Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Rewarding innovation: process vs outcome

Tata Nano is one of the several stories that figure in our book “8 steps to innovation”. Nano received various innovation awards including the prestigious Edison award in 2010. Unfortunately, it hasn’t seen the market success yet. Does it mean that the decision to give innovation awards to Nano was poor or incorrect? Let’s explore this question in this article using Daniel Kahneman's lecture titled "The science of decision" delivered to the Pentagon (see the video above). 

Let’s begin with what Kahneman calls the key feature of decision making under uncertainty. “The key feature”, Kahneman says, “is that there is no perfect correlation between the quality of decisions and quality of outcomes. You could make a good decision and fail and you could make a bad decision and succeed.” (12:18) But then why are we so outcome obsessed?

Well, because we can’t help seeing it that way (15:15). We intuitively feel that if something ended well, it was done well. And if something ended badly, somebody must have goofed. The fundamental bias in operation here is called “hindsight bias”. Once the outcome appears e.g. that Tata Nano hasn’t had a success in the market, our model of the world changes. It starts looking obvious that the “cheap car” publicity was doomed to fail. We tend to evaluate the decision such as the Tata Motors’ decision to invest in Nano based on our current model of the world. And we find it extremely hard to evaluate the decision with the model of the world that existed before the decision.

Hindsight bias leads to another bias called “outcome bias” (19:30). This means we judge a decision on whether the outcome was a success or failure. This has significant implications. When we give innovation awards, we may be promoting daredevil gamblers rather than smart decision makers. More importantly, we may be losing good people because we may be punishing them for the failed outcomes in spite of their good decisions. So what should we do?

Kahneman suggests that we should focus on the process and not on the outcome when we judge a decision (13:28). Was the right process followed at the time of the decision? For example, was the investment decision based on a robust set of questions like Real-Win-Worth-it. An idea which comes out as the most promising idea through the scrutiny of such a process may eventually fail for factors not known at the time of the decision. That shouldn’t change the quality of the decision.

Kahneman also suggests that a good process of making decisions should ideally involve de-biasing steps, sort of corrective steps. For example, we can look at cost or time overruns for a similar project in estimating cost or duration (30:20). Or we could perform a project pre-mortem and bring out various reasons why this idea may not work etc (31:45).

Some companies recognize this and give rewards for smart failures. For example, P&G has in the past given “President’s fail-forward award” and Tata Group gives “Dare to try” award for smart failures from which significant learning has come out.

So, was the decision to award Tata Nano poor? Not necessarily. It depends whether the award was given after evaluating the process of making key decisions in developing Tata Nano. Not on whether Tata Nano succeeds in the market or not.

Monday, November 23, 2015

An idea presentation template based on a 2 minute pitch by The Wand Company founders

A lot of people talk about “Elevator pitch”. But can I really present my idea in 2 minutes? If so, how? Is there a template we can use for such a pitch? In this article I would like to present a template with the help of a 2 minute pitch given by Richard and Chris, The Wand Company founders to investors in the TV show Dragons Den. This template is an extension of an earlier template based on Steve Jobs’ iPod launch speech in 2001.

The pitch by Richard and Chris has all the three elements from the iPod-speech-template - viz. Why-What-How - Why magic market? What is real magic wand? How does it work? However, the pitch has two unique characteristics. One, it gets over in less than 2 minutes (1 minute and 40 seconds). And two, the presentation includes a fourth element – the Ask viz. How much investment do we need from you? Both, the timing and the ask, I feel, are very important aspects of an idea pitch. Here is how it looks.

Let’s briefly look at the four elements:

1.      Why magical products? This has two parts – First, why magic market? How big is it? Etc. They say, “Magic market, fantasy market is huge - Hundreds of millions of people spending billions of pounds each year.” The second part is: Why should we play in this market? They say, “We thought with our combined experience of over forty years of design, development, electronics development we will make some really magical products.” This part took 35 seconds.

2.      What is the product? This is the shortest of the four elements and takes only 15 seconds. They say, “Our first product is a real magic wand. And this is it (shows the wand). It looks pretty much as you expect for a wizard’s wand. And the real magic wand should actually do something. And so with this wand, I can…” And the demo starts.

3.      How does it work? (demo) This part is the longest – 35 seconds – where they demo the product. How it works on a music player, a TV and on a light.

4.      How much investment do we need? In this part they mention when they started the company, how many units have been sold and with the help of the investors how much revenue they can achieve in three years. The exact amount of investment they are looking for is something they mention upfront at the beginning of the presentation itself. Together this part might be around 20 seconds.

Which parts are tricky in this?  First, I think idea presenters need to watch out for the balance between “What” and “How”. They tend to spend more time explaining what the product is about instead of product doing the talking through a demo. Second, idea presenters don’t come prepared with “the Ask” – an important aspect of the last element “How much”.

If you plan a longer presentation, you can include your answer to the first question – What technology does it use? in the “What” part (part-2). This is what Steve Jobs does in the iPod launch speech.
Hope you find it useful.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Metaphors from "Thought as a system"

I am a fan of David Bohm’s book “Thought as a system” and I am also convinced of the power of metaphors in communicating abstract ideas. In this presentation I have tried to bring the metaphors from the book “Thought as a system” to the foreground in explaining the key concepts.

Concepts like consciousness, God, incoherence are highly abstract. Could metaphors help in understanding them? Personally, I have found them useful. Perhaps you may find them useful too. Happy to hear from you.

If you find this presentation useful, you may also like a related presentation: “The Matrix as a system vs Thought as a system” which compares “Thought as a system” to the sci-fi movie “The Matrix”

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Learning mindfulness through “Penn and Teller: Fool us” magic show

I was introduced to the popular magic show “Penn and Teller: Fool us” by our son Kabir. In this TV show, the young and the old magicians perform their best tricks in Las Vegas and try to fool the mighty magic duo Penn and Teller. In case you have not seen already, I urge you to check out the video clip above in which Shawn Farquhar, a world champion in card magic, fools Penn and Teller. In this article, I would like to explore how this magic show can help us understand a seemingly unrelated area – mindfulness.

Let’s bucket the audience of this show (including those watching it on TV) into three categories. First, “This-is-real” category: These guys – perhaps mostly kids – might confuse the magic act as if it were happening for real. If a man gets cut into two, they might get frightened. My wife remembers carrying Kabir out of the theatre while watching Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone because he started crying. My parents tell similar stories about me. That’s This-is-real category.

Second, “Fooled-but-aware” category: These guys are enjoying the show and they have no clue how they are getting fooled. However, they carry awareness that they are getting fooled while the drama is unfolding. For example, they don’t cry when Penn acts as though a knife has entered his chest.

Third, “Not-fooled” category: Penn and Teller and many other magicians around the world also enjoy the drama but most of the time they know exactly when the sleight of hand is doing the trick. If they get fooled, as in this case of Shawn Farquhar, they are more aware what they don’t know. Just to summarize, the three categories are: This-is-real, Fooled-but-aware and Not-fooled.

Now let’s imagine another magic show called “Perception and Thought: Fool us” which is run by two fictional characters called Perception and Thought (P&T). Between the two Thought is the real magician. Perception is more of an orator and showman. Thought is working mostly behind the scene. Sometimes he turns a rope into a snake and adds a scary music in the background. Sometimes he turns a person from another religious community into an enemy and plays villain-is-coming type jingle. While working backstage Thought has access to a vast amount of memory most of which nobody else can see. There are times when Thought is not doing much though and Perception is just showing things as they are – the table, the chair, the mountain, the trees etc. I guess you get the idea.

Now most of us when we are not mindful we belong to the first category - This-is-real. We treat the drama put up by the duo Perception and Thought (P&T) as real. For example, when the boss shouts, we get upset, when kids throw tantrums we get irritated, when we read about war, corruption and rape we get angry-sad etc. We follow what Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI rule – What You See Is All There Is.

