Saturday 27 July 2013

Why people think what they think and do what they do

Three years of living in a foreign country (actually this is closer to eleven, but I'm only counting years of having any brains, i.e. adulthood) and interacting with people from different walks of life have given me some perspective into cultural differences.

My key data points here are admittedly limited to my social circles (both personal and professional) in the UK and India, but as a faux-intellectual blogger, I will take the liberty of generalising to the Western "developed" world and the subcontinent/China-type "developing" world.

There appears to be very fundamental cultural differences between someone who's brought up in Britain and someone who's brought up in India. This might seem quite obvious on the face of it, but it is important to emphasise that these differences are more than just superficial, and cannot just be understood by consuming television shows, films and literature.

One could go into tedious reams of details on the way Indians are more likely to jay-walk, break queues, are generally more undisciplined and have scant regard for rules, but I won't bother. If you've lived in London and been to areas like Wembley and East Ham, the difference between them and the more "UK"-ish parts of London are obvious. After about a year of feeling embarrassed and apologetic for my country-folk ruining perfectly nice parts of the host country (and basically forcing the local government to pass immigration laws that in-all-but-name target people from the subcontinent), I thought it might be interesting to think about why  this happens.

At the same time, I was also struck by deep-rooted cultural "propaganda" (for lack of a better word) in the developed world structured around things like looking beautiful, having nice things, wearing exactly the right attire for any possible occasion and basically being "first-world" beyond just an average amount of presentability.

Then one fine day a couple of theories struck me that just refused to leave. It all made sense -- there appear to be three key interdependent factors that drive a person to behave the way he does:

  1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
  2. Scale
  3. G.A.S Capital

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The biggest genius of understanding people's motivations has to be Abraham Maslow. While the levels themselves in the hierarchy may not lend themselves to being neatly defined with clear boundaries, the general concept of a gradual layering of a person's motivations (and a subsequent cognitive difficulty in realising differences between them) is quite brilliant.

The simplest explanation for the differences between a typical Indian and a typical Briton is that they're on different levels in the hierarchy.

This need not necessarily be the case for a specific individual -- the layers of the hierarchy can be applied more generally to the society in which one is brought up. Indian society is at a lower rung of the Hierarchy of Needs than British society. This automatically slots someone brought up in either society into the same corresponding level (at least to begin with -- this obviously changes over time and circumstances).

Consequently, the typical Indian is more focussed on survival-promoting or security-promoting actions. Anything that doesn't implicitly -- and immediately -- threaten any one of those can be regarded as Not Very Important™ in the larger scheme of things. Being resident in this level of hierarchy results in:

1. Doing only the bare minimum necessary to get by
2. Not Giving A Shit about anything else (somewhat exaggerated, but we will come back to this later)
3. A complete failure to understand the actions of people in the "developed" world, w.r.t money, morality, art, food, literature, film -- anything!

This is the reason you have people who just can't understand why someone might pay a lot of attention to their looks. This is why someone would just break a queue without fearing the dire consequences of looks of disapproval and annoyed tutting.

On the other side, you have the developed world completely failing to understand why parents force their kids into becoming engineers, lawyers or doctors, or why children continue to live with their parents after leaving college and getting jobs.

As somewhat of an aside, this also explains why the unemployed youth of the developed world due to generally poor global economic conditions are so much like a fish out of water. I posit that the biggest cause of their struggles is coming to terms with suddenly being asked to jump down a couple of rungs in the Hierarchy of Needs. A guy who could self-actualise by doing a graduate degree in English literature or medieval history  is suddenly faced with the onerous task of having to secure his food and shelter needs by dint of having employable and marketable skills.


The developed world simply isn't used to handling massively large numbers of people. A lot of the laws and societal guidelines in place presume quite low numbers of people, which would mean that as a percentage of population, the actual absolute number of people breaching guidelines remains low enough to be manageable within even a comfortably inefficient framework of laws or bureaucracy.

Once you have a certain amount of scale in terms of sheer numbers of people, any such social contracts are bound to break down in the absence of a rigorous framework of rules that are strictly enforced.

Or, to paraphrase something I head a Googler say on Slashdot: "You encounter problems at scale that you didn't know existed."

Rules and laws as merely social contracts simply don't scale very well. If one were to view a social contract as a cartel of sorts, then the larger the group gets, the greater the incentive for chiselling.

As a rather simplistic example, the UK has great roads -- they're well built and maintained. But would they stand up to the relentless weather and traffic conditions of most major cities in India? I very much doubt it.

Similarly, the UK has great institutions like the NHS, and reasonably comfortable socialist safety nets like unemployment and senior citizen benefits. Companies in the UK have great maternity leave policies, and reasonably lax Internet filtering. And of course, there is always a small minority that take unfair advantage of such goodies.

But in India, the massive numbers of people involved means that the percentage of people who will abuse such privileges remains untenably high. This links directly back to the first point -- because people in India are pretty much embedded in the lower layers of the Hierachy of Needs, they will not mind breaking the spirit of a law or rule or guideline as long as they are either not caught, or don't face any "real" consequences, i.e. those that threaten survival or security.

G.A.S Capital

This factor brings together the Hierarchy of Needs and scale, and hopefully puts some explanatory power into how and why the previous two points interact.

Every person, regardless of ethnicity or upbringing, inherently has only a limited number of shits to give. I call this figure the Give A Shit (GAS) Capital of a person, and this can only be distributed among a finite set out outlets, with each outlet having a certain fixed minimum cost to the person.

When a person is on the lower rung of the Hierarchy of Needs, they have to focus on distributing their GAS capital on survival essentials like food, shelter and a stream of income to enable a continued base quality of life, and don't have as much to expend on things like consideration for fellowmen. And this obviously gets compounded when there are simply far too many fellowmen.

Curiously in the latter case, even when the person may be on a higher level, their GAS capital gets spread too thin among too many people. And therefore, even people who are relatively well-off in over-crowded places appear "callous". This implies that scale and GAS Capital end up in a sort of a positive feedback loop.

Due to this feedback loop, it would appear to follow that there is a rough correlation between population density and GAS capital -- the more people you pack in together in close quarters, the less of a shit they appear to give.

So this can be used to explain why competition in countries like India and China is so cut-throat, and also why corruption is so widespread and prevalent there.

Using this relationship between population and GAS capital, one could also arguably posit that the USA is at a reasonably balanced level of population: crowded enough that competition keeps people on their toes and scrambling towards the "American Dream" with sporadic bursts of unethical behaviour, but not so overcrowded that you basically have to cheat to even survive.

Admittedly, these are some pretty large generalisations about large swathes of very diverse countries and populations, but I believe you can see curious little localised effects of GAS capital as well. Take the UK, for example. Anyone who's lived and been brought up in a small to medium-sized town (or even distant suburbs of big cities) complains about the rudeness and over-crowding in big cities. From personal experience as well, a random person on the street in a place like Worth Matravers is more likely to be "nicer" than a random person on the street in London.

Ever since these ideas popped into my head and sat there developing, I have a different sense of perspective when I see things happening around me. It might be a simple case of everything looking like a nail for this hammer framework, but it's frankly far more interesting that complaining or hand-wringing. Additionally, now that I am gainfully employed, the offices of the large online fashion retailer are a shocking contrast to my previous work environments of mostly banks. This gives me even more fodder for my theory, and so far I see little things everywhere that reinforce my ideas (like a little sign above free fruit basket politely reminding people to take ONLY one fruit per person).

One important aspect of the framework remains unresolved though: a catchy name. MSG theory? The Three Thinking Trilbies? Oh well, let the jury be out on that one.


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