of Paths and Biases

Out of all the intriguing concepts I came across whilst doing the course “Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World” on FutureLearn, the ones that most caught my eye were those which I could personally and individually relate to, from my own view point. They were namely cognitive biases, elephant paths, the difference between fragility and crisis (and determinism), lock-ins, tipping point, collective group behaviour being independent of individual behaviour, and so on and so forth.

The course started with a hyperbolic ideal that even then I thought of as an overstated goal – that the course would assist me in decision making. Perhaps the ideal was set for those involved in the business world, the innovators, the leaders, the entrepreneurs and such. But for me personally, I’m still struggling how to incorporate that which I’ve learned to my daily decision making. What I have been able to do, however, is to relate the aforementioned concepts to my surroundings enabling me to understand the nature of complexity around us, the byzantine, intricate details of life and its events that hide in plain sight.

As I see it, complexity and simplicity are interdependent. Neither can be made sense of without the other. Such as the concept of “elephant paths” which I will discuss later. For now, the context of the course is a clear example. The instructors of the course helped a novice like me grasp the complicated concepts of social economics by presenting them in a comprehensible manner. For this, they relied on simple terms and definitions. Hence, simplicity paved way for the complicated. In a reversal of situation, the complication that exists relied on humans for it to be understood, defined and simplified.

Elephant Paths

Another example is that of “elephant paths”. While taking a walk in the park, we often notice a track bared of all grass leading from one point to another, often as a shortcut from, say, Point A to Point B, while the normal walking pavement also goes from Point A to Point B albeit covering a longer distance. This concept is roughly known as “displacement” in Physics, but “elephant paths” in Social Economics. What is most interesting is that when we delve deeper into the psychology of why people chose to adopt a new path instead of an old, traditional one, we come across terms such as an “anarchist”. Broadly speaking, it is an anarchists way of traveling around a particular area. But what about circumstance? In what circumstances, other than saving time and energy, does one adopt an irregular route?

One lively example that comes to mind is that of hiking tracks being evident of the adventurous spirit of a sole human being who ventured into the unknown, being the first of his kind, opting for a means to climb the hill. Unknown to him and thousands of those who may follow in the future, he is actually tracing a path in a new region. But of course, this is all very idealistic. Many hiking trails nowadays are in fact paved by local authorities. How about animals grazing over a certain path over a long time period? Say on the same hill that a tourist, many years later, finds a half barren, narrow track leading all the way to the top. And there a tradition, a norm of sorts begins where all the hikers adopt the same path to climb the hill. They are conformists and tend to organize themselves under that norm, albeit unknowingly.

Elephant paths are also known as Desire Lines, which in my opinion is a very fascinating phrase underlying our deepest desires attributed to our actions. They may reveal something of our social interaction with people and the nature around us. Or the subtleties of our subconscious behind that fleeting moment in which one decides to take the elephant path because it is associated with a particular memory.

I found this peculiar picture of an elephant path which defies the above mentionedimages criteria for its formation. After all how much time can one save by walking on the seemingly shorter path than on the paved track? There isn’t a considerable difference in their distance from one point to another. That rules out the element of conserving time and energy. No animals could’ve grazed the path since it seems to be located in an urban area. There isn’t a plausible explanation as to why this desire path might have been formed. Perhaps it’s deliberately created by local authorities, to add an aesthetic appeal, but of course this doesn’t seem too rational. Or maybe, for a time being, the pavement was under construction or repair of some kind and passer-by’s were forced to seek an alternate route through the grassland. As is the case with cars finding shortcuts in situations where a road is blocked. I certainly was witness to this marvellous phenomenon in my own city of Islamabad when half the city’s roads were blocked by containers – I just didn’t know it had both social and psychological implications, and a term!


Another interesting concept that I came across was that of Cognitive Bias, which is simply defined as the tendency to think in a particular way. Here is a definitive list of cognitive biases. During the course, we were asked to pick which biases we were most susceptible to. To this question I added another “which biases I could relate to in my immediate surroundings as well as in me?” Here’s a list of those which I was able to identify personally:

  1. Base rate fallacy or base rate neglect: The tendency to ignore base rate information (generic, general information) and focus on specific information (information only pertaining to a certain case).
  2. Confirmation bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
  3. Curse of knowledge: When better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.
  4. Decoy effect: Preferences for either option A or B changes in favour of option B when option C is presented, which is similar to option B but in no way better.
  5. Hot-hand fallacy: The fallacious belief that a person who has experienced success has a greater chance of further success in additional attempts.

