MIDWAY : Cocooned in conformity

To mark the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, noted Harvard Historian Niall Ferguson looks at the events of that fateful day and its repercussions on US Foreign Policy, in retrospect, from his pedestal perch in 2031, in the latest issue of TIME magazine. Though even Ferguson is likely to admit that predicting events, even a day in advance, is fraught with danger, this think-I-know syndrome cuts across time and culture. But how much do we really ‘know,’ about ourselves, let aside the world?

Consider this example from Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink. Two separate groups of men and women were asked to put forth their take of an ‘ideal mate.’ When the two groups were later brought together, both men and women chose as their partners members of the opposite sex who were nearly the “exact opposites” of their stated preferences.

This happens because we tend to look at a small part of a bigger whole, much of which remains beyond our grasp. Take generalisations: the tendency to ferret answers even in the face of scant evidence. How often do we couple certain ‘looks’ with intelligence? Or blondes with dumbness? Experiments too prove this inherent human tendency to let preconceived ideas colour their judgment. A recent US poll, for instance, found that diehard Republican and Democratic partisans voted for their candidates even when shown clear benefits of switching sides.

Arriving at a ‘reasonable’ conclusion is no easy matter either. En route from Dharahara to Lagankhel the other day, I noted that for every 50 persons with a watch on their left hand, one had his on his right. What could account for such a big difference? I could only come up with two reasons: most people are right-handed so find it easy to loop a watch around their left wrist, or people simply imitate the majority. But on my way home that evening, I was completely thrown off my track by some kids playing cricket. Amazingly, all seven of them had their watches on their right wrists! Before hazarding a conclusion, it’s always wise to analyse an event from as wide a perspective as possible. But people prefer certainties. And in their quest for comfortable ends, they often sidestep the right means.