• Friday, August 01, 2014

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Why Thinking Makes Us Different

Asrar Chowdhury

Imagine somebody very special in your life. You spend lot of time and share almost all of your thoughts with that person. You've known the person ever since you can recall your own name. Then something goes wrong. An irreparable misunderstanding happens. Trust is like a piece of paper. Once crumbled, you can never iron it back to its original pristine state.  Your friend leaves you. Why did my friend leave me? What did I do? This is all you're thinking. To make matters worse nobody knows where your friend is. Social networks show the name doesn't exist. How badly would this impact you? On a 1-10 scale let's assume at least 9/10.
We're different from other species. We have a psychological immune system we may not be aware of. This immune system is called thinking. As a species we think a lot. As we think, we change our views about our world. The departure of somebody very dear and near would certainly impact us badly. We would certainly feel devastated. It would certainly feel like the end of the world. Now, let a few months pass. Let's think and re-think on what happened. You could now be asking yourself maybe the person wasn't right for me.  Maybe we didn't have that much in common. After sometime you may well be saying to yourself, I guess it was good that person left. You now address the person in the third person.  Over time our thought process adapts to the initial impact of the event. A few months later, is the impact of our little story still on a 9/10 as you may have first thought?  

The above psychological immune system is known as the Impact Bias. After a certain event happens that makes us very sad, the initial impact is we think we will be sad for a long time. As time passes that initial impact tends to fade away.  As a species we've had an extra-ordinary capacity to adapt not only to our physical and social surroundings, but also with our psychological state that enables us to fight and adapt with our physical and social environments. We do a lot of this through thinking. Once we've rationalised how 'wrong' that special friend was, what started out as a trauma now becomes a blessing. As Grandma would have said to you just after your friend left, 'hush! It was a blessing in disguise'. If you didn't realize it then, you may have realised it by now.
When we are calculating how happy or how sad we will be in a future that contains the Event X, we tend to focus on Event X only. We forget all the other events Y, Z, etc that will happen in the future that will probably dilute the effect of Event X. In essence we make errors in judging the future. While psychologists are thrilled about these errors of the Impact Bias, some economists are obsessed with predicting the future. They argue that such errors should be removed from our system so we can predict smoothly. Unfortunately for economists, humans have evolved with this error in their thinking process.

Psychologists probably win the battle here. Life is not a straight line. Life is also not a well-defined equation that can be predicted with mathematical precision. Life is ever- changing. The more we think, the more depth and clarity we find in our thoughts. It's always easier said than done. The sooner we realize the power of thinking and how it provides us with an immune system that helps us adapt to changing environments, the better we start to appreciate life.
Falling into a hole doesn't mean there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Seeing a wonderful sunrise doesn't mean the day will remain the same. Life is ever-changing. If your initial sad impact was 9/10 at the beginning, it may now have petered out to 2/10. To quote the last phrase of the Sri Bhagvad Gita by Lord Krishna, the only constant in life is change.
Further Reading: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert of Harvard. Vintage Books, 2007.

Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrar.chowdhury@facebook.com

Published: 12:00 am Thursday, April 03, 2014

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