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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Insight From Children And Their Marshmallows

Insight From Children and Their Marshmallows
M. Bakri Musa

The behaviors of others have a profound impact on us. If those “others” are authority figures or have influence over us (leaders, ulamas, teachers, parents), the impact is magnified. It would not take much especially in the absence of dissenting views for us to internalize the “consensus.” This is true of individuals as well as society.

            Consider this experiment with preschool children. They were given a marshmallow with instructions that if they were not to eat it right away, they would be rewarded with another one 15 minutes later. Imagine putting temptations in front of fearsome fours! Amazingly, about a third of the children were able to restrain themselves. The rest would succumb, with a few giving up just shy of the deadline!

            The experiment demonstrated that there are individual differences to delayed gratification (or reactions to temptations) and that these could be discerned as early as the preschool age. The other conclusion was that young children did not always seek immediate gratification. If those were the only findings, the study would not have been “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”

            Fourteen years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, picking up on anecdotal accounts on those earlier participants, did a follow-up study. Those kids who succeeded in deferring eating their marshmallows did better academically and had less disciplinary problems in school. Indeed, delay in eating their marshmallow was a better predictor of SAT scores (scholastic achievement) than IQ tests or the parents’ educational level!

            The other valuable insight came not from the data but from observing the children. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy distracting themselves. They sang, sat on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closed their eyes, or played with their clothes.

            The psychological dynamics of the children closing their eyes were akin to Ulysses making his sailors stuff bees wax into their ears so they would not be tempted by the Sirens’ melodious songs. Those children faced as much internal tension in restraining themselves as Ulysses did in tying himself to a mast lest he too would succumb to the call of the Sirens.*

            It is not enough to tell children or anyone to just restrain themselves, as in “Just Say No to Drugs!” campaign. We must also train them to distract themselves by engaging in other activities.

            The original study involved preschool children from the Stanford community, meaning, above average in income, intellect, and social class. That study in turn was stimulated by an earlier Jamaican one on racial stereotypes Blacks and East Indians there had of each other. The Indians viewed Blacks as impulsive hedonists, always living for the present and never thinking of the future. The Blacks thought the Indians did not know how to live, stuffed their money under the mattress, and never enjoyed themselves. Sounds uncomfortably familiar to Malaysians! In that study the experimenter substituted chocolate bars for marshmallows.

            The study revealed that stereotyping correlated more with social class and less with race, a finding that should interest Malaysians.

            This ability to delay gratification has vast implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, it would be unable to save for future needs. Economists tell us that capital formation (achieved through savings, meaning, delayed gratification) is key to economic development.

            The insight from the marshmallow study explains some incomprehensible patterns of behavior. For example, those who come upon wealth through inheritance or lottery rarely keep it while those who acquire it through hard work do.
            Consider those FELDA farmers who became instant millionaires when their land was acquired for the new Sepang Airport. A few years later they were back to being poor farmers. On the other hand, an entrepreneur who built a successful business keeps his wealth.

            Those lucky FELDA farmers were kids who could not resist their marshmallows. They did not preoccupy or distract themselves from their treats. The entrepreneur on the other hand is still preoccupied with his business. The fact that he is making good money (meaning, well rewarded) is further gratification for him, a validation of his work and inspiring him to continue.

            Consider the late Steve Jobs. When forced to resign from Apple, he could have just enjoyed the tons of money he had made. Instead he busied himself starting another enterprise. Consumed with his new company he had no time to even consider squandering his wealth. In terms of psychological dynamics, his involvement with NeXT (his new enterprise) was the equivalent of the little girl singing to distract herself from her marshmallow.

            This weakness to squander easily-acquired or windfall wealth is not unique to FELDA farmers. Winners of lotteries and liability suits in America suffer the same fate; likewise, newly-rich Malays who acquire their wealth through corruption, rent-seeking activities, or political patronage. Once they are out of the lucrative loop, their wealth dissipates and they are back patronizing warong kopi instead of five-star restaurants.

            Advertisers take full advantage of our propensity for immediate gratification. Consider home mortgages. Traditionally, if you have a mortgage of $150K you still owe that amount even if the house has doubled in value. That restrains your spending.

            Enter the concept of home equity. With slick advertising, bankers would have you believe that you do not owe $150K rather that you have an equity, the difference between the house value and the mortgage. Now you feel rich and be inclined to spend on lavish vacations and fancy cars, forgetting that you are spending borrowed funds.

            Advertisers were very effective in making homeowners eat their marshmallows right away, for the value and number of home equity loans quickly ballooned. That led to a boom not only for equity mortgage lenders but also purveyors of consumer goods and fancy vacations.

            Millions of home equity loans later, and we have a housing bust. When property values dropped, those mortgages and equity loans went underwater, triggering the 2007 American financial crisis that rivaled the Great Depression.