When we are mindful, we are more like the Fooled-but-aware category. When boss looks angry or upset, we consider the possibility that it could be just our imagination – as Thought might have fooled us. Or when boss shouts at us, we consider the possibility that he might have had a bad day and not because he is a bad person or because I am incompetent. Since a mindful person carries awareness that Thought may be fooling him, he doesn’t hold onto an opinion too strongly. He carries an openness to change the opinion if such evidence shows up.

A mindfulness Master is more like Penn and Teller. He is also entertained by the show like others but differs from the first two categories in following ways. First, he is extremely alert while watching the show. Second, he knows exactly when Thought is playing the tricks most of the time. Third, he carries deep appreciation and marvel at what is possible in the drama of life. And fourth, he is willing to share his knowledge of the Thought-tricks with those interested.

Now, how can we use this metaphor for learning mindfulness? First, we can learn from Fooled-but-aware category of audience. As most of our attention is consumed by the drama, perhaps we can keep some attention for the awareness that  Thought may be fooling us. When it comes to defending a belief, perhaps we can consider the fact that part of the belief may be Thought created. That may help us keep the door a little open while listening to others.

Second, like how magicians are learning from Penn and Teller, we can learn from spiritual masters as they explain the places where Thought plays the tricks. For example, in this skype call, when Nick asks Eckhart Tolle, “If I don’t worry about things, how will I pay my bills?” Eckhart suggests him that the question itself might contain an error. That means Thought has played some trick even before you create the question, perhaps introduced an incorrect assumption of necessity i.e. worry is absolutely necessary. The challenge here is to figure out who is an authentic spiritual master and who is not. And wisdom of crowd is not always trustworthy.

Third, you can use the technique that magicians are using in today’s YouTube-world to learn. In the video clip above, Penn points out that it wasn’t difficult for them to spot the deck-switch. Well, we can do the same by running the video in slow motion and see when the card deck gets switched. For example, replay the video between 2:35 and 2:40 and see how Shawn might have brought out a brand new deck from the pocket. Of course, Penn admits they have no clue how Shawn got Penn’s card in the new deck.

Similarly, as David Bohm points out in “Thought as a system”, we can do the same by pressing the button when we are relatively undisturbed i.e. bringing out the thought ourselves that creates negative emotions in us. For example, we can think about boss while he is not in front of us and watch the chain reaction in our body-mind. Watching the Perception & Thought show while a negative emotion is arising is like watching Shawn between 2:35 and 2:40. We can press the button again and again and see how the whole process functions especially in slow motion.

In short, we can use “Penn and Teller: Fool us” metaphor to learn mindfulness by being Fooled-but-aware, by learning thought-tricks from spiritual masters and by pressing the button that springs negative emotions and watching the show in slow motion.

Related articles:

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Kahneman’s “associative coherence” vs David Bohm’s “sustained incoherence”

Daniel Kahneman and David Bohm are two of my favourite experts on human thinking process. Kahneman, in his bestseller “Thinking, fast and slow”, tells us that one of the key characteristics of our (fast) thinking is “associative coherence”. On the other hand, David Bohm, in his “Thought as a system”, tells us that the most important characteristic of our thought process is “sustained incoherence”. Coherence vs incoherence - Are they talking about the same thing? Or different things? That’s what I would like to explore in this article.

Associative coherence: When the news of Aarushi Talwar’s murder in Noida broke out on TV in 2008, my parents were visiting us in Bangalore. I remember watching the news on Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, the high profile doctors in Delhi, a possible affair between their daughter Aarushi and their servant Hemraj and a possibility of “honour killing” etc. My mother who was watching the TV with me, declared within minutes of seeing the news that the parents have committed the murder. I don’t remember what was more shocking to me – the news or my mother’s confidence in her verdict. This is a classic case of how we (including I) form most of our judgments. What matters is whether the pieces of information available to us fit together as a story – i.e. does the story make sense? Do these pieces cohere associatively (together)? What gets ignored is the quantity (adequacy) and quality (correctness) of information. This is what Kahneman calls “associative coherence”. The fast thinking machinery is habituated to jump to conclusions based on the coherence of the story – like a “mental shotgun”. Kahneman calls this “confidence by coherence”.

