Friday, July 29, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - II

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth - Einstein

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Hofstede's Dimensions devised by the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. The most interesting of these dimensions is 'Power Distance Index' (PDI). PDI was a measure of a society's attitude towards hierarchy and authority. It was measured by questions like: 'Are employees afraid to express disagreement with their managers?' and 'Are power holders entitled to special privileges?' There is a quote from Hofstede's text Culture's Consequences about low PDI countries:
Power is something of which power holders are almost ashamed and they will try to underplay. I once heard a Swedish (low PDI) university official state that in order to exercise power he tried not to look powerful. Leaders may enhance their informal status by renouncing formal symbols. In (low PDI) Austria, Prime Minister Buno Kriesky was known to sometimes  take the streetcar to work. In 1974, I actually saw the Dutch (low PDI) prime Minister,Joop den Uyl, on vacation with his motor home at a camping site in Portugal. Such behaviour of the powerful would be very unlikely in high PDI Belgium or France.
You can generally divide power distance into high power distance and low power distance. If you belong to a culture displaying high power distance, you will tend to view power as a reality of life and believe everyone has a specific place in the hierarchy of power. You will expect that power will be distributed unequally. You will more easily accept autocratic and paternalistic power relations. If you are a subordinate, you simply acknowledge the power of your superior based merely upon his relative position in the hierarchy of authority.

It doesn't take much thinking to conclude that India is a high PDI country. You won't find the behaviours described above in India even if there was no security risk. The 'lal batti'  culture is widespread and leaders love to announce their arrival with a lot of noise. Their power will be indicated by the number of cars in their fleet. Getting Z plus category security is regarded as a status symbol. Prostrating before political leaders or greeting them with huge garlands is a common sight.

In a group decision making process, the members are thrown together to deliberate and reach a conclusion. The thought is that each member will give an independent, unbiased opinion. In a high PDI culture, group dynamics will guarantee that this will not happen. The authors of The Invisible Gorilla note that 'group processes can inspire a feeling akin to "safety in numbers" among the most hesitant members, decreasing realism and increasing certainty'.

The authors describe an experiment to determine how group processes work. What was found was that the people who assumed leadership roles were not more competent than others. They just had more dominant personalities and thus spoke first. And in 94% of the problems (It was a math test), the group's final answer was the first answer that anyone suggested. The first answer will be given by the most dominant personality. The authors write:
So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater self-confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of your ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers.The illusion of confidence keeps the cream blended in. 
In The Poverty of Historicism, Karl Popper quotes Lord Acton's Law of corruption: 'You cannot give a man power over other men without tempting him to misuse it - a temptation which roughly increases with the amount of power wielded, and which very few are capable of resisting.' This is especially true in high PDI societies. We should be careful about what we wish for. We might get it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - I

 'When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.' - Eric Hoffer

Thanks to the education system, I knew nothing about the findings in social psychology till some years after my stroke. (It takes time to detox oneself from some myths of an MBA education). And after a while, the assumption of economists that humans are rational agents started sounding like fiction. But I came across some economists like Robert Frank who says that decision making is often not rational. He says (quoted in The Emotional Brain): 'Many actions, purposely taken with full knowledge of their consequences, are irrational'. He likens many behaviours to Borges' description of the battle over Falkland Islands between Britain and Argentina - 'two bald men fighting over a comb.'

One of the powerful influences on human behavior is social conformity. We think that we make independent decisions that are not skewed by the opinions of others but that is a vain assumption. Advertisers will say that everyone is buying  their product. Politicians will say that everyone is supporting their party. They know that conformity  is a powerful instinct in humans. Politicians and advertisers have a better idea of human behaviour than economists do. The power of social influences varies in different situations.  The authors of Nudge describe its power in one such situation:
In the American judicial system, federal judges in three-judge benches are affected by the votes of their colleagues. The typical Republican appointee shows pretty liberal voting patterns when sitting with two Democratic appointees,and the typical Democratic appointee shows pretty conservative voting patterns when sitting with two Republican appointees. Both sets of appointees show far more moderate voting patterns when they are sitting with at least one judge appointed by a president of the opposing political party.
In Chronicles of our Time, Andre Beteille mentions Alexis de Tocqueville, a great 19th century writer on democracy, who viewed heroes in a democracy with misgivings. He said that there was no proper place in a democracy for heroes because when they arose, they would sooner or later turn into despots. Strong and charismatic leaders secure instant and unquestioned devotion among his or her followers and sooner or later start expecting similar devotion from everyone. Hence Ambedkar's warning in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly:
The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions". There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O'Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
In the 1950s a social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted experiments to get an idea about the level of conformity in people. He was trying to understand why so many good,  law abiding Germans unquestioningly followed Hitler's murderous policies. In the test people were asked to match the length of a line with three comparison lines as shown in the figure below:

When people were asked to make a decision on their own, they invariably gave the correct answer since it was an easy test.But when in a group, the answer was often influenced by what others said. When everyone gave an incorrect answer, people erred more than one-third of the time. This conformity effect was present even when the other people present were strangers and there was no particular reason to please them. One-third may sound like a small number till you realize that the winning party in Indian elections often gets only one-third of the votes.

Such conformity experiments have been conducted in many countries and the results have been similar. The authors of Nudge write, 'Unanimous groups are able to provide the strongest nudges - even when the question is an easy one, and people ought to know that everyone else is wrong.' Elections often give surprising results because people vote individually in seclusion and in this situation, their decision often differs from what they say in a group.

In this connection, also see Milgram's experiment and Stanford prison experiment.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

More episodes regarding nurses - II

The people in the world can be broadly divided into 2 classes - those who keep spectates in a safe place and those who don't. (Immediately Jaya reminded me about the famous dialogue in the movie 'HUM'.) Unfortunately for me, nurses belong to the latter category. Since I am heavily dependent on sight  I am very particular about where my glasses are kept. In the beginning, the nurses will be careless about where they keep my glasses. This would be so even if a table is right next to them where they can conveniently keep the glasses.

They may,  for example, remove my glasses for wiping my face and keep the glasses on the chair or on the bed on which I am lying. These are horror choices as far as I am concerned. Someone might sit on the chair without realizing that glasses were kept on it. I might cough suddenly and knock the glasses off the bed. Once, when sitting on the wheelchair, a nurse kept the glasses on my hand of all places while wiping my face. I was afraid that I might cough and the glasses might fall to the ground. I was trying to sit as quietly as possible with my blood pressure rising all the while.There are times when Fate is best left alone.

At such times, I keep signalling to the nurse to call Jaya (not when the glasses are on my hands!). When Jaya comes, I tell her what happened. She will explain to the nurse where to keep the glasses and that I will not let them do anything till I see that the glasses are kept safely. The nurses are told about this when they initially come home but they never take it seriously till I finally throw a tantrum.


A new nurse came at around 6 p.m. As usual, the agency said that she was an experienced nurse who had looked after many bed-ridden patients. She asked about my paralysis and Jaya gave a quick overview of what had happened. Jaya then asked her to have tea but she said she didn't want anything. She didn't eat anything for dinner either saying she was feeling overwhelmed after seeing my condition and didn't feel like eating anything. The claim that she was an 'experienced nurse' was beginning to ring hollow.

But she slept soundly and there was no sign of her waking up the next morning. Jaya gave my feeding, then decided to do my sponging herself. She finished at around 8 but there was still no sign of the nurse getting up. By this time we were getting worried since she had been lying motionless. Then she turned over to the other side and went back to sleep which was some relief for us: she seemed to be ok.

She finally got up at around nine and headed straight for the bathroom and from the sounds she appeared to be taking a bath. At that time, Jaya called the nurse's office and informed them about the happenings. They were also surprised that she had got up so late and said that they would speak to her. After some time she received a phone-call presumably from her office after which she went out of my room which I thought was for having her breakfast.

After a while Jaya came and told me that the nurse had left. I was surprised because nurses always say goodbye to me before leaving so I was not expecting it. Jaya filled me in on the missing details. Apparently, she was going with her airbag without telling anybody. My father-in-law asked her where she was going but she kept quiet. He called Jaya to whom the nurse said that she was leaving. In spite of Jaya's repeated queries she refused to say anything else. Finally, Jaya asked her if she wanted to be dropped at the bus-stand to which she replied no and left.  Throughout the time she had been here she did not have anything to eat or drink.