Dr. Suprakash Roy appears in The Best Seller, a novel by Arunabha Sengupta.

A cyber conscious mender of minds, he is interested in the effect of the modern world of the internet and social networking in changing human behaviour.

The following are a demonstration of how the doctor's own mind works, extrapolated from the novel.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spoilt for Choice

Spoilt for Choice


Dr. Suprakash Roy
(Also available at Scroll)

"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," said Rhett Butler. While Scarlett O'Hara
remained flummoxed in her "Where shall I go, what shall I do" dilemma, the piece of dialogue dribbled past the stringent Motion Picture Association's Production Code and warmed the cockles of the hearts of generations of viewers.

Was it only the trendsetting profanity that made it, according to the American Film Institute 2005, the number one movie line of all time? Did the mild four letter word have enough legs to run ahead of the myriad f-words mouthed like metronomic chants in movies of latter day Hollywood? Even in days when intelligible dialogue sometimes needs to be extracted with a fine toothcomb from the litter of the favoured expletive and its derived forms of participles, adjectives,
adverbs and common nouns in movies like Die Hard 2?

This article appears in the  Scroll online literary magazine.

Dr. Suprakash Roy, a fictitious character who appears in Arunabha Sengupta's latest novel The Best Seller, also writes Scientific articles for the periodical.

According to behavioural psychologists, there is more to it than the then blasphemous
expression. People have never stopped admiring the resounding decisiveness with which Clark Gable finally shut the door on Vivien Leigh. The reason for this regard stems from a sentiment that Kipling admirably voiced as, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." 
As a species, we find it insurmountably difficult to shut doors and move on with the most promising option. A task that becomes exponentially more difficult with increasing information about the choices.

Alternatives to us are forks in the straight path, often confusing us with unknown outcomes.
The human mind tends to weigh and reweigh the pros and cons of decisions based on all available information. Decisiveness in taking one course and shutting out the alternatives from the scheme of things is something we do not really excel at.

In the 3rd century Before Christ, Chinese commander Xiang Yu was leading his troops across the Yangtse Kiang to attack the Ch’in dynasty army. Waking up in the morning on the bank of the river, the soldiers found to their horror that the skies were full of black fumes of their burning ships. As they tore off the slumber chains in a frenzy to fight off the attackers, they were stupefied to discover that it was their commander who was the brain and brawn behind the arson. Not satisfied with this one supreme act of lunacy, he had also broken all the
cooking pots. 
Obviously, Xiang Yu did not do too much better than the modern leaders of the Arab world in the popularity charts among his men. His sentiments about his relative merits compared to his men were as radically different from that of Kipling’s British soldier in Gunga Din as possible. However, the army, left with no choice of either return or vacillation, plunged into
their only available option of war and won nine consecutive battles.

Xiang Yu, with his oriental wisdom, knew twenty three centuries ago what we are discovering in detail only in the present day. Whenever there are options, we are indecisive. The price of keeping doors open till the last possible minute in order to make the most informed decision costs us heavily, especially in the current day of abundant information availability and opinion exchange. 

Behavioural psychologists Jiwoong Shin of the Yale and Dan Ariely of the Duke University performed a series of experiments to underline this failing in man. Creating a simple
computer application they named ‘The Door Game’, they experimented with a number of students at MIT’s East Campus. 
The rules were pretty puerile for minds that were good enough to be housed in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The application loaded three doors – a green, a blue and a red – on the screen. The participants could enter any room by clicking on the corresponding door. Once inside a room, each click would pay certain amount of money that would be tallied on the screen. At any point of time, the player could click on another door to exit the present room and enter another. The challenge was to tote up as much as possible within a hundred clicks.

Logically, it is a fair option to switch rooms and find out which one seemed to pay the largest amount, with the small caveat that changing from room to room used up clicks. However, following these simple rules, the gifted MIT-ians performed admirably, each more or less honing in on the optimal strategy by a few clicks of trial and error.

Now the cunning pair of behavioural psychologists tweaked the game just a wee bit. With each click in a room, the unused doors got a little smaller. If unused for 12 clicks, a door disappeared from the screen. This curious little tampering with the rules triggered drastic reactions. None of the talented minds were prepared to follow the same logic they had discovered earlier. No one wanted to see a door disappear forever. Clicks were traded for the simple satisfaction of keeping doors on the screen, options open. And the best minds of the United States of America went away making a small fraction of what they could have had
they been prepared to stick to one productive door.

While the proverbial wisdom is to keep options open, we can see from the above that it has downsides as well, and sometimes the pitfalls are quite severe. And with the gamut of choices offered by the electronically connected flat world, the debacles caused by these drawbacks are popping to the forefront. 

As a kid and then a teenager, I grew up while my country was still trying to come to terms with post colonial bureaucracy. The nation’s windows were slowly opening in response to the call of time, but the wind that blew in through the cracks and crevices of suspiciously ajar doors was often dated and stale. These were days long before globalisation and internet. Bookstores seldom let us browse, at least not until we had bought something. The purchasing power of my middle class parents had not crossed the threshold of the one off gift wrapped classic on birthdays and a couple of indulgent purchases from the annual Book Fair. My
reading was restricted to the decent but limited collection of the school library, with the stifling stipulations of one book at a time and borrowing allowed Wednesday’s only – prohibitions normal in a country which had been sufficiently influenced by Chacha Nehru’s love for Russia to frown upon any immoderation.

The result was that I devoured book after book from the shelves, with the hunger of a malnourished growing child fed one full meal a week. When David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities were soaked up, I discovered to my dismay that they were the only Charles Dickens novels available. I longed for the school authorities to stock Martin Chuzzlewit, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and the rest of them, and kept waiting till I passed the threshold of manhood and stepped into college.

