Physical Environment and Human Behavior #1

I found it chocking and claustrophobic when I recently (24-26 July 2017) saw an unfinished building oddly jutting out of the main locus of the JNIMS (Porompat, Imphal) buildings, squatted across the Pong Lambi. I had not noticed it in my two other visits to the hospital earlier this year—one in mid-March and the other a bit earlier.

Twenty-one years ago in early 1996, when I, as a young boy, came first to the hospital (it was called the JN Hospital—Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital—until it was raised to the status of a medical science institute a few years ago and renamed the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS)) to attend to my maternal grandfather who was getting intensive care in a separate room at a private ward, the road had quite a busy traffic flow because of Mahindra Jeep commuters, besides others, especially between the MG Memorial Hall (Imphal West) and Sangomsang (Imphal East) long before the cheaper if irritatingly-too-noisy means of transports—the first and second generations of three-wheelers—became popular in these parts of the state, Manipur. Honestly, irrespective of their undeniable socio-economic and historical importance to the country, I hate auto-rickshaws for their inconsiderate noise and terribly ugly looks and color. When grandfather was sleeping and I had an hour or so to myself, I walked far south-east along the road to see the vacant fields and wetlands edging away far into the distance on both sides at most points of the road that tapered apparently into the faraway greenery of the Nongmaijing Hill. The air was cold and fresh, and being there instilled a liberating feeling in me.

When I saw it in my recent visit, the part of the Pong Lambi before the JNIMS was more like a seldom-swept, asphalted backyard parking lot of some affluent minister with visitors from all over the country—the road brown in the July heat looked old and to have stopped losing aggregate and ageing; the dust that had gathered in the dips in the rough surface texture had turned into dry mud and the layer of new dust seemed to have been there not disturbed enough to drift in the air to change place, and the uniformly brown asphalt surface bore almost no sign of darkening by tires visible on roads in regular use. No new signs of wear and tear. It was not difficult for any visitor driving for the hospital along this part of the road to sense that the vehicles coming from the opposite direction started not long before—the vehicles felt to have just swerved and not all vehicles in the middle of a long drive would not come at the same slow speed which characterized almost all of those vehicles I saw there. My suspicion about something possibly having happened there to the once familiar place was later confirmed by the cul-de-sac the jutting, unfinished building had made of the road.

I had no personal feelings associated with the place but seeing the building inconsiderately squatting there cutting off the road quite apparently social instinctively shocked me. What immediately flashed in my mind the moment I saw the obstruction (or objectively speaking, the erection of huge physical structure across the road) was the Berlin Wall. Later, when I had found out the name of the road was Pong Lambi, another wholly different thing struck my mind, triggered by the word Pong, a term (it is perhaps a chance sound similarity) the Manipuri’s knew the Burmese by, without actually knowing the status of the road’s historical association with the Meitei-Burmese trade relations before the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891.

The change in the physical structure of the place due to the protrusion, something like an unnatural outgrowth of the earth right across the road, nudged my mind to have a different attitude toward the place and to physically behave differently to it than I would have twenty-one years ago or any time without that structure. Later I walked and casually surveyed the place and discovered that the addition of that building in that particular way in the physical environment of the place had nudged the people there also to behave in a certain way that would not have been the case in the absence of the building across the road. The way the built environment emerged ensuing from this odd building’s stopping the traffic rendering redundant the rest of the road south-east of the building (red-circled in the picture) is the physical proof of how people’s settling behavior has been influenced by this building on its south-east. Due to encroachment by human settlement (the legality of which is beyond the purview of the task at hand), the road on the south-east of the building has shrunk into an alley in stark contrast to the width and health of the part of the road on the opposite side of the building. Irrespective of the legal status of the JNIMS claim over the piece of land across the road (yes, the government is the owner of the land and for larger public causes such as the JNIMS, it can make adjustment reshuffling to the patterns of settlement at least of limited areas), nobody would have dared to do anything that would lead to the shrinking of a road in full use. Later on, while researching for this series, I came to know that the part of the Pong Lambi before the JNIMS has now been renamed JNIMS Road.

The movement of people east of the new JNIMS building in question has changed, the settlers closer to the hospital, in the absence of a artery, taking to the small alleys leading to the Porompat DC road while the people of further-away places such as Sangomsang having to take the Khongnang Makhong Lambi on the Iril river and then the Porompat DC road. This shift in movement is quite phenomenal.

