitating children. It looked and sounded genuine and natural.

I do not know what’s the condition he has, what caused it, how long he had it. or any other question that could popup. He seems to be exhibiting a developmental disability, given the tone he spoke in and the way he acts. It shook me how here’s an old man who’s in a mental state that’s detached from the normalcy of everyday objects. Things that are not very new to anyone who has been around for the past 20 years, yet for some reason he is not well with them. He really looked like toddlers who are afraid of escalators or elevators. I can only deduce that he has one condition or another that affected his mental development. Whether he’s born with it or not is irrelevant because, to me, it’s the fact that he’s not settled with something we take for granted, which is assessing the surroundings for rational fear of objects or the place being risky.

I’m not sure I can ever understand what he’s feeling or how it would feel to be in his shoes. This fact upsets me that I can’t understand or perceive what someone like him, a fellow human being, is experiencing. It makes me feel helpless that I can’t understand him (or people like him) so I would be short on the ability to help or even interact with them.

What is it like inside his head…

Upon reflecting on this a day or two later, I am reminded by a House MD episode (Season 3, episode 15, titled “Half Wit”).

The episode starts showing a man, named Patrick, trying to button his shirt but he can’t and his father rushes to help him. Patrick is a savant and piano play prodigy. He became that way due to a bus accident when he was a kid. Patrick is the patient of this episode. House eventually resolves that a hemispherectomy is the cure. House explains to the father that the procedure will cure his son. He’ll lose his ability to play the piano, but he’ll live “normally,” whatever normal means. Before signing the consent, the father turns to his son and asks him “Patrick, are you happy?” Patrick doesn’t understand the question, which impulses the father to consent. Patrick later wakes up after the surgery; he lost his speech, but he buttoned his shirt on his own.

Some of us have a knee-jerk reaction of thinking “how sad and poor that person is” when witnessing someone of one disability or another. I admit that I used to do so on occasion. However, I am now more aware of my thoughts and try to catch myself not to think that way. I feel like this reaction is us thinking of ourselves as collectively better than them. It is that House MD episode that got me thinking about it.

Now, was Patrick happy before the surgery? Is he happy (or happier) after the surgery? Is being able to button one’s own shirt is more valuable than being able to play the piano flawlessly? I, for one, wish I know how to play the piano but I don’t, and I’m sure there are many others like me. Would we be willing to make the trade? Personally, I do not know if the trade is worth it and I don’t know if it’s not.

An example from real life is more approachable and relatable than a fictional character. Consider Stephen Hawking. This man is a genius. He can solve differential equations in his head. Those who studied differential equations know how those solutions could take multiple pages to get to the answer. But he’s also bound to his wheelchair, can’t talk without the computer, can’t move his head, or any other part of his body because of a disease called Lou Gehrig’s disease (also known as, ALS). Is Stephen Hawking a “poor fella” because he’s bound to his wheelchair while he can solve complex mathematical equations in his head? Now are we envious of him or are we saddened for him? Would anyone be willing to trade with him?

People like Patrick (from the House MD episode above) could actually be happy, something many of us quest after, yet we will look at them and think “how sad and poor.” After all this time of pondering the entire discussion, which has been on my mind for years, I get stuck in a mental loop when I involuntarily think “what a pity” of a random person I witness somewhere. It starts with the thought of pity, which I immediately catch myself thinking it. I tell myself “we’ve been over this entire thing before” and replay the entire argument back and forth in my head. The argument keeps me in check, and it serves as a distraction from deliberating the thought of pity. However, the conclusion is always the same. Maybe it’s all a compromise and each one of us have their share.

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

We all have heard them, the snarky remarks at non-STEM majors.


“Oh, you’re majoring in English? I hope you like working at McDonald’s.”

“You better like working at Starbucks because that’s what you’ll end up doing for being a music major.”

“A degree in philosophy prepares you to make sense of burger flipping at McDonald’s.”

“Psychology majors are fit for none but being cashiers at Walmart.”


These statements conceal two damaging sentiments: the banality of disparagement of non-STEM fields majors (does the disparagement extend to the fields themselves?), and the disdain to workers of jobs that are considered menial and monotonous, e.g. fast food worker, waiter/ess, cashier, etc — for some reason, baristas are not typically lumped into this category. These sentiments are not observed only in commoners. It’s heard from educated and high profile individuals. For example, Jeb Bush, who is running for the presidency of the US, recently made a statement that psychology and philosophy majors will end up working at Chick-Fil-A1. This is coming from a person who graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Latin American Studies.2


The perception and the main force behind these sentiments is that these fields are not beneficial to the society and/or not providing growth and money. They are nothing like engineering where you see them building cool gizmos every other day. They are not like physics, which has tight coupling with engineering. Chemistry and mathematics are also strongly connected to engineering. Geosciences are required for the oil industry, for which we have thirst for. It seems like everything revolves around engineering. Why? We shall come back to answer this question later in this piece, but first we need to define what roles in society can non-STEM majors fill.


What Are You For?