Sustained incoherence: I returned to the Aarushi case when I read the book Aarushi by Avirook Sen a few months back and also saw the movie Irrfan Khan starrer Talvar a couple of weeks back. I liked the way Avirook Sen has presented various threads of the case – how sloppily the evidence was collected immediately after the murders, how CBI handled the case and how the verdict was arrived at by the Judge Shyam Lal in CBI’s fast-track court in Gaziabad. It looked like a good case material to study cognitive biases in action. Let’s take Judge Shyam Lal whom Avirook visited three months after the verdict. During the discussion, Avirook came to know that the report writing had begun a month before the judgment pronouncement date – Nov 25, 2013. The interesting thing is that the final arguments of the counsel for the defence (Tanveer Ahmed Mir) began on Oct 24, 2013 and went on for two weeks. In these two weeks Tanveer would argue on a total of 24 circumstances that he felt should lead to acquittal. However, looks like the Judge had already made up his mind and perhaps the evidence didn’t matter.

Once you believe in something (e.g. Talwars are guilty) then your thinking process automatically supresses the the evidence which might prove it otherwise. We sustain the potentially incorrect information or incoherence in order to maintain our belief. David Bohm calls this “sustained incoherence”. Note that we do correct misinformation in many places. For example, when you come to know that your friend’s email or phone number is changed, you update the entry in your contact list. Bohm calls this "simple incoherence". However, we don’t seem to correct the misinformation in many other cases including the cases where our self-image is at stake.

Are the two concepts – “associative coherence” and “sustained incoherence” inconsistent? Not really. In fact, Kahneman calls “sustained incoherence” cognitive illusion – where thought creates and sustains a gap between perception and reality. In part III (chapters 19 to 24) of “Thinking, fast and slow” Kahneman presents various cognitive illusions including illusion of validity, illusion of understanding, illusion of skill etc.  He says that cognitive illusions can be more stubborn than visual (optical) illusions and they lead to overconfidence.

After our recommendation, my parents saw the movie Talvar last week. I asked my mom what she thought about the case now. She said she is confused. That shows that beliefs are hard to change but not impossible to shake up.

In summary, Kahneman's "associative coherence" and Bohm's "sustained incoherence" are consistent. “Associative coherence” – how well the connected pieces of information make sense, is the basis on which we form opinions. And once we form an opinion, we suppress the evidence that proves it wrong – thus we sustain the potentially incorrect information – called “sustained incoherence”. This creates overconfidence.

Related articles:
“3 powerful illusions created by thought” July 18, 2015

Thursday, October 15, 2015

How Master Shifu follows a bright spot to train Kung Fu Panda

Among the various approaches to problem solving, “Following a bright spot” is an important one. One my favourite examples that illustrates the bright spot approach is from the animated film “Kung Fu Panda”. Here is how it goes:

Everybody including the panda named Po is in a state of disbelief when Grand Master Oogway selects Po as the Dragon Warrior.

Fat panda can’t even see his toes, let alone touching them.

Master Shifu tries to train him the hard way. He figures that the panda would get frustrated and leave. But panda persists. The master also realizes that the traditional approach would not work for panda. And then one day…

Master Shifu finds Po with a full split several feet above the ground. “How did you get up there?” asks Master Shifu.

“I don’t know...I am just getting a cookie,” says Panda. That’s when the Master discovers the bright spot. A situation where things are working well – Panda can do anything to get the food. Master Shifu applies it everywhere:

“I say you are free to eat,” Master Shifu tells Po but never letting him actually get hold of the food. Thus begins a new training regime.

