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Cognitive bias

Cognitive bias
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First Published: Thu, Apr 19 2007. 12 19 AM IST
Updated: Thu, Apr 19 2007. 12 19 AM IST
It was common till recently for opponents of the Nehru-Gandhi family to attack its dynastic politics. These voices have now been hushed, as many critics have set up their own competing dynasties.
The game now has changed. It is about proving that my dynasty is better than yours. Rahul Gandhi, the fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family, has entered the fray with a vengeance. Twice on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh, the young scion of the country’s most important family stirred a hornet’s nest. He first said that the Babri Masjid would not have been demolished if his family had been active in politics at that time. Later, he reportedly said that members of his family achieved goals such as national independence, the division of Pakistan and leading India into the 21st century.
Few would bother to deny the roles played by Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru during the freedom struggle, Indira Gandhi’s decision to go to war against Pakistan in reaction to the butchery in what became Bangladesh, or Rajiv Gandhi’s early reforms and embrace of information technology. It is equally easy to point to the huge errors made by these worthies—Nehru’s enthusiasm for statist planning, the institutional decline during Indira Gandhi’s years at the helm, and Rajiv Gandhi’s decisions on the Shah Bano case and on opening the gates of the Babri Masjid in 1986.
What is Rahul Gandhi up to? Critics have lashed out at him. The Congress Party has expectedly come out in support of him. It is perhaps a good idea to step aside from the immediate controversy and see what it is all about.
No individual (or family) controls the flow of historical events. To believe otherwise is either ignorance or folly. Psychologists have a concept called fundamental attribution error, which is sometimes also called the overattribution error. In simple terms, it means that we tend to overemphasize people and underemphasize situations when analysing events.
This is one of the cognitive biases that psychologists as well as behavioural economists have highlighted in recent years. There is an egocentrism in many of these biases, where people involved in a certain event claim more credit for it than actually warranted.
Behavioural economists show how managers and investors often try to take ownership of successes that are a result of factors beyond their control. Evidently, the same principle applies to Indian politicians as well.
Rahul Gandhi’s recent statements are a classic case of cognitive bias. Take the issue of Indira Gandhi and the division of Pakistan in 1971. In an essay published in Hindustan Times, a sister publication, on 18 April, Manoj Joshi shows how there are several narratives of the events of 1971. One of them does imply that Indira Gandhi single-handedly carved up Pakistan. But what about the role of the Indian Army, the Bangladeshi leaders and the soldiers who sided with them? Surely, each had a role to play.
It is plainly wrong to reduce recent Indian history to the doings of one family—and both its supporters and critics need to realize this. We Indians are obsessed with the idea that great men and women control our destinies. It is time we moved beyond these unending debates about which leader of yesteryears was right and who was wrong. That’s part of the progress towards a society based on individual freedom and action.
Rahul Gandhi could some day become prime minister of this country, as the current prime minister quite correctly said at an election meeting. It would be more useful if Gandhi tells citizens what he would like to do in the years ahead, rather than make grand and deeply flawed claims about the past achievements of his family.
Is the role of leaders overrated in India? Write to us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 19 2007. 12 19 AM IST
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