Most of the work of these individuals is hiding in plain sight. They are disadvantaged that way. The books and newspapers you read are mostly written, proofread, and/or edited by English major graduates. You like to visit museums? Those artistic and historic pieces you gawk at were curated by an art and/or history major. Sir Ken Robinson in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative talks about one fellow who started college majoring in philosophy. After a few courses, he changed his major to art history. Later he got a job at an international auction house due his training in philosophy and knowledge of art, history, and ancient civilization.3


Historians dig below the surface of historical incidents, teach us what went right, teach us what went wrong, and provide guidance to not repeat the mistakes. When the “Right to be Forgotten” law was established in Europe, Google assembled a council made up of philosophers, historians, lawyers, among others to help them construct a policy on how should the law be executed and  on what basis.4 Paul Bloom discussed in the Coursera course Moralities of Everyday Life how philosophers are involved in the self-driving car project at Google, working out problems such as the infamous trolley problem. Psychologists, sociologists, linguists, economists, anthropologists, and many others have broad contributions to our growth, whether as humans specifically or inhabitants of this world generally. If all fails, at least these people are to become educated voters who employ their knowledge in driving the arguments and shaping policies.


Now, is blindness to benefits the mere reason behind the disdain? I don’t think so. There is more to it than what is on the surface.


Immediate vs. Delayed Gratification


We all have heard of the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment. Those who have never heard of it before can follow the link in the footnote.5


The benefits non-STEM fields provide vs. what engineering provides are akin to delayed vs immediate gratification in terms of the benefits they provide — mathematics and physics, especially theoretical physics, tend to be more abstract in what they provide. The difference between the fields of study and this analogy is that we, as consumers, are majorly seekers of immediate gratification. STEM provides immediate gratification, non-STEM provide delayed gratification. The skill of resisting the temptation of immediate gratification in favor of the better delayed gratification is not an individualistic skill; it’s also societal.6 We are almost always hungry for the next thing in technology, regardless of how prepared we are as a community. Engineering and natural sciences push technology forward at a fast pace and we keep absorbing it all. However, STEM cannot provide the culture that maintains and sustains itself with innovation. STEM creates the Internet, but psychology recognizes the phenomenon of internet addiction.


STEM and non-STEM  are not mutually exclusive, rather they complement each other. STEM has an advantage because it is steps ahead of non-STEM. The latter cannot prepare an environment for the unknown, thus it requires STEM to head before it to create the environment, and by then it’s too late to prepare and non-STEM is left to merely study the pre/post-effects. This is a catch-22, aka chicken and egg problem.


The Case for Non-STEM


Making the case for non-STEM is not an easy feat. We are not talking about one homogenous space, like what STEM has. Perhaps it is time to address a particular decision in word-choice some of you might have noticed and wondered why it is so.


Throughout this piece, I have been mostly using non-STEM, as opposed to liberal arts or humanities. This is deliberate. While researching for this piece, I noticed that some sources lump the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, and math) with liberal arts, while others exclude them. As for humanities, many of what I have found don’t include the social sciences, which are important for this discussion.


A partial argument for non-stem was made in the previous section. The complement to that argument is this piece from a letter John Adams wrote to his wife: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My Sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”7


Nicely put, John Adams.


Ziyad Marar also has a good article on the matter and he is definitely putting it better than what I can do. Click here.


You Said Something About Fast Food Workers


The notion regarding fast food workers comes along with the notion of non-STEM students; thus, it must be discussed. I have heard and overheard people talking about fast food workers and cashiers at donut shops, or other stores for that matter, saying statements along the lines of “if they were any smarter, they wouldn’t be working here” or “you’re so stupid and that’s why you work here” when the unfortunate worker makes a mistake. Granted, we all get frustrated with client-facing employees and say “what an idiot” in the burst of frustration, but it’s the frustration talking and it’s in regard to the action that had just taken place and not at the person and how they come to assume the job.


They, client-facing employees, might not be innovating new cool technology or coming up with new theories of why children and adults behave a certain way at certain times, but they are still providing us services to make our lives easier. They fed some us who get hungry late at night and have no power or commodities to cook something on their own. They have to stand on their feet for 8 hours, and maybe some more, just so you and I can walk up to them, dump a basket-ful of items on the counter and have them ring up the total cost and bag each and every one of them. Some of them have to get up at 4am so they can make it to work just in time to make some food ready so you and I can grab a bite on our way to work in the morning while we’re in a hurry.


They might not be pushing the wheel of innovation higher up the hill, but they help those who are pushing. They help the society keep its spinning-wheels spinning. Perhaps they deserve more respect from us than we think they deserve.



Not Before Everyone Else

Last night as I was walking to the grocery store, I passed an old man laying on the ground, wearing half-torn clothes, and disheveled appearance. It was cold, about 45° Fahrenheit (7° Celsius), and whatever he was wearing is not enough to keep anything warm, let alone an elderly man.