Our concern in this series is not to judge the merits and demerits of the physical environment but to study the psychological influences of the physical environment including built structures on how humans behave.

 

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Edge of Humanity

Legs splayed out carefree in a care-wearied world, he was beautiful seated on the dusty pavement between a highway and the Kangla outer moat one late afternoon in mid-January. He became conscious of me when I had taken a few shots of him—he shifted uncomfortably where he sat and took up a balled-up towel behind him, unrolled and unfurled it before him with both hands. I felt guilty to have invaded him. That boldly, too.

I approached him and asked in Hindi if I could photograph him. Suddenly a calm smile spread across hitherto blank face and his lips flickered wordlessly with excitement. That was beautiful. I interpreted that as a gesture of willingness. I took a couple of portraits. When he sensed I had done with the last shot, his gesture of willingness changed to one of curiosity, the desire to see the photographs taken. I immediately connected it with his initial discomfort with my photographing him. I wondered if he was mad at all.

He took a few diffident and tentative steps toward me when he read the willingness in my face. I also approached him and showed the pictures. His smile broadened. The portraits were good.

“Where are you from?” I asked him.

“Assam,” said he.

I could not but wonder if he was mad at all.

“Buy something and eat. You must be tired.” I said as I took a ten rupees note out from my wallet and gave it to him.

Cities press their poor out into the streets, under the bridges and into the gutters. Once homeless, your sense comes across as nothing different than insanity and you fall on the edge of humanity with little or no chance of getting back to where you really belong. Once out in the street, you are a nameless part of the city most pathetic landscapes–dust, pieces of paper and other litters, scavenging birds and animals.

I walked on, looking back at the man every now and then, and he looked stiff as if he was trying to resist the temptation to look toward me. When I took the turn I saw him bending to sit where he had been.

Why I Won’t Sing Jana Gana Mana

Jana Gana Mana’s nationalist cartography terminates where West Bengal ends in the east. India’s nationalism can climb the Himalayas and scale Mt. Everest, but it cannot climb the hills beyond West Bengal in the east, and I am from further east beyond the eastern boundary of West Bengal.

Jana Gana Mana embraces the territory/land from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, and from Gujarat and Punjab in the west to West Bengal in the east.

Being a person domiciled in Manipur (currently, that is temporarily, living in Delhi, and I don’t know how long I will continue to live here; but, THANK YOU DELHI), Jana Gana Mana does not make any more patriotic sense to me than a verse from the Holy Quran, an inscription on a pre-India Mohenjodaro civilization, Tito & Tarantus’s After Dark, Leann Rimes’s Life Goes On, Britney Spear’s Toxic or Pakistan’s national anthem.

If any Jana Gana Mana chanting patriot argues that this song represents all India and what it covers is India and nothing beyond that forms part of India (e.g., Pakistan is not covered, and so it is not part of India), then they should prove that India extends beyond West Bengal to put, say, Manipur within its national boundary and for this Supreme Court order to have its force in the cinema halls in Manipur.

A national anthem should not necessarily do cartography and name all its territorial divisions, but if it does at least to identify or represent the length and breadth of the territory of the state/nation it sings the way Jana Gana Mana does, then it should not stop midway, leaving a chunck of landmass (big or small) the way Jana Gana Mana does. This means that at least in territorial terms, Jana Gana Mana, written before India’s independence and long before the annexation of princely states beyond West Bengal (Manipur’s was in 1949), is inadequate to be India’s national anthem.

Do I say India ignores and excludes whatever beyond West Bengal, and am I hurt by this? I have the ego of being not easily hurt. I have been a formidable argumentalist against separatist arguments in Manipur. The same reason I give to my opponents can be given as a reason for my not being shocked by the “Indian mindset” of “exclusionism”–there is no absolute, natural, universal law holding people together as political nations or separating them as ununitable naturally. So, India has no special charm for me. Separatism, by the same logic, has no special charm for me. If we agree to stay together, we stay; if how at least one party behaves is irresolvably problematic to the health of the relationship and if we cannot live together, then separation, settlement or divorce is the only option left. Manipur and India, for example. If the situation turns so bad, all wheels of the logic involved should reason and grind toward this end. So I don’t feel excluded. I have this die-hard EGO. If India’s biases national agenda in all its forms loses me and people of my type, India loses a lot, and that involves a dear price.

