Is India changing for the better?
The government’s Economic Survey predicts that the Indian economy will grow by more than 7% next year.
Some of my NRI (non-resident Indian) friends strongly believe that nothing much has changed in India. They believe the government and politicians continue to be highly corrupt and the poverty levels have remained the same.
Another group of friends have regular discussions on a foreign journalist’s articles about the cow vigilantes as a symbol of the growing religious intolerance in this country that is taking our country backwards.
This leaves me a bit confused. Is India really changing for the better? Or is it standing still with little changes on key parameters? Or, are we as a country regressing? Why are there so many divergent views about the rate and direction of change in India?
Our brain is responsible for capturing all that happens around us and help evolve an opinion about it. So the crucial question is whether the human brain is actually capable of capturing the nuances of the reality that happens around us.
Neuroscientist Beau Lotto in his book Deviate: Seeing Reality Differently asks the question: “When you open your eyes, do you see the world as it really is?” The traditional view is that the brain is an input-output machine. Our sensory system was supposed to capture all that’s around us and our brain was expected to process all those sensorial inputs on a regular basis and come out with an output of what is happening around. But the new learning from neuroscience reminds us that the human brain is not capable of capturing nor processing all that is happening around us.
New learnings from neuroscience have clearly established that the human brain is an anticipating machine. Based on past experiences, the brain processes any situation with certain assumptions. If the reality of the situation is as per expectation, the assumptions about a similar situation get reinforced. But if the situation turns out to be different from what was expected, the brain updates its stored beliefs. It perceives the situation differently from how it did previously.
Thanks to the anticipating nature of the human brain, humans mostly see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and believe what they want to believe. The human brain has a brilliant ability to ignore what’s undesirable: how much time do we spend thinking about one of the most significant realities of our life—death?
One tends to look at the economic growth of US and focus on the fact that income per capita has increased roughly three times since 1960, but is able to conveniently ignore the data that the happiness level in that country is coming down. The brain has a strong tendency for selective attention.
Famous psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have clearly established that people are more likely to choose things based on their need to avoid negative experiences rather than their experience to gain positive experiences. We also tend to remember emotionally intense negative changes much more than most changes that are incremental and low on emotions.
Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman showed in their research that the negative perspective is more contagious than the positive perspective. A study by John Cacioppo and his colleagues showed that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good news. Researchers have analysed language to study negativity bias. For example, there are more negative emotional words (62%) than positive emotional words (32%) in the English dictionary.
A leading Malayalam television channel has a programme that highlights only the good news that happens in our society. For example, it had a story on how a local government hospital’s staff changed the whole hospital, right from its surroundings to procedures, to improve patients’ experience and made it better than some private ones. But the viewership of that programme cannot hold a candle to the number of negatively biased prime-time discussions on the same channel.
Our fundamental evolutionary nature to protect oneself from danger is responsible for our brain’s negativity bias and our tendency to ignore positive news.
Coming back to the issue of change, we always perceive change with respect to a reference point. Whether a line is seen as short or long depends on the length of the line beside it. A famous psychology experiment by Solomon Asch went even further. An individual (target of the experiment) was shown a few lines and was asked to choose a line that matches the one on another card. Along with the person were seven others in the room who were also shown these lines. These seven people were already instructed to give the wrong answer as to which line matches one on the other card. When it came to the individual to voice his opinion of the length of the line, although he knew his answer was wrong, he went with the views of the majority.
So, whether the current growth rate of India is good or bad clearly depends on the reference we use to compare it. These references used could be conveniently chosen to strengthen existing assumptions or could be fabricated to create new beliefs.
Different people might have divergent views about a particular change. For example, vehicle owners will see the building of a new highway as a positive change but the persons who will lose their land due to the highway project will have a different story to speak about this particular change.
Is our country changing for the better? I can only say the answer is a complex one.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.
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