This is the “bright spot” approach. It can be applied to any problem. Ask yourself, “Is there any corner where things are working well (or the problem is not as severe)?” If so, can you replicate the situation? Note that the approach focuses on the situation and not on the personality traits. The assumption is that the situation is more powerful than the personality traits in triggering specific behaviour. The bright spot approach also assumes that the seed of the solution is always lurking within the problem area. If you have not seen it yet, then it is because you have not looked hard enough.

Image source: Multiple YouTube clips

Friday, September 25, 2015

Starting an innovation initiative: An ABCD approach

Over the past half a decade, I have come across several companies who were interested in either starting or reviving a languishing innovation initiative. Unfortunately, many of them looked at the initiative as launching a series of innovation workshops. Of course, raising awareness is an important part of any new initiative. However, the workshop-only approach makes it much harder to sustain the initiative. Here is an approach I call “ABCD” that in my experience works much better.

Awareness: As I mentioned above, awareness on “what is innovation?”, “How to innovate effectively?”, “How to enable innovation?” certainly helps.  This can be achieved through workshops and knowledge sharing sessions. Apart from inviting internal and external experts to share knowledge awareness can also be raised by sending communication on useful links. Sharing of internal stories of both successes and failures may play an important role because people are able to relate to them more. Hence, internal blogs / presentations matter.

Bright spot: No new initiative gets adopted overnight. Chances are high only a few people join it enthusiastically. In such a situation the voice of “it is not going to work” can be high. What helps in such situations is to ask the questions: What is working well here? And, how can we scale it? For example, if a small percentage of employees give ideas in an idea campaign, we should go interview these people to understand, “Why did they give ideas?” Did their boss play any role? Was it about the reward?  Or was it more like an opportunity to do something exciting? Answers to questions might help in scaling the initiative further.

Challenge campaign: As part of the innovation activity, many companies revive or establish an idea box. For a technology savvy company this could be an intranet portal where employees submit ideas. In some places this is a physical box or a notice board with post-it notes. A typical complaint a few months after putting up an idea box is, “Oh, we are not getting any interesting ideas. Most of the ideas are incremental in nature.”  Incremental ideas play an important role in fostering a culture of innovation. However, if the goal is also to get big impact ideas, then the first step should be framing the business relevant challenges. With these challenges a calendarized campaign can be run inviting ideas in response to one or a few specific challenges. These campaigns not only improve the quality of ideas but also result in inter-departmental collaboration. Credibility of challenge campaigns rests on leadership sponsoring selected ideas for further development. (Check out this 10-point challenge campaign checklist)

Dashboard: Any initiative needs a mirror that reflects the current state. Innovation dashboard serves that purpose. It may capture various pipelines (small ideas, big bets, prototypes, white papers, patents etc.), participation, business impact measures etc.  It may also capture event / workshop information (e.g. hackathon events, blogging competition etc.) The dashboard may evolve as the program matures. The dashboard is used to analyse the health of the initiative and design goals and interventions.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

4 staminas of an innovator

Each of us has unique staminas – some of them come more naturally and some are built with rigorous practice. Examples are: running, weight lifting, reading etc. Some people can spend an entire day on WhatsApp without getting bored. I carry a view that innovativeness can also be built as stamina.  In an earlier article I wrote about “How to build curiosity stamina?” In this article I want to present the four staminas that I consider crucial for innovators: curiosity, experimentation, communication and collaboration.

Curiosity stamina: Being curious is easy, staying curious is not. Ask yourself this question “How long do you stay curious around one challenge area?” By now I have asked this question to several participants in my workshops. Most of them say, “Not more than a couple of days”.  That’s almost like being a couch potato or may be walking to your car every day while what you need is a running stamina of 5K or 10K. In a hyper active world where every day begins with its own set of problems, staying curious about one challenge area is difficult. That’s where one needs some discipline, perhaps of keeping a curiosity diary so that we don’t lose track of some of the interesting questions we ask ourselves. When do I decide to act on a challenge? One criterion I use is to check if I am still curious about it after a few months. Sometimes, I experiment around a challenge on the very same day!