Nowadays, the complete works of Dickens is available on one click from Amazon Kindle for
a couple of dollars, or absolutely free on the Project Gutenberg website. One can walk into any decent bookshop in town and pick up a paperback copy of any Dickens novel. However, I have not read any more of his works. It is not that I have been held back in my literary pursuits by the research in cognitive psychology or other worldly burdens that I have to bear like the grown up Atlas. A tiny amount of self analysis reveals that mine is a problem of plenty. The dizzying abundance of choices dazzles the faculties, so much so that having the alternatives gives us a thrill and brings with it the dilemma of decision making, leaving little time for the act of selection followed by enjoyment of the chosen alternative.

In normal life, this phenomenon surfaces often as we debate, dally and defer decisions while
comparing information bundles associated with the options, especially in the present age of websites, instant updates, social networks, and text messages. 

We delay changing jobs till the best opportunity of career advancement passes us by as we sift through the intricacies of comparative pay package, employee benefits and stock options.

We cannot decide whether to move on in relationships by closing a resounding door on the Vivien Leighs of our life till the new person with whom we were having a wonderful time becomes tired of waiting and moves on.  

We evaluate package deals to Spain, Austria and Greece, the price of hotels, air fare, cruise and train alternatives and best possible discounts,  looking all over Tripadvisor.com and soliciting advice from FaceBook friends till the best deals are no longer available and we have to end up in Brussels as the only option that has not yet been booked beyond capacity.

We spend hours in Best Buy or Media Mart, driving sales representatives crazy, surfing
photography sites on our smart phones and texting our immediate circle of semi-professional
photographers about which SLR to purchase till the glorious summer gives way to the damp and grey days of autumn, taking with it the photo opportunities that had incited us in the first place. 

The adage ‘information is power’ is a throwback to the days when file-shots of landmark events took weeks to be packaged and sent to the other side of the world  to be beamed in one minute news channel slots. Today, information has too many dimensions for such unilateral verdict. With Twitter, FaceBook, text messages and countless applications in our ‘smart’ phones, the flow of facts and opinions never tend to tarry. While it empowers consumers, and sometimes as shown in the recent past, whistle blowers and revolutionaries, often the effect
is downright detrimental.

Information fatigue entered the pages of Oxford English Dictionary in 2009. That the
implied meaning was not merely clever wordplay was shown by a study led by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Centre for Neural Decision Making at the Temple University. According to her findings, after a particular limit, the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, the region behind the forehead responsible for decision making and control of emotions, just shuts down. Information force-fed by all the wires and cables that link hook us to the world has harmful cognitive effects.

Some of the effects are quite disastrous. During the British Petroleum oil-well blowout, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the incident commander, reported 300 to 400 pages of email , texts, reports and other messages on a daily basis. According to Allen, the torrent of data might have contributed to the mistake of failing to close off the airspace above the gulf on day one. While it is not axiomatic that better evaluation and damage control might have taken place had the information deluge been checked, it does make us think if we don’t resort to the
alternative of immediately posting this fact on FaceBook.

The virtue of informed decision is definitely hyped. As my psychologist colleague Ap Dijksterhuis of the Radboud University of Nijmegen shows in one of his studies, quality of decisions suffer with ‘a rather daunting amount of information’. A rather surprising discovery is that the best decisions are made by the unconscious process. In Dijksterhuis’s study, when participants were bombarded with information about four possible apartments for rent, the best objective choice was made by the ones who decided unconsciously.

Especially decisions that require a creative element tend to be best when it is made
through unconscious reflection rather than full frontal analysis. 
Hence, insights are more likely to shoot through us when we are in the shower or tucked away in a comfortable bed, rather than sorting and sifting through sites and messages of information and opinion. 
It is often necessary to sit back and think about how it all fits together. 

It is not simply because of some crazy coincidental quirk that Paul McCartney came up with the tune of Yesterday, Mary Shelley with the idea of Frankenstein, Friedrich Kekule his Benzene structure and Jack Nicklaus with a new Golf swing while tucked away in bed dreaming their respective dreams. 

If information builds up layer by layer on our consciousness in our zeal to know all
possible options and analyse every one of them to the limit before taking the final decision, another phenomenon of the mind affects the objective quality of decision making.

The brain is wired to notice change. When a new message comes through the numerous
channels open to us, the conditioning of our thought process gives it more importance than previously known factors. The accuracy of facts suffer, being skewed by the immediacy of information – creating the recency effect. When trying to take a decision at the last possible moment, the last few instigating messages or FaceBook posts, however inconsequential, tend to have a pivotal effect. 
The urgent rather than the important rules the decision.

Our natural inability of closing some doors and choosing one from many is thus compounded in the current day with each of the paths of the fork coming with its own cluttered bundles of hyperlinks, walls, posts and texts. 

It has been seventy seven years ago, T.S. Eliot wrote the following lines...

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

 In the second decade of the twenty first century, the words reverberate as an ominous
oracle above the wired wastelands of the day. It is somewhat difficult to think that this was written in days when Television had just been made commercially available.

The networked world moving to one beat almost sends eerie signals of being a connected cosmic consciousness. The different nerves and synapses exchange information at the speed of thought even as they are formed. Sometimes, for decisions, it makes sense to disconnect oneself from the over-connected world and let the power of the unconscious free, liberating our cognitive and emotional centres from bombardment and thus increasing our chances of making a less informed and more favourable decision.

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About Me

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A novelist and cricket historian, Arunabha Sengupta is the author of three novels and the Chief Cricket Writer on cricketcountry.com. In his novels he deals with the contemporary world with acerbic humour. In his cricket writings he covers the history and romance in the game, while his post graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces