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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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 07, 2017

The Free Mind: Perspectives From Human Pyschology Studies

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


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.

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