Friday, January 13, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Mayawati, pink elephants and the brain

Posted: Thu, Jan 12 2012. 8:02 PM IST

Mayawati, pink elephants and the brain
The Election Commission has ordered that all statues of Uttar Pradesh
chief minister Mayawati and her party's symbol, the elephant, be
covered with plastic sheaths
Biju Dominic

The Election Commission has ordered that all statues of Uttar Pradesh
chief minister Mayawati and her party's symbol, the elephant, be
covered with plastic sheaths. This is being done in an attempt to not
let these statues, which are widespread in Uttar Pradesh, influence
voters' decisions during the elections and thus create a level playing
ground for all political parties. Will this decision of the Election
Commission achieve the desired results?

For those who haven't tried this fun activity yet, for the next few
seconds, try not to think about a pink elephant. The harder you try,
the harder it is to imagine the pink elephant away—it's probably even
winking at you right now. You can stop trying. The brain cannot
process what it's not supposed to do without actually processing the
act itself first.

Neurolinguistics tells us that the brain has to activate the
representations for a pink elephant in our working memory before the
negative imperative "don't" is affixed to this representation later on
in the process—in the conscious mind. But it is also a brain truth
that it cannot forget anything consciously. The more you are asked to
forget something, more it gets activated in your memory system and
more you remember it.

Our brain has a brilliant ability to get habituated to routine events,
sights, sounds, etc., around us. Habituation drains out the emotional
significance of those inputs and they tend to become blind spots in
our sensory system. For the many who walk the streets of Uttar Pradesh
every day, the statues of Mayawati and elephants might have become a
blind spot. But the decision to cover up of the statues completely
changes the status quo. They will become the talking point of the
town. Everyone who walk the streets of villages, towns and cities of
Uttar Pradesh will now start noticing these covered statues. The
covered statues will also become the perfect cue to trigger strong
memories of what is hidden under those plastic sheaths.

Mayawati's strong voter base are the Dalits, the traditionally
deprived class. Physically covering up their political party's symbols
and leader will only activate and reinforce the neural representations
of their long struggle against suppression by the upper caste. The
image of a covered up statue might trigger emotional memories related
to their suppressed life. This situation is ripe for a sense of
unfairness to kick in. The Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist
Daniel Kahneman has established that unfairness is a larger motivator
for action than fairness. So expect those who sense unfairness to act
in response to this directive than those who feel this is fair. This
is a situation that a politically savvy Mayawati might use to her full

So, in effect, the directive of the Election Commission to cover up
the statues and party symbols will actually activate far more vivid
memories about Mayawati and her party's symbol than if the statues
were left uncovered. Instead of creating a level playing field, this
decision will end up giving Mayawati an undue advantage. What is even
more ironic is that the Election Commission has asked the statues to
be covered in pink-coloured sheaths.

This episode holds a lesson for all policymakers. The Election
Commission's decision is based on the traditional knowledge that
people's behaviour is logical and analytical and conscious. In the
last one decade, cognitive neuroscientists and behavioural economists
have started pointing out that human beings are far from rational. A
large part of brain's processes happen at a non-conscious level, and
so it is very difficult to predict the final behaviour. Policymakers
have to take into consideration this fact about human behaviour.
Otherwise, many decisions that might look logical with the right
intention might not achieve the desired results, worse still, might
end achieving the exactly opposite of what it is intended.

It would be a shame if good intentions yield not just wasted effort,
but counterproductive results.

Biju Dominic is CEO of FinalMile Consulting, Mumbai.

Comments are welcome at


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