Experimentation stamina: “But, sir, will my idea work?” Every now and then, I meet a guy who doesn’t like to share his idea openly in the class because someone may steal it. And he meets me after the class, tells his idea and wants to know if that idea will work. I usually tell him, “I don’t know. Why don’t you prototype and test it?” “That I will do, but I want to know if you think it will work.” That’s an example of low experimentation stamina. Similarly, I also meet technology enthusiasts who are busy perfecting their technology before they are ready to show it to customers. Many people just don’t get it that it is the speed of experimentation and the number of iterations that they can do that matters most. One of the participants in my workshop wanted to check if people in Bangalore would be interested in ordering filter coffee online in their office. He put out a web-page and got 30+ responses within a few days. He delivered the coffee himself to all the initial respondents. That’s an example of a low-cost experiment. How many experiments do you carry out every month? The answer could be a good indicator of your experimentation stamina.

Communication stamina: “I am not good at selling” our 12th grader son tells us. That’s not very different from how I used to think about myself perhaps a decade ago. Having done a PhD, I have been trained to represent things abstractly. It took really long time for me to realize that abstractions are not useful when it comes to communicating your idea. One way you can measure your communication stamina is by answering the following question – How many times do you present your idea before giving up on it?  Personally, reading the book “Made to stick” by Chip & Dan Heath was a turning point as far communication stamina was concerned. It provides a simple checklist to ask you for improving the communication. Is your message concrete? Is it credible? Does it contain a curiosity flow? Are you telling an appropriate story? These questions can lead to improving the design of your presentation. It is no surprise that I find movies like “A beautiful mind”, “Twelve angry men”, “The matrix” useful in explaining my ideas.

Collaboration stamina:  I feel that this is the toughest stamina to build. Why? Because it not only involves you remaining curious about a topic but also needs at least one more person to be with you in the explorative journey. Moreover, it adds new dimensions like – who gets the credit? How do you resolve things when you don’t agree? I have been fortunate enough to be part of a collaborative effort with my friend Prof Rishikesha Krishnan which lasted four-five years and resulted in our book “8 steps to innovation”. How long has been a particular collaboration? This is a good indicator of collaboration stamina. Where do you start to build collaboration stamina? I don’t know. But perhaps a good place to start could be listening and appreciating others’ work which could be related and yet different from your work. It would helpful to have a collaborator who agrees with you on a few core assumptions (beliefs) at least as a starting point. The ultimate test of collaboration stamina is the ability to collaborate with someone who holds views exactly opposite that of yours. This is known as adversarial collaboration. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman talks about his experience with adversarial collaboration here.

Well, this is my list of 4 staminas useful for an innovator. Perhaps yours may be different. Happy to hear from you. Who knows? It may lead to collaboration!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Marathi translation of “Thought and Perception” - chapter 4 from “The Limits of Thought”

(The translation is available here).

Spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti and Physicist David Bohm met for the first time in 1961. Since then they met several times until Krishnamurti’s death in 1986. Several of these dialogues have been published in the form of books, the most popular being “The ending of time”. One such book is “The limits of thought: discussions” which presents dialogues from 1975 to 1980. Chapter 4 of this book is titled “Thought and perception” and it presents a dialogue that occurred between the two men in Gstaad, Switzerland on July 25, 1975. In many ways it captures the essence of the human dilemma and carries the potential to push an already open door a little wider.

My father Padmakar Dabholkar has been a student of Krishnamurti’s teaching for over two decades. He began translating “Limits of thought” into Marathi as a personal introspection exercise while he was visiting us in Bangalore in May-June earlier this year. I suggested to him that we share the translation of the chapter 4 (Thought and perception) on the Internet and see if it appeals to a wider audience. 

Please find the Marathi translation of the chapter here.

In case you have any feedback / comments, you can reach my father at

In case you are interested in listening to the original dialogue, you can find it on YouTube here. It is titled "What is the substance of thought?"

