Are men and women equal?

27 11 2016

Are men’s and women’s brains different? In other words, are the differences in how men and women think rooted in biology?

It is an 18th century question, according to Gina Rippon, an eminent neuroscientist. When I posed the same question to my 9 year old, just for the fun of it, he basically mirrored the above sentiment. He thought that the question is absurd. When I pressed him further on whether could there be a scientific and objective evidence that there’s indeed some difference, he refused to take the bait. He stood his ground and refused to consider the question because he reasoned, the question “are men and women equal?” in itself suggests that they may not and hence lead to discrimination, which is by all means an undesirable and an incorrect behavior. In other words, he treats it as a leading question. Oh boy!  What Gina means by her comment is that several advancements have happened since 18th century that effectively and conclusively answered that question in negative.

Regardless of any insinuations and despite our need to be politically right, I think it’s still an interesting and relevant question to think about even in this century. Among the many differences we commonly observe, some are myths, some are culturally driven, while some are rooted in biology and/or evolution. Take for example, the notion that women are more emotional than men. It’s not exactly true because what’s different is more expression of an emotion rather than the emotion itself. The observed difference could well have been only a result of cultural and social stereotyping. I guess more or less similar reasoning can be given to most of the stuff you find in the gospel – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. :). But some differences do exist.

With all the advancements in neuroscience and biology, we have greater insights into human brain now than ever. In fact, today’s neuroscience sees little difference in how women and men are fundamentally capable of thinking. Whatever stereotypes we have going around are just that – stereotypes largely based on deep cultural notions and the resulting psychological impact of acting on those stereotypes. For example, take a typical belief that women are  not (or cannot be) as good at math as men. In fact, time and again the test scores reveal the same. But capability is not at the root of this trend. When the cultural expectation is for boys to outperform girls in math, and the girls believe it as everyone else, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the attitude towards competition and the anxiety induced resulted from cultural stereotypes that causes girls/women to under perform in certain areas (Study).

But some argue that nature and evolution cannot be overruled.  Historically, men had always been specialized in competing for mates, and women in caring for the offspring. According to Helena Cronin, a Darwinian philosopher, the different reproductive strategies of two sexes with completely different sets of associated costs and benefits, lie at the root of all gender differences between men and women. This survival tendency has clearly established different patterns of behavior and thereby nurtured disparate strengths in men and women.

And of course, one should not rule out the role of biology. The male hormone of testosterone is clearly associated with competitiveness, aggressiveness, dominance, assertiveness etc., while estrogen promotes stable mood, sense of well-being, improved cognition etc. (An interesting tidbit is that humans are naturally female and testosterone masculinizes boys in the womb.) As per Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who has done extensive research on autism observes that “higher levels of fetal testosterone could explain increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in males”, following the theory that “the male brain is programmed to systemize and the female brain to empathize”.  Is this why women are considered more adept at social thinking and interactions compared to men. Testosterone is also strongly associated with violent and anti-social behavior. Hmm! Women also have testosterone, but men of course are characterized by much higher levels (10 times compared to that in women).

Another perception is that men tend to be more analytical than women or women tend to be more intuitive than men, hence the notion that men are largely left-brained and women are right-brained. Studies suggest that male brains may be optimized for motor skills while female brains may be optimized for combining analytical and intuitive thinking. Men also perceived to be laser focused while women are multi-taskers. Women tend to absorb more and store it all in their brains compared to men. Could these differences be explained by the hunter-gatherer theory, the sexual division of labor, where men normally pursued risk taking activities of hunting, while women were relegated low-risk task of gathering rich calorie for nurturing? Or do they have true biological causes? There are a lot of contradictory arguments and lot of conflicting “evidence”.

Neuroplasticity is perhaps the most important and fascinating discoveries in recent times. There is nothing static about ourselves – not our bodies, which regenerates itself with new cells every 6 months or so, to our brains, defined by the interconnections among neurons that can strengthen or weaken depending on the experiences and behavior thereby redefining them constantly. Isn’t it amazing? Change is indeed the only constant. 🙂 As our brains are getting continuously rewired, based on external stimulation, nature and nurture are so strongly intertwined that I think it’s difficult to disentangle them and say for sure where one ends and the other starts.

From the evolutionary perspective, we still have the same basic instincts as our primal ancestors. The gender differences (some if not all) too are rooted in them. But in today’s world, many of them maybe are irrelevant. We are not living in wild and are not facing the same kind of survival problems. Mankind’s development happened so rapidly that evolution and nature needs time to catch up. Am damn curious to know as to what the next evolutionary changes for us would be – what our basic instincts would be. Sometime in future when physical strength and all other evolutionary differences between men and women become less and less relevant for survival, can we achieve a gender neutral society? A society where no gender has an advantage over the other. Well, is it a good thing? It certainly sounds like it is. But who knows!





Minimalism

4 11 2016

This could well be another case for “connecting the dots“. Truth be told, almost anything could be interpreted as one.

Minimalism as a concept has been in vogue forever. In its purest form, beings who are on the path of or have achieved spiritual enlightenment forsake any attachment to material things and thereby live with barest of them in order to survive. But I’m not talking about that kind of minimalism, but instead the fad that’s been gaining more practice these days, wherein normal people like you and me, tend to realize the benefits of living with less, and make it their life style to live with as minimum as possible. Truth be told, it’s not at all a new idea. People like that existed at all times, but why is it as a practice gaining more popularity these days? In this world of rampant consumerism and materialism, it can be said with certainty that this perspective of life is an uncommon thing.

My foray into this concept or rather my introduction to this phenomenon started when I came across an article about “tiny houses”a few years ago. At that time, it fascinated me. It awakened my dormant childhood memory of playing for hours with imaginary tiny houses on wheels. I used to setup small house like structures that supposedly contain all I own (hypothetically) and making the best out of it. I remember being  so content and proud about my humble lifestyle. ;). Boy, I was so excited to read about them. But the idea didn’t stuck with me for long. I wonder why. Just being my usual conformist self I guess. 😛

I want to first start thinking about why we usually want big houses in the first place. What does the “excess” space that we can call ours signify? Is it just ostensibility or is there a deep psychological need? Of course, it’s not just space and you typically feel the need to fill it with as much as you can. It’s mostly for the comfort that various things bring to us. It could also be because we perceive the vastness of space to signify the extent of freedom and privacy.

For me, one practical downside of having a very small house is – how can you invite any of your friends and family? It’s a big deal to me. Even with minimum things around, I feel that tiny houses could feel real cramped. But maybe not. In all fairness, minimalism calls for a shift in perspective – how you look at things and your relationship with them. In the case of houses, it extends to how you view space around you and challenge all your preconceiving notions about them. Wow, it’s a huge thing.

The “tiny house movement” is gaining traction with its proposed benefits and as a way to break the circle of consumerism (?) and focusing on only what’s needed rather on what’s wanted. Well of course, a tiny house comes with its own challenges. It’s not a magic mantra to solve your materialism problem. Also, the tiny house  bandwagon may not be about minimalism at all but rather a rather an attempt to achieve affordable housing (Read here.)

All this I absorb as a bystander. I cannot say that I’ve been inspired to action . I haven’t actually considered going this route. Not yet!

Marie Kondo, with her art of tidying up, puts forth the idea that having less is the solution, not organizing more stuff better. When I read through her instructions on how to discard your things, clothes, books etc., and how you actually need much lesser than you would have ever imagined, it’s a sudden revelation. Despite the fact that I was fascinated by Marie’s book and philosophy , I didn’t think I can take the advice. Again!

And then one fine day not long ago I was just casually toying with the idea of taking a resolution of “no shopping” for the coming year. My sudden inspiration was more a result of getting weary about maintaining a huge wardrobe, not to mention accessories, and having to shop periodically to keep up, than a consequence of sudden spiritual awakening or disillusionment or simply wanting less.

Just the other day, I listened to a podcast by Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists, and I must admit it’s damn inspiring. (At last!) It’s amazing when you actually realize how less you need to live your regular life and how much you are stockpiling just for the sake of it. How much time, money, and energy will be saved if I just follow Steve Jobs’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s footsteps and stick to one dressing style. (Extending it to just one color is a bit too extreme for me.) However, I agree that much money and peace of mind can be saved if I cut down buying most non-necessities – clothes, books, accessories etc. Of course if one doesn’t want to steer too much away from the current lifestyle there are certain limitations as to how far you can cut down buying stuff or discard things. But if one is up to drastic life style and perspective change, sky is the limit. 🙂

A part of me still thinks it’s impractical. At least for a hoarder like me. But change is in order. It would be a nice challenge to get over my life style and habits. It won’t be easy. But will it be worth the effort? Will I experience all those benefits, or at least a sense of calmness and clarity, the ability to focus more on what matters rather on dispersing my meager attention on to myriad insignificant things/aspects? I hope so. I start small. Some day! 🙂 As far as “tiny houses” go, I think I’ll pass. I believe we need to have reasonable space to accommodate important aspects of our lives – people, passions, and physical & psychological well-being. Sustainability is the key.

Moreover, I was long sold on the idea that accumulating experiences is much cooler than accumulating things, thanks to Thomas Gilovich. Minimalism also preaches the same thing. So, here I embark on a journey to accumulate experiences, not things. Cheers to “accumulating experiences”!





Judging

27 08 2016

We all judge people. To some extent or the other. Almost compulsively. We tend to compare behavior and/or traits of others with our own understanding or standards of excellence as a quick way to approve or disapprove a person with regards to that behavior or trait.  The urban dictionary defines judging as quickly forming a bias and/or personal opinion about someone or something.

I like to think that judging is related to stereotyping. Stereotypes typically guide our judgments, to the extent that we believe in those stereotypes, that is. “Stereotype”  as a phenomenon has its own place and serves distinct purpose in our lives. It provides mental shortcuts to form quick decisions in the absence of any discernible information. Of course, like many of our other instincts, stereotypes will not serve us well in all circumstances and have to be exercised with caution, and taken with more than a pinch of salt.

Stereotypes are like statistics. Just like a statistic such as “70% of population favor x”, will not tell you for sure  whether the one person you encounter in the middle of the road favors x or not, stereotype may not be applicable to each individual or instance. Of course, it is always possible that a stereotype could have become obsolete or in the process of becoming obsolete what with the ever changing cultural and social picture and hence shouldn’t have been relied upon. Of course judging goes beyond stereotypes. It’s based on our own perception of things.

So, stereotypes can be good or bad.  Following this, it can be argued that judging can also be good or bad. But I would typically associate judging  with a negative feeling, even in the case of a positive judgment.   As per negative judgments, even as you try to feel superior to others in the process, in the end it won’t result in any positive feeling/emotion.

This brings up the question as to why we judge in the first place.My theories:

  • When you seek validation for your own behavior, you judge others who deviate from your own behavior as inferior.
  • When you are insecure about your own behavior
  • When you are unable to appreciate and accept different perspectives. Not open to new or different standards or ways of life.
  • You want to quickly determine whether you like or dislike a person and so you judge them as good, bad, or not good enough as a proxy based on your likes, dislikes , and expectations.
  • People like to be custodians of their positive traits/behavior

It’s amazing how much prevalent judging is, despite our best efforts. Some of the common things that are judged widely:

  • Parenting: I feel that this one trumps all others. Almost everyone have at least a few things that they do absolutely right and look down on others who fail to do so or do them differently.
  • Significant other: You got to be perfect spouse, BF/GF. How can you not be this or not do that?
  • Weight: If your BMI is perfect, you may judge overweight, obese , or underweight people.
  • Fitness: if you have got it right, you may not able to empathize with those who lack the self-control or will power to eat right and/or hit the gym.
  • Homemaking: If you are an efficient and skillful homemaker, you may judge others’ homemaking skills which don’t measure up to yours
  • Efficiency: If you are super-efficient, you may judge others who are less efficient.

Whatever your strengths are (or what you think your strengths are), you may judge people based on them.

Will non-judging help? Will the world be a better place if no one judges others? I like to think so.  Even without delving into the root cause of this phenomenon and its ultimate purpose, the simplest reason why I work on curbing this is to avoid the negativity it breeds.

But how to go about it? The first step is always awareness. Once you are self-aware and catch yourself being judgmental, it’s just matter of letting go. It takes a little self-discipline and management. But once you let go, there is freedom. You got to experience it to understand the uplifting feeling that non-judging results in. Here are some helpful tips on becoming less judgmental: 10 Reasons to Stop Judging People.

When you do not judge, you accept. Acceptance is the key to peace and harmony.





Team psychology

26 06 2016

Every now and then you come across a concept or idea that strikes you unawares, opens up a new train of thought, enlightens you, or makes you look at things differently.

When I started listening to the chapter on Teams in Charles Duhigg’s latest book – Smarter, Harder, Better I was only expecting to hear more on the age-old wisdom on groups and teams, and all that I learnt as part of my Organization Behavior course in business school. But then I heard about Psychological Safety. It kind of blew my mind off. When he explained what psychological safety means and how it can be a key differentiator between the more productive, efficient teams and the rest, it made perfect sense.