Most of my friends will vouch for my rationality verging on what some of them call “emotionlessness” and “heartless,” and also for my being slow at getting irritated. If I am irritated by several politically, religiously, culturally, and racially motivated changed in the country, it is crystal clear what people with less patience and tolerance than me beyond West Bengal would feel and how they would react.

In any case, why do we think a nation should necessarily have a national anthem?

The Supreme Court should see this. If the apex court fails to understand such sensitive and legally controversial issues, who else will manage it?

Un/real Like a Nightmare

All cyan and pale blue. Horror. And horror-tinted pupils. Un/real like a nightmare.

A river. Water thick and mucuous with dirt. Foul. Putrid. Dirt dangling and floating like hair in the wind from the skeleton of a bridge, banks, and leafless trees on the banks, branches skinned like animal rib-cage with the rotten remainder of flesh reeking in the wind. The jig-a-jig of the deep bass buzzes of acousmêtre flies ubiquitous and enveloping. Garbage chocking the flow–upriver, the water-belley beginning to distend, bending upward.

Garbage on the banks. Dirt flowing on the narrow paths on the banks snaking along with the river. Mumbling dirt, speaking dirt, coughing dirt, sneezing dirt–dirt walking in mass like in an exodus, pale-blue humans short of zombie eyes, that horrible skin, that horrible gait, that horrible raspy voice, those hungry hands reaching out impatiently in emptiness. More a spectacular river than the slow river.

Winged trams flying past over across the river, alarmed passengers covering their nose, the silent horror in their face streaming out through the glass windows into the river.

All cyan and blue. Horror.

Macroscopic View of Madness: Insanity in the Heart of Sanity?

Is it obtainable for a person to be mad and is still aware that he or she is mad? This question, while it hits one of our core assumptions as to madness, is deliberately worded as it is so that we face a conundrum born of our way of thinking making us ask this question as we have asked.

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Self-portrait by Thoithoi O’Cottage

Our core assumption about madness is that “mad people” are different from us because they do not think or are not capable of thinking like us; i.e., to be self-conscious. Let us not be distracted from the issue by “self-conscious,” because the issue with our core assumption is about “difference,” the health of which is determined by the “standard.” Yes, for better or worse, we need standards for us to live in organized ways, no matter how we organize these “ways,” though the standard should not be so fixed to stifle any forces of change (which can never be justly judged beyong wild conjecturing before they have actually transpired into real artifacts). The need for standards seems to be more important in some areas than others; for example, standards of health readings (say, the range of healthy values in a complete blood count test) and health-care procedures (say, the best way known of treating a disease) are more critical than dressing standards of hospitals and the institutions of the police and the army. Our health is more of a primary concern to us than other non-physical (or moral) values (such as the question of wearing sindur or mangalsutra among married women in most of India) because the condition of health directly and immediately affects us (the body) first and our other concerns (which are secondary) are at the mercy of our health. In this sense, some standards are more fundamental than others to the extent of the relatively less basic ones being negotiably compromised for better adjustment in the more primary areas.

The conundrum born of our way of thinking leading us to asking our question at the beginning is that our assumption that madness is a matter of kind but not degree and consequently that if somebody is mad he/she is mad in absolute terms has made it impossible for us to pursue the investigation which would have been initiated by the question correctly worded. The assumption stated as a problem in the preceding paragraph is actually a product of this more fundamental assumption giving birth to the conundrum we encounter now. This conundrum shows signs of us considered mentally healthy ignoring who we consider mad as a generalized mass of madness, thereby creating a binary of we/they, with there being nothing common in between. An immediate discontinuity between black and white.

Our general understanding of madness is of the kind of a uniform solid with no internal variation. If X is mad, and if Y is mad, then our view is X = Y to the extent of their distinct individual characteristics and other readily visible differences becoming irrelevant resulting in their personhood ceasing to be. This death or murder of personhood reduces them to the status of things like molecules in a drop of water or drops of water in the river where you see just the flowing continuity of uniform liquid water, not incalculably many drops or molecules of water.