Sunday, August 16, 2015

PK and a peek into the assumptions of necessity

I enjoyed Amir Khan starrer PK. It depicts the struggle of an alien in trying to understand the culture in India. The film created a beautiful mirror to see how faith blinds us from seeing the reality. Whenever the topic of PK came up with my friends, it created two kinds of responses. There were some who laughed at the parody and there were others who felt that it hurt their feelings. Most of these responses were not surprising except for one category. These surprising category folks were staunch atheist and still they felt that their feelings were hurt by the movie. I began to wonder why?

Let’s visualize what a staunch atheist looks like first. He is very vocal about being atheist and at every opportunity he gets, he taunts at the so-called religious people. He says things like – “Look at these people worshipping God. They read religious scriptures, perform various rituals etc. See how ignorant they are” In fact, one of my friends keeps passing remarks on his wife who continues to perform Pooja etc. However, I was surprised to see him getting agitated about PK. Interestingly he had not seen PK and didn’t intend to see it as well. And yet, he knew that the movie is “bad”. What is going on here?

To say that this behaviour is irrational is like stating the obvious. But why does a staunch atheist get upset to see a movie making fun of the blind followers of a faith? To understand the answer, we need to understand how beliefs work. Most of our beliefs are tacit and are deeply ingrained in our memory. A belief is nothing but a set of assumptions – Hindu religion is good, if I pray to God, he will protect me etc. These assumptions are stored in the form of a set of neurological reflexes. Knee jerks automatically when tapped. Similarly, a reflex fires when it is touched by a thought or an image.  

Some of these assumptions carry a strong sense of necessity. E.g. It is absolutely necessary that Hindu religion is good. These assumptions of necessity are very powerful. A whole set of reflexes defending these assumptions are created. Whenever they get touched by a thought, it evokes a strong reaction. The interesting part is that we are mostly not aware of these assumptions of necessity. The only way we come to know that they exist is when we see ourselves reacting strongly to something e.g. a movie like PK.

An atheist may be outwardly mocking religious practices. However, it is possible that he carries assumptions of necessity such as “It is absolutely necessary that Hindu religion is good”. When he hears or reads about PK and how it makes fun of blind followers of Hindu religion, the reflexes related to the assumptions of necessity are fired. An internal conflict of thoughts arises and assumptions of necessity win the fight by evoking the angry reaction.

Do you want to learn about your assumptions of necessity? Then your best bet is the situations which create anger, frustration, and anxiety in you.  These situations provide opportunities to fish around and find out the assumptions of necessity which might have led to this reaction. If you “see” these assumptions of necessity, they might lose their grip and loosen up a bit. Why don’t you try and find out?

David Bohm presents “assumption of necessity” in great detail in the book “Thought as a system”, Routledge, 1994. The discussion happens while talking about the question: “Why do I get upset when someone yells at me?” (page 97-108). The discussion leads to finding an assumption of necessity, “Whenever anybody yells at me, it is absolutely necessary to feel that I’m bad.” (page 103).

Innovation - Where to begin (video)

Related article:

Three sources of innovation: pain, wave and waste, March 6, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Matrix as a system vs thought as a system

To see the slides in full-screen mode, please click on the following symbol on the bottom right side of the above presentation. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

3 powerful illusions created by thought

Which horizontal line is longer? Chances are high you have seen this picture before. And you know that this is a trick question. The truth is that both the lines are of the same length. However, every time we see the picture, the upper line looks longer.  This is an example of an optical illusion. Similar to optical illusions, we are also subjected to illusions created by thought and they are called cognitive illusions. “Cognitive illusions can be more stubborn than visual illusions” says Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman in his best-seller “Thinking, fast and slow”. In this article, we will look at three powerful cognitive illusions – illusion of understanding, illusion of experience and illusion of truth.