Apparently Google, in its attempt to figure out the recipe for a perfect team, has researched teams and their effectiveness through a project named Aristotle over several years and discovered this. It is such a beautiful concept, which may simply be dubbed as “be nice”. 😛  As per Wikipedia, “Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. ”

Psychological Safety has found to be a statistically significant factor associated with high-performing teams. However, it does not mean that it alone can make a team perfect.  As per the scientific research, other things like number and quality of social interactions between team members,  the existence of Shared Mental Models within the team, shared expectations regarding behavioral norms, as well as organizational issues such as the leadership and management culture all contribute to team effectiveness. Moreover, as Chris Alexander of Aglx Consulting points out, this insight is not actionable by itself as Psychological Safety is not a team skill. Read this enlightening article offering practical advice on how to build psychological safety in teams: Psychological Safety is just one piece of the larger puzzle

Another concept relevant to workplace that I happened to hear about in a recent event as part of a meetup is “Imposter Syndrome”. It’s such an eye opener.  The talk  couldn’t have been more timely for me personally. It was a very rewarding experience and the speaker, Lauren Jackman of Medallia, who is a PHD from Stanford, was very engaging.

According to Wikipedia, Imposter Syndrome refers to  high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite ample external evidence to their success, people succumbed to this syndrome have a tendency to think that they are not smart/talented etc. as others think they are.

One prominent internal cause for imposter syndrome could be complete access to our own fears and knowledge gaps.

As per the speaker, among the many factors contributing to the Imposter Syndrome phenomenon, is the “Duck Syndrome”. The Duck Syndrome is Stanford’s take on stress – be stressed out, but don’t show it! This relates to the culture of brilliance/performance, which underplays the hard work behind any success. In fact it may involve hiding all the work that went into something and projecting only the result.  It creates a misguided perception that success comes from being smart or a genius, and working hard to achieve it is a sign of weakness or failure. In fact, it’s rarely true that any success can be achieved without hard work. This can result in a fixed mindset which puts undue emphasis on “what is” rather than “what can be”.

This leads us to the concept called “growth mindset”, which refers to the belief that success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness. Carol Dweck in her 2006 book “Mindset” has elaborated on the fixed mindset – growth mindset continuum as part of her key contributions to social psychology on implicit theories of intelligence.

When we think about other team settings that can contribute to this imposter syndrome, the following emerge:

  • Under-representation
  • Stereotypes based on culture, age, race, gender etc.
  • Lack of belongingness
  • When others are watching

Leadership should make sure to watch out for the above pitfalls that can adversely impact team’s performance and effectiveness. Normalizing failure can be a powerful strategy to help combat imposter syndrome, instill growth mindset, and even develop psychological safety and bring out the best in teams.

I like my current team and I think it has reasonable levels of psychological safety. 🙂





Quiet

5 03 2016

8520610

When I first came across Susan Cain’s TED talk on the power of introverts, it struck me as a little defensive. I’ve always been comfortable with my introversion and have never felt any qualms about it. Maybe because the culture I grew up in didn’t show any undue favoritism towards extroverts. Or so I think. 😛

Susan Cain’s thoroughly researched book “Quiet” addresses the prevalent notion that extraversion is superior to introversion.  In many Western cultures Extroversion is highly valued and consequently Introversion is looked down upon. This is not quite true for Asian cultures, which perceive Introversion to be a more desirable trait.

The book discusses how today’s schools and workplaces are being built only for extroverts focusing more on group work  and seamless interaction/communication, leaving the introverts baffled, uncomfortable, out of place, and thereby very unproductive. The author calls for more balanced design of classroom and office work spaces, given the fact that introverts often make up 30-50 percent of the pool. The “extroversion ideal” also adversely affects the self-esteem of the introverts.

I never considered even the possibility of the opportunities lost because of my tendency to be reserved. Nor did I have any notion of how I could leverage my deep and quiet nature to the best in different aspects of my life. “Quiet” offered me a context to ponder over these thoughts. Introversion is  characterized by both nature and nurture. Learning the physiological aspect of it not only helps introverts to understand and accept themselves better and also to adopt some tips/techniques to get over their natural inclinations and occasionally play an “extroverted” role, as demanded by circumstances.

Susan Cain emphasizes that introverts have quiet power in them and are invaluable part of the society, who contribute as much, and in many cases, much more than extroverts to the success and well-being of the world.