This macroscopic view of madness leads us to a dangerously flawed (wrong and unjust) sweeping generalization about mad people–if X mad and if he/she cannot be self-conscious, then any other X’s cannot be self-conscious. This leads us to the conclusion that if anybody is mad, it is impossible for them to be aware that they are mad.

Is madness actually a matter of kind, not degree? If this is the case, does one immediately jumps into madness (becoming mad all of a sudden) when one becomes mad, and jumps immediately BACK OUT OF madness into sanity (becoming NORMAL) all of a sudden, and there being no continuity between the two “major” distinct states in such a way that this person was X while he was normal first, and then he jumped into being Y (stoping being X) and then jumped out (BACK) into X or (Z, a third person?).

I will dwell on this issue in my another article.

Throes of (Child)birth, Smart of Taking Life

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Photographer unknown

A young, recently married woman committed suicide, the News Nation reported last evening.

It was the final rites of a neighbor yesterday–he took his own life successfully in the second attempt after the first about five years ago. His body was found hard and stiff in the rain hours after his last breath, in the dark narrow space between a barber’s shop and a big abandoned car at a small junk yard.

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Photograph by Sally Mann

His brother had tooken his own life, too. I can still hear the sounds of women crying in his family sneaking weakly and quietly into my room one quiet evening in the early 2000s–I was reading (or writing something?) in my always-quiet room which I had turned into an indoor garden with plants collected from deep forests all over Manipur besides the ones I got from professional gardeners and plant lovers including my brother’s father-in-law. His body was found hard and still in his farmhouse (bolted from inside) days after his disappearance. Before he finally could take his life, he had been often seen walking drunk with a poison bottle in his hand. One foggy late-winter morning, he was found asleep on a cremation furnace platform on the cremation ground in my neighborhood. He had a poison bottle in his hand.

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Photograph by Sally Mann

One son of the eldest brother of these suicide brothers had also put an end to his own life a few years before that. He had hanged himself by the neck from the ceiling of his bedroom, survived by his wife and two very small kids–one was just a newborn.

These three later cases are just what comes to mind when I think of suicides I know personally, actually close ones. Just convenient examples. I can make a long list of names.

About the same time, a friend of mine from my neighborhood–a good humorous person–took poison and it was too late when his family returned home that evening.

Suicide is a very regular phenomenon, and the rate is reportedly highest in Guyana (where people reportedly “die like flies” followed by Japan (Brandon Bridglal). In my state (Manipur, India), statistics says, suicide rate is highest in Kakching. I alone have many friends in my town who committed suicide. A couple of childhood friends from Wangoo, too. That village on one lake farm in which I lived my childhood.

Conversely, when I look at nature closely, I see every speck of life–even the tiniest ones–struggling to live against all sorts of odds. Under the microscope, I see microorganisms struggling to live. On the wooden wall panels of abandoned houses in the woods or on the red-brick walls at the base of the foundation of every building where the minimal conditions of life are present, there are always life forms–at least in the forms of moss and organisms so small visible only to the eyes looking for tiny lives–struggling to maintain life.

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Lichens struggling to live on a dead sliver. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage

I see both life and death around me. Struggles to live and to die. The throes of childbirth, and the first cry of the child. The act of taking life, one’s own or another person’s, negating its birth by another person, a life-giver, a mother (with a father).

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A wild creeper struggling to cling to and draw life from dry mountain-flank rocks. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage

To be continued…

A Hole in the Walls of Life

A loan shark (God’s mercy be with him because he needs salvation more than any good person–what would mercy do if it does not go where it is due or wanted?) forced open the legs of a woman claiming after thirty years to be his mother and I heard him say to her:

I came out of that, huh? Now let me get back in there. I hate this world.

That was unbearable.

Life proves shatteringly tough to some. They sometimes imagine the reality of some deus ex machina, some hole or crack in the walls of life through which to escape out into somewhere. Into some cave, be it the same as the one the unconceived are in or something different. Some hole out of life.

Suicide is an attempt to make a hole in the walls of life, leading to someplace nobody knows nothing about. The motive is just to escape the pain felt at the present moment, without knowing what the supposed or imagined refuge (if it really exists, but nobody can testify to its reality) have in store for the deserter. The motive is more of disappearance from the current pains than of landing somewhere. I believe, in most cases sucides do not have time to imagine an alternative world with a different order of things, which is the profession of philosophers and philosophers very rarely commit suicide not because (it seems to me) they look at suicide from certain established religious perspectives and consider it a sin or because they after careful examination and comparison prefer this life to the probable one into which suicides escape, but because they have problems of thought regarding this commitment and what (if any) may follow it.