            As much of this desire for instant gratification is learned, we could just as well unlearn it. Or to put it in the context of modern neuroscience, we can carve new neural networks so the old nonproductive ones could be bypassed or “synaptically pruned” (discarded).

            Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a system of charter schools in New York, is going beyond the traditional 3Rs by incorporating much of the insights from the marshmallow studies in its curriculum. To the school, character matters, and one of the fundamental character strengths which the school instills is self-control in their students, for them to learn to not devour their marshmallows right away.

            We can teach that to young and old. When Muslims fast, we practice exactly that–self-restraint, not just for 15 minutes but the whole day. We do that every Ramadan. However, this important lesson in self-restraint is lost with our preoccupation on the rituals of fasting.

            Back to those now poor FELDA farmers, much could have been done so they would not devour their marshmallows (spend their money) right away. One would be to have a structured distribution instead of a lump sum payment, with the principal deposited in Tabung Haji, for example. Had that been done, combined with competent and sensible financial advice, those FELDA farmers would still be enjoying their bounty today. Pension funds are not distributed as a lump sum but converted to an annuity-like distribution to last your expected lifetime. Likewise, enlightened American judges now structure the payouts to successful plaintiffs over a period of time.

            As can be seen, the insights from human psychology experiments, even seemingly simple ones involving four-year olds, can have profound implications and practical applications.

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

* In Greek mythology, the Sirens are mermaid-like seductresses with melodious voices who lured sailors to shipwreck onto a rocky coast.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Insights On The Mind: They Make Me Do it!

Insights on the Mind:  They Make Me Do It!

M. Bakri Musa

Asch experiments showed the powerful influence of social and peer pressures. In his experimental setting, the peer pressure came from fellow college students. Imagine if they had been not fellow students but authority figures with power over you. How would your decisions be influenced if not controlled by them?

            For this we go to Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s, also at Yale, and Zimbardo’s at Stanford a decade later. Milgram's studies gave us insights into the dynamics of what makes otherwise ordinary human beings do terrible things on account of their blind obedience to authority. We saw that in Nazi Germany, where being a “good German” meant obeying your superiors to do terrible things.

            Milgram had his subjects, also college students, randomly assigned to be “teachers” whose job was to administer increasingly painful electric shock upon a “learner,” who responded with an incorrect answer to a word-pairing test. Except that the learner was part of the experimenter’s team. For every wrong answer given by the learner, the teacher who was in a separate room but could hear the learner would give an electric shock to the learner, increasing the voltage with every wrong response. Except that the “shocks” were all pretend, and with the learner purposely giving the wrong answers! One of the learners, as planned, also told the teacher that he (learner) had a “heart” condition, just as a reminder.

            In his first set of experiments, 26 of the 40 teachers (65 percent) administered the maximal potentially lethal dose of electric shock, despite the moaning and groaning as well as the desperate banging on the wall by those “suffering” learners who gave the wrong answers. Some of the teachers protested, nonetheless they continued administering the potentially lethal punishment.

            Milgram’s experiments had been repeated in other settings and across cultures but the results remained consistent.

            A decade later, the Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo paid volunteer college students to take part in an experiment where they would be assigned randomly to be wardens or prisoners in a mock prison. He had the cooperation of the local police to make it realistic, as with arresting the students and booking them at the local police station. It did not take long for the wardens to take their “job” seriously, too seriously it turned out. The experiment had to be terminated prematurely as those wardens became in short order unduly sadistic, inflicting gratuitous punishment on their “prisoners”–their fellow students.

            The insights from Zimbardo’s experiments shed light on the dynamics of the obscenities of Abu Ghraib prison scandal three decades later.

            Returning to Milgram, imagine if the “experimenter” was not a mellow Yale professor but a top army general fully bedecked with medals and ribbons, or a charismatic leader with power over you, and the “learner” is not your fellow Yale undergraduate but a member of a minority with whom you have minimal sympathy or harbor prejudices of being “dumb and lazy.”

            Or, imagine the Inspector-General of Police standing over you, a forensic pathologist or police investigator on government payroll, as you make your official report on former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar’s infamous bludgeoned black eye incident. With the “Kami menurut perentah” (I follow orders) and, “Saya di arahkan” (I am directed) ethos of the civil service, Anwar never had a chance.

            As Milgram observed, “… [O]ften it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

            One is tempted to agree with Milgram. However, it would be arrogant and wrong to assume that we could explain the full spectrum of the complexity of human behaviors based on the elegant studies of some imaginative scientists.

            Consider Asch’s experiments; there were subjects who resisted the peer pressures; likewise with Milgram’s. Two British psychologists, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher, repeated the Stanford Prison Experiment but with a twist. Their results were completely different and raised more questions.

            The British experiment showed that it would take more than just putting someone in a subordinate position and then have an authority figure command him to commit evil deeds, or subject him to a group situation where “everyone is doing it.”