It’s well-written, enlightening, and deeply engaging.





The Art of Choosing

27 02 2016

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar surpassed all my expectations and more. I’m very impressed by this work. I was surprised to learn that the author is blind. At no point in the whole book would you get an idea of any such limitation on author’s part.  This work is a result of decades of her work in the field of choice. It also assimilated the outcome of numerous studies performed of many other researchers.

theartofchoosingThe book talked about how important choice is to one’s well-being as well as how and in what circumstances it can be over-whelming and/or harmful. It laid out how choice shapes our lives. It is interesting to note that in many cases, a belief that we have a choice is more important than whether we actually have the choice or not. A large part of the choosing process can be about making a personal statement – establishing or reaffirming a self image.

The book also touched upon cultural differences in perceiving choice in different aspects of life. Asian cultures do not see many aspects of life, even as important as marriage, profession etc. as personal choices, and let the family and/or community to make those choices for them. In contrast, Western cultures are characterized by the individual freedom of choice. This keeps the onus on the individual to make each and every choice that comes along his or her way. And sometimes it can be quite self-defeating.

I expected the book to rant about consumerism and the profusion of choice we currently have as part of each and every buying experience. The book definitely touched this aspect, but also a lot more. Sheena Iyengar presented choice as a philosophy of life and dissected it from all angles worthy enough to consider. It gave a well-rounded perspective on choice and the role it plays in our lives. This book is a treasure as far as I’m concerned.

I lamented before on this blog about analysis paralysis I frequently encounter while trying to choose among plethora of options available out there and I hoped that this book about choice would address that predicament and offer some tips. I was pleased to find that it did. They include:

  • Gain expertise in the field to choose better
  • Defer to experts’ recommendations or crowd wisdom in areas where you don’t have expertise
  • Consult experts when you are too emotionally tied to a situation to make sound judgment
  • Use programs like SMarT, StickK, SnuzNLuz alarm to make beneficial choices

I would add that going with satisficing rather than maximizing strategy can combat analysis paralysis. But of course, this can seem easier said than done, especially when choice is much more than what it appears to be at first glance.

The author concludes that despite all the assistance of science, choice remains an art at its core.





Being an introvert

28 08 2015

When I came across this TED talk by Susan Cain, the topic intrigued me. It shouldn’t be a surprise I guess, being an introvert myself. As I was listening to her talk though, I got a feeling that she was trying a little too hard to defend introversion and introverts. I didn’t end up watching the video to the end, after all. More than the topic of the talk, which was based on her book – Quiet, I began to get curious about my own reaction to it. Why did I feel uncomfortable? I should have been excited and felt assured that someone was trying hard to make it feel right, or better, to be an introvert. Maybe that’s exactly what my problem is. I don’t have the need to feel better than extroverts. I don’t need to be reassured. I’m comfortable already being an introvert. I never felt that it’s a shortcoming or even a less desirable trait.

Of course, I see the point that the culture stresses more importance on extroversion and treats the latter as superior to the former. But that’s not actually entirely true, in my opinion. Sure extroverts get a lot of attention, but that’s a direct result of their nature. More attention doesn’t mean more success or more happiness. I never felt under-equipped with my quiet nature. On the contrary actually.

I don’t really know the entire essence of either Susan’s talk or her book, but I’m sure she must have put forth her defense quite strongly. I don’t deny that, in many cases,  extroversion is encouraged and introversion is discouraged. More so in western culture. But it’s not healthy and, in my belief is, more often than not, the consequence of misguided and misleading notions about the exact implications of extroversion and introversion.

There also seems to be a little ambiguity in understanding the true nature of introversion and – the need to distinguish from shyness.Introversion and extroversion are simply a single continuum and everyone has both an introversion side and an extroversion side.

These musings remind me of something an extrovert friend said to me a while ago. She is a genuinely warm and social person, who makes a lot of friends effortlessly. Given the fact that she has a wide network of friends and acquaintances on which she can rely for various things,  – information, advice, help, support etc., she expressed her concern about how people like me, with a very few friends, manage. She believes that we are at a disadvantage, without a resource pool and that we must have been feeling the dearth of it quite intensely. Her concern puzzled me because, obviously the thought never crossed my mind. I tried to tell her the same and that I don’t view things the same way she does, but I’m not entirely sure whether I conveyed myself to her correctly because it was, and still is to some extent, difficult to articulate my perspective for the same reason that it’s something I never consciously thought/think about.