Damn. Stop it.

An Untimely Person

If you don’t have resources (be it money or the power of connection or some super-human quality) to antidote it, it is a major harm in life not to time your life with the rest of the flow—sleeping when others sleep, eating when others eat, reading when others read, playing when others play, getting married when others get married, and so on. I have learnt this from the life I have lived—I am an untimely person: I did not do things when people did them; I had my own time; but I have no resources to counteract the hazards caused by what could have been a spring of originality.

Time is controlled by the powerful—how you think about time shows where you are on the scale of power. You cannot keep your doctor waiting—he keeps you waiting. You cannot be late for the meeting, but your boss can keep you waiting for an hour or days, and he can keep you on hold for days after it is due. It is the time of smartphones now, not of telegrams; time of WhatsApp, not of snail e-mails. Who makes it that you have to be so fast? Speed is not innocent. It is determined by some. Speed is measured in time. Time is controlled by some.

Most of the bones of my time are dislocated from the bone system of the world. This is a precarious state—an insecure step on a scraggy cliff-top, from where you can see the world from completely different perspectives (like seeing an aquarium from inside it as if through a fish’s eyes or yourself from inside your mouth or entrails) or you can fall to your death. An untimely person, I see what happens to a place when it is deserted after everybody has left, what it is for you to be refused entry for being too early or too late, what it is to be rejected for friendship for being too young or too old. You walk the streets others don’t walk, you are awake when others sleep, you sit where others don’t sit. Most importantly, you see things others don’t see, or you feel about things differently from how others see. You are from a different world, from a different time. Nobody understands you, and you understand nobody. You speak, but that is, to the ears of others, like the sound of the wind soughing through the leaves, or of a steel tool falling on a cog of a machine’s wheel.

Money can buy time, buy buyable people and buyable things are linked in a chain system to the whole world. Then you have everything until your biology allows you to operate. Worst of all, I am incapable (because I lack this sensibility) of following money, and my mind does not have the property to set itself to value most of what is obviously valued by people. The result—I am a fool. I know this. This is insanity. I know I will die insane like this.

Do I mean money is all the solution? No. It’s one of them, but being convertible, it can convert energies from one form to another, and it’s convenient. Money is controlled and guarded by some, and most are inaccessible to it. You think you know the path to it, you follow it, but the road just disappears or your forehead hits a cul de sac. Still, money is just one thing, and there are a lot where money is not the currency.

Am I singing a dirge to my death? No. Am I complaining? No. I am clearing a tiny space in the rubble heap—a tiny space for the possibility of a difference among the legions of sameness.

I will continue tonight…

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Unequality and Inequality: Love Has a Place

Inequality (or say, unequality, if the former has negative implications deriving from where and in what sense it is used) is a paradox–it is the key driver of our civilization and breeder of a hell lot of miseries simultaneously.

While we can check policy-caused and mismanagement-driven inequality by bringing about appropriate changes engaging the best of brains among us, but I cannot, by any stretch of my poor mind, imagine the possibility of bringing about flat, planed-off equality for all, by no means. Even a perfect socialist society cannot do that, and an obstinate attempt to pursue such an equality will surely like death end up paralyzing what makes humans humans if humans don’t break the attempt first.

The source of inequality lies in the seed–no two persons, even identical twins, are equal and they are differently capable. Thinking equal redistribution of material wealth would set it all right would be repeating the same utopian socialist mistake simply because no two persons have the desire to use wealth in the same way, and these different ways produce different results the values of which are not best meadured by the same yardstick. Even when the redistributed wealth shares are spent/invested for good and profitable purposes, even then the results/returns would have different economic values, meaning that while all those investments are economic practices, economic measure is not the only measure for the values of the returns. But the difference in the economic values of these results cause wider and wider inequality from the next investment/spending onwards.

Reducing educational inequality will not solve the income and economic inequality, though it may help push up the incomes of some people because equal education does not mean equal skills, and equal education does not level basic human unequality. There must have been Einstein’s and Hitler’s classmates who climbed the same ladder of education together with them rung after rung. Inequality and unequality are unassailably related.