            Milgram and Zimbardo focused only on those who continued with the experiments, not those who resisted and thus excluded from the studies and not factored in the conclusions.

            With the British experiment the guards were not told how to behave; they were left to work out their problems. Further, those guards who had misgivings were retained in the study. It turned out those dissenters among the guards and prisoners did have a chastening effect on the rest, confirming Asch’s earlier observations.

            The British study was more realistic and reflected the complexities of human behaviors. After all even during the Third Reich there were Germans who resisted the system. Yes, there were the eager participants but then they were the ones who already harbored resentment towards the Jews. Hitler merely provided the justifications and means for them to pursue their bigotry and hatred but with greater intensity and efficiency. Similarly with Abu Ghraib; there were ethical and honest American soldiers who blew the whistle.

            The British study gives us hope. It is not that easy to turn humans into monsters except those who already so inclined. The challenge for leaders is not to provide them the opportunity and justification even if they were to be in the majority. That is a particular challenge in a democracy.

            The greatest fear progressives have of America under President Trump is his seeming tolerance if not encouragement of those inclined towards bigotry and chauvinism. They could reaffirm the findings of Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo on the effect of peer pressure. On the other hand, the outpouring of protests against Trump by ordinary Americans reflects the optimism demonstrated by Haslam and Reicher.

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Free Mind: Perspectives From Human Pyschology Studies

The Free Mind: Perspectives From Human Psychology Studies
M. Bakri Musa

The last source of insight on the understanding of the mind comes from studies on normal human beings. First are the various experiments in human psychology and second, from the newer imaging techniques of the brain, in particular, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f MRI). I will review some of the classics of the first to illustrate particular points.

            One is Asch’s famous conformity studies. In the 1950s Solomon Asch had his Yale students partake in an experiment of “visual judgment” where they would compare the length of a line. The test was done in a group, and they had to answer verbally. Unbeknownst to the subject, all the other members of the test group were part of the experimenter’s team.

            The results were startling. In nearly a third of the time, the subjects would give obviously wrong answers simply because of pressure from the other “test subjects.” The subjects may express reservations or protest but in the end they voted with the group, clearly demonstrating the powerful effect of peer pressure. This insight is fully exploited by advertisers and propagandists in getting their message accepted. As the Chinese proverb would have it, three men would make a tiger.

            There are many variations to the basic experiment, like varying the size of the “consensus” group, pairing the subject with a “trusted” partner and seeing the effect when that partner disagreed, and having a dissenting member among the experimental collaborators. This last variation is the most intriguing. It seems that having even only one dissenting member in the “collaborator” group would greatly reduce a subject’s propensity to conform.

            This persuasive power of a dissenting minority of even one to disrupt group consensus has great social significance. That power would be greatly amplified if the dissenter were to be particularly assertive or otherwise vocal and influential.
It is this that motivates me to continue writing and express my views knowing that mine is in the minority, I hope only initially. If expressing my views would make others examine theirs and encourage them to be more open-minded, then my mission is accomplished.

            Today there is diversity of viewpoints, political and otherwise, among Malays. That is healthy, although it makes the work of government propagandists that much more difficult. It is not a surprise that the government endlessly exhorts us to be “united.” To the authorities, especially those with an authoritarian bent, any expression of dissent is viewed as a threat to our “unity” and equate that with being disloyal or treasonous.

            This potential influencing power of even a lone dissenter to disrupt consensus could be put to good use. When working on collaborative projects, insightful leaders would often assign a particular member to be the designated critic, to poke holes in the group’s decisions and deliberations so as to anticipate possible errors and misleading conclusions because of “groupthink.”

            As another Yale psychologist Irving Janis observed, “The more amiability and esprit de corps there is … , the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink [and] … likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions against out groups.”
            Examples abound of bad decisions made as a consequence of groupthink. In America, there was the failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor and the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiascos. President Trump is today using this same particular technique of surrounding himself with only those who already agree with him. He goes beyond, to demonize those who disagree with him, including judges who ruled against him, to great effect.

            From my perspective, conformity is a manifestation of a closed mind. It is conformity or peer pressure that makes us believe the smooth mullah over the braying donkey despite the donkey braying in our face.

            Asch’s experiment, like all good ones, raised more questions than it answered. Foremost is that he used simple or objective judgments, as with estimating the length of a line. There is little emotion, cultural value or serious consequences to the decision-making process. Imagine if one were required to make judgment with significant emotions attached, like whether a person is a security threat or not. In post 9-11 America, it would not be at all difficult to get a unanimous judgment on whether a Middle Eastern-looking young man with a beard and turban is a security risk, even if Canada’s Defense Minister has a beard and a turban.
            Today, with Trump’s team groupthink it is not difficult to get a consensus that those from Muslim countries pose a significant threat to America.

            Referring to my earlier story of the mullah and his donkey, it is apparent that the social environment can be a very powerful influence on whether we believe the pious mullah or the braying donkey.

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.