“Excuse me, son,” he said. It was late and I was the only person walking in the area. I looked at him and said “are you talking to me?” He sat up. I noticed his amputated hand. “Yes,” he said, “would you please give me some money for food? If you don’t trust that I’ll use it for food, please buy the food yourself and give it to me. I haven’t eaten in 2 days.” “Okay,” I said, “where are your sons and daughters? Don’t you have any?” He told me his story.


“Back in the day, I was a carpenter. I had my own small shop. Business wasn’t big for me. I was only able to make enough money to feed my family of 3 boys and my wife and have a small amount left to recycle within the shop for materials. My business wasn’t big enough to hire any workers. I worked by myself. One night, a bunch of rowdy kids broke into my shop, stole whatever cash they found, and burned it down as they left. There wasn’t any insurance since I barely had enough money for living expenses and basic materials for the shop. A friend in business offered to hire me to work in his shop. That worked well for a number of years. One day I had an accident. I tripped and my hand hit the table saw. After that, I’m fit for nothing. My sons gave me money for a while, but they stopped after my wife passed away a few years ago. We lived in a rental apartment and I was evacuated for not paying after my sons stopped providing money. None of them is willing to host me, either. Eventually, I became inhabitant of the streets. Every now and then a generous person would donate some food or money. The past 5 days were hard as no one have donated anything. All the few donated money I had finished 2 days ago. and I haven’t eaten since then. People have been callus the past few days and no one is willing to help. I beg you son. Give me something to eat.”


I looked at him and said “you said no one has helped you lately, why does it have to be me? Besides, you should have known better than to keep your business small. You should have not been selfish and small-thinking. You should have spent more on your business to grow and less on your family for living. Find someone else to help you. I’ll help once others start helping before me. I don’t want to be the first one nor do I want to be the only one.”


As I was about to walk away, he clung to my khaki pants saying “please son, I beg you.” I noticed my pants were stained by his dirty hands. I was furious! I pulled my leg to free it from his nasty hand and he got a kick on the face in the process. He started weeping with annoying cough.


Can you believe this dude?! He thinks I’m a fool and expects me to pay the expense of his stupid life decisions.


Now that I have gotten your attention and aroused your feelings, I must admit that none of the above really happened. It’s all a figment of my imagination. Its purpose is to deliver a point, because, apparently, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is too subtle.


The thought to write this piece has come to me after seeing comments from different individuals that are along the lines of “if others are not helping, why should we help first.” It is rather interesting the scale of choice of those individuals.


This attitude mirrors a phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. This phenomenon is best identified in situations of short physical proximity between the victim, perpetrator, and the passersby. One of the major playing variables in the bystander effect is the diffusion of responsibility. This means that in the presence of a large number of people, each person assumes one of the others will take action, thus the actual action of helping never takes place. I admit that I could not find scientific papers to back the extrapolation that I am about to lay out, so take it with a grain of salt.


As per the diffusion of responsibility definition, the larger the number of people present at and aware of the scene, the less responsibility a person assumes in making an action to correct it. In this day and age, all cause-and-effect are on global scale thanks to the Internet. So we take this concept and expand the number of bystanders not to 4, 10, 20, or 50, but to ~5 billion (or milliard in long scale). Everyone’s share of responsibility is now at 2*10-8% (that is 0.00000002%). The phrase “I couldn’t care less” fits this figure quite nicely. In addition to the large number of bystanders in the international crisis we’re assuming, one must not forget to factor in the apathy introduced by the physical distance. There are accounts of the bystander effect present among people within meters of an incident and they did not take the few steps to correct it; thousands of kilometers are not going to motivate more people to make any move either. We all know of the quote “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” There’s at least one psychological phenomenon in that. We, humans, tend to help more if there’s a face, an identifiable person, to the crisis; that is, if the the entire crisis is summed up into that one person. This is called identifiable victim effect. You can see it when humanitarian organizations make ads that revolve entirely around a single person with a face, name, maybe list some hope, fears, hobbies, etc.. The identifiable victim effect does not seem to play a big part in bystanders who are within a relatively short physical distance from the victim. Crises on global scale will present less of the identifiable victim effect, thus lowering their chances even further to receive help.


The intent is not to depress you. This is meant to shed light on damaging behaviour and form of thinking. The goal of this is to identify those and combat them. The goal of this is for you to eventually catch those thoughts and act on them. We should always reevaluate our stances. Now that we know how we are deceived by a subliminal trickery, we can question the thoughts we know are related to the frozen state of inaction and consider the option of taking action.



The story at the beginning is partially inspired from Robert D. Hare’s account of a psychopath who killed an old man in a burglary act in his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (P. 91):

I was rummaging around when this old geezer comes down stairs and … uh … he starts yelling and having a fucking fit … so I pop him one in the, uh, head and he still doesn’t shut up. So I give him a chop to the throat and he … like … staggers back and falls on the floor. He’s gurgling and making sounds like a stuck pig! [laughs] and he’s really getting on my fucking nerves so I … uh … boot him a few times in the head. That shut him up … I’m pretty tired by now so I grab a few beers from the fridge and turn on the TV and fall asleep. The cops woke me up [laughs].