It is only the virtues of human kindness, compassion, magnanimity, and the feeling of fellowship, friendship and companionship and so on that keep inequality as one of our basic and most invaluable natural drivers of progress and prevent it from becoming our inbuilt destroyer.

Neophobia and Argumentum ad Antiquitam #2

However, there is nothing in the age of a belief or tradition which makes it right inasmuch as people root their identity and the meaning of their life to their belief and tradition (for the lack of any other equally good or bad, or better formation as close as the one their life is based on to be their belief and tradition). Madsen Pirie succinctly summarizes the ad antiquitam tendency of the human mind:

At its simplest, the ad antiquitam is a habit which economizes on thought. It shows the way in which things are done, with no need for difficult decision-making. At its most elevated, it is a philosophy. Previous generations did it this way and they survived; so will we. The fallacy is embellished by talk of continuity and our contemplation of the familiar.

While the age of belief attests to experience, it does not attest to its truth. To equate older with better is to venture into the territory of the fallacy. After all, human progress is made by replacing the older with the better. Sometimes men do things in a particular way, or hold particular beliefs, for thousands of years. This does not make it right, any more than it makes it wrong (HWEA, 2006, p. 14).

Culture and tradition are not gifts or dispensation God gave humans in the beginning or dropped like cooked and packed manna from the sky in lots across the ages. Culture and tradition are a product of human’s creative and adaptive mind developed by trial and error over time, and being a product which takes after the maker’s creativity and adaptive needs, they inevitably undergo changes and modifications, because creativity differs from person to person and from age to age, and the social and natural environment humans have to adapt to changes constantly no matter how conservative the society may be and how slow the change may be. Over time, this gradual and piecemeal replacement of the old by the new has the ultimate effect of human’s complete dispensation with their forefathers’ caves and stone tools for modern homes, computers, cars, gas stoves, etc., while all this happens so slowly and quietly that the series of changes feels more or less smooth and seamless except at the points marked by revolutions that suddenly introduce a whole new set of values and modes of life, such as the French Revolution, the English Civil Wars, the American Revolution, the Declaration of Emancipation, and the Arab Spring, etc.

Ad antiquitam is often mutually intensifying with man’s tendency to be what Fiske and Taylor (1991) term cognitive miser. As opposed to a naïve scientist who rationally weigh costs and benefits, test hypothesis, and update expectations based upon the results of the experiments that are our everyday actions, a cognitive miser tends to intuitively conserve mental process energy and spend it only when they must, relying on simpler, economically prudent and time efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions not just about familiar things but about both issues and ideas they know very little about and those of great importance. In this process, the cognitive miser, rather than rationally and objectively evaluating, uses mental short cuts—they assign new information to simplistic, preconceived categories that are easy to process mentally. These categories arise from prior information, including schemas, scripts and other knowledge structures, that has been stored in memory and thus the processing and storage of new information does not require much cognitive energy. The cognitive miser, thus, tends not to stray far from his or her established beliefs when considering new information (Fiske & Taylor, Social Cognition, 1991).

Though humans are motivated tacticians—having multiple cognitive strategies available and choosing among them depending on the situational and motivational demands (Fiske & Taylor, 1991); that is, they are simultaneously naïve scientists and cognitive misers in varying degrees, and they shift from quick and easy cognitively economic tactics of a cognitive miser to more effortful, thoughtful and thorough ones of a naïve scientist when processing information as their motivation deems necessary—they are typically more inclined to act as cognitive misers. This is because “people typically do not consciously choose between automatic and controlled processes;” rather “[a]utomatic processes influence the motivations that trigger social cognition, as well as behavior that results” (Fiske & Taylor, 2013, p. 31). While acting as cognitive misers is rational, as Fiske and Taylor argue, considering the intimidating volume and intensity of information humans intake, the decision and judgement thus reached are more likely to exhibit attributional biases. In fact, psychologists and social scientists now associate cognitive miserliness with racist and gender biases and other issues of stereotyping.

Bibliography

Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social Cognition (2nd ed.). NY, USA: McGraw-Hill.
Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (2013). Social Cognition: From Brains to Culture (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Sage.
Pirie, M. (2006). How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. NY, USA: Continuum.