Illusion of understanding1: In the movie Queen, the protagonist Rani tells her friend, “I listened to my parents and teachers all my life. Anyone you can think of, I have listened to that person. I never wore a mini-skirt. I never misbehaved. Still I got dumped (by my fiancé).” As we make sense of the world around us, we form certain cause-and-effect relationships in our mind. For example, “listen to parents” and “things will be good in future”. “Study well” and “you will be successful” etc. They get reinforced by the success stories we are told in school, at home and in media. One thing we tend to ignore is the role of luck or chance. We study the personality traits of successful people such as Steve Jobs or Ratan Tata and conclude that if I imbibe these traits, I will be successful. At work is a rule called WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is. We treat the available information as all there is and derive our inferences. I like the way Kahneman puts it: Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance2.

Illusion of experience3: Shopping online? I am sure you have your favourite shopping site – perhaps Amazon or Flipkart or Snapdeal etc. Grocery shopping? You know where to go – your local shop or the Mall. One factor that is influencing your decision is your past experience. Perhaps you trust your experience more than anything else. And yet the memory of the experience may be fooling you. I heard following story from a workshop participant, “I and my wife visited China recently. The whole trip was great except on the last day I forgot to wish my wife on her birthday. Now nobody talks about the China trip at home.” Kahneman mentions that the memory of an experience follows the Peak-End rule and duration neglect. We remember only the peak events and the ending and we ignore the total duration of the experience. If the end is bad then the memory of the experience is bad like the China trip even if most of the trip was fun. This is an illusion of experience. Kahneman calls this the ‘tyranny of the remembering self’4Whenever you shop or make any decision, you believe you are trying to ensure a better future experience. However, what you are doing is trying to ensure better anticipated memories. 

Illusion of truth5: This is the most subtle and perhaps the most dangerous form of cognitive illusion. A few years back I and my wife, who teaches Physics, were discussing psychology. And she said, “Psychology is not a science.” To which I said, “Have you studied psychology?” She said, “No. But I know it is all fluffy stuff. You don’t have rigor in Psychology.” Then I asked, “How can you be so confident about something you haven’t even studied?” This caused some emotional outburst and we stopped the discussion6. We are constantly trading beliefs for non-negotiable truths and we are not even aware of it. For example, when one of the jurors in “Twelve angry men” says, “You can’t believe a word they say. They are born liars.”, he is not even aware that he has treated a belief as an absolute truth. I remember when Aarushi Talwar murder story came out, my mom instantly knew that Arushi’s parents had committed the murder. Unfortunately, our beliefs are largely based on “how the thought-created story makes sense” or what Kahneman calls “associative and emotional coherence” rather than logical reasoning based on facts7. Due to our tendency of treating “belief-is-the-truth” we go to war, break relationships and commit all kinds of atrocities.

OK, you might say, so what is one to do? Well, the first step is similar to what we do when we encounter a picture with two arrows (optical illusion).  We tell ourselves, “This could be a trick. I need to be careful here.” Every time we draw a cause-and-effect relationship, judge a past experience or treat a belief as truth, we should treat the situation as if we are entering a cognitive minefield8.

Watch your step.

Image sources: Snapshots from the movies: Queen (2014), Tweleve angry men (1997), Behind enemy lines (2001).


1.  Kahneman explains “Illusion of understanding” in chapter 19 (Thinking, fast and slow) which has the same title.
2.    WYSIATI rule and the quote on “unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance” are from chapter 19 page 201.
3.   “Illusion of experience” is explained in chapter 35 titled “Two selves”
4.   “Tyranny of the remembering self” is mentioned in chapter 35 page 381. Kahneman presents this topic in the TED talk “The riddle of experience vs. memory
5.   “Illusion of truth” is a section in chapter 5 titled “Cognitive ease” and is on page 61.
6.   While we stopped our discussion, my wife (Gauri) ended up auditing a 20 lecture “Introduction to Psychology” course (available free on YouTube) the same year during the summer holidays. Last year we took a courser course titled “Buddhism and modern psychology” together. And she is now using “Thinking, fast and slow” for teaching cognitive biases to grade 11 & 12 students in Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class. Last year she became Head of the Dept for TOK. She continues to teach Physics.
7.   Associative coherence is mentioned on page 64.
8.   Kahneman uses the term “cognitive minefield” on page 417.