Neophobia and Argumentum ad Antiquitam #1

In The Croods (DeMicco & Sanders, 2013), Grug, the head of a prehistoric family of the same name, says, as part of his strategy for their survival “like mice” in their cave behind rocks against the dangers of a harsh and hostile world they are in, that fear keeps them alive and advises that anything new should be avoided because “anything new is bad” and dangerous. Every night, before they go to sleep, he tells a bedtime story of the same kind in which a young, little character lived happily with its family (because they lived their lives in routine and darkness and terror) until one day, filled with “curiosity,” a “serious problem,” the young little character went out and saw something new and died. The Croods are terrified and Thunk, the son, says that he will never do anything new or different. In the Croods family, whenever one mentions “new,” they instinctively shrink in fear. Eep—Grug’s young, curious, and recalcitrant daughter—who feels suffocated by this lifestyle summarizes her father’s (i.e., her family’s) survival rules painted on the cave walls:

Anything new is bad, curiosity is bad,
going out at night is bad. Basically,
anything fun is bad (DeMicco & Sanders, 2013).

All their worst fears confirmed, the Croods snuggle into one big heap, warm and comfy, and fall asleep.

This social scenario may be a bit exaggerated for dramatic effect in the animated 3D movie and no society we know and can remember is so closed and neophobic as the Croods or any social group in the prehistoric existential condition this film constructs, but most societies still have the traces of their prehistoric fear for the strange and the new largely determining the outlook of their individual members and the collective community. In the prehistoric scenario, exposed to a plethora of dangers they cannot understand and out of their control, the people, as humans early or modern are always, are concerned about their safety, and they feel surely safe about the few familiar things that make up their small routine world, and it gives them peace to remain within this safety bubble. From their long experience, they know in their immediate environment what are safe and useful, what are useless but innocuous, and what are dangerous and to be avoided. With this knowledge, they are able to select useful and innocuous things and aspects of their behavior to build their familiar environment, their safe little routine world, and exclude whatever is clearly known to be dangerous and the potential dangers of whatever unfamiliar and new, because they do not usually want to venture their safety bubble on anything new that may turn out dangerous.[i] The mode of their long relationship with the included and the excluded condenses into long established patterns of behavior, which we call culture, authoritatively imposing an ethical list of dos and don’ts on its members, determining any behavioral traits evolving or appearing newly in the social make-up are either acceptable or unacceptable. Humans have this mind set passed down to them through millennia and every modern society exhibits behavior informed by it in varying degrees without exaggeration.

Human fears are not absolute. When humans have lived far long past the moment when they were able to at least remotely empathize with the physical conditions in which their forefathers lived in immediate proximity to their fears their strategy for protection against which had reactively shaped their culture, this primitive fear producing this reactive force has lingered in their collective psyche in changed and diversified forms. In fact, with the changes in the natural physical environment humans share with other creatures and things and the expansion of the dimensions of their social affairs, their individual and collective fears have also greatly changed and multiplied. Many that once posed a danger or threat are extinct or have ceased to be so now; many things new or unfamiliar or they did not know at all turned out life-enhancing, while many such turned out dangerous and many such others innocuous; and many they had once included as safe and useful underwent change and diversification, and these plethora of strands mutated with mixed results. Thus, humans are in constant fear of the possibility of anything harmful jumping out from anywhere. So, in the same way as in primitive times, humans feel safe in their little, familiar, routine world, and are suspicious of anything new or foreign.

This fear has interpreted the long established habits—culture and tradition—as the only safe, and hence meaningful, way of living and survival, and, by extension, the only path to happiness. This gross belief, now favored and endorsed by emotion born of long association, translates anything old as gold and valuable, which condenses age into the supreme measure of value: the older the truer and better, and thus truth is nothing but culture/tradition.

[i] The intensity ratio of their fear to curiosity is not static, and fear seems to outweigh curiosity most of the time keeping humans from being allured by the possibility of at least a few of the new turning out good. However, humans, in their long history, have occasionally had moments when their curiosity surpassed their fear, at least by bits, and thus they ventured into the new making social evolution possible.

 

Works Cited

Belson, K., Hartwell, J. (Producers), DeMicco, K., Sanders, C. (Writers), DeMicco, K., & Sanders, C. (Directors). (2013). The Croods [Motion Picture]. U.S.A: 20th Century Fox.