If one reads the list in entirety, one can associate almost all the biases with oneself in one way or another, in varying degrees. You also notice that if a Venn diagram was to be made to illustrate these biases, they would all overlap one another, which would result in a very messy figure. I’ve experienced the hot-hand fallacy, assuming that someone from a wealthier family who was successful in their first attempt at an exam, was given a go-to pass to succeed in all attempts in the future. This overlaps the Illusion of control bias, because given that I believe in his success in all future tests, I’m attempting to control that which is improbable and uncertain.

I’ve also experienced the egocentric bias (recalling the past in a self-serving manner) which is a type of memory bias. Upon visiting my aunt’s house after a good fifteen, sixteen years, I was astounded by the fact that the rooms appeared to be a lot smaller than my memory had afforded them to be. To my recollection, the rooms were always huge, spacious, airy like the rooms in a haveli. But my memory had faltered. Since nostalgia (a self-serving process of mind) plays a huge role in warping our dearest memories, I had begun to think of the house as an ancient chalet. Turns out the rooms had always been of a moderate size. Another room was rather too shabby, much to my disappointment. Or was it that when I was last in them as a small child of nine years, my relative size to that of the room had left the imprint of rooms being huge on my memory. I had grown now, but the walls remained the same, and so did the memory.

Or how about the decoy effect, which I experienced while selecting carpets. Out of sample A and B I preferred sample A, but when sample C (same quality as sample B) was shown, I immediately went for sample B. Had the shopkeeper not shown sample C, would I have stuck to my decision of selecting A? How did the third option alter my final decision? I think this phenomenon works on the same principle as “less is more”. It is easier to make a choice between two, rather than three. Another example of this is television. In the good, old 90’s, we used to get three channels at home. It was easier to stick to one channel, watch entire series of dramas that spanned months, and concentrating on news. Now whenever you inquire of someone as to what they are doing, more than often their reply would be “just sitting in front of the TV, shuffling channels.” Shuffling channels was something of a non-existent phrase back in the day. The limited choice enabled more concentration as opposed to the short attention span each channel receives in terms of viewing now that we get up to a hundred channels at the click of a button. I believe the same goes for “surfing the web”, and the model behind social networks. I’ve made a mental note to observe next time how many articles a shopkeeper displays in front of me upon demand. I wonder if knowing and having identified what this phenomenon is will help me in making a better decision next time? Only time can tell.


DFW’s “This Is Water”

“Asaish-i-do giti tafsir-i-in do harf ast

Ba dostan talattuf, ba dushmanan mudara”

-Hafiz, Ode 6

“What holds in peace this two-fold world, let this two-fold sentence show

Amity to every friend, courtesy to every foe”

Source: Transcription, Audio 1, Audio 2

For the Irishman, M.K.

In my limited opinion, the essence of the speech was tolerance and patience – two basic, inherent, innate virtues common to all human life (maybe even animals). From tolerance and patience springs up observation of people, of events, of general things around us. And this observation is a root of understanding. This understanding then later on springs into varying perceptions of life which results in the element of “choice” the DFW talks about. I know towards the end he explicitly states that this has nothing to do with religion, but for me, personally, it has a lot to do with religious teachings. I believe that humanity is rooted deeply in religion and there is a reason why patience, tolerance, perseverance have been given the highest regard in Islam.

It was a little hard for me to relate to the part where DFW states that one believes in being the absolute center of the universe and that one is the focal point of all one’s experiences. I believe in nothingness of the self which disregards the “I’m the center of the universe” point. And my belief in chaos theory disregards that my experiences are mine alone, were originated because of me and that I was the cause, result, effect of it all. All our experiences are “shared”, and the individual experiences aren’t individual in the sense that they are mine per se, but that it “happened” to happen to me.

I particularly admired how he discredited the crux of his speech (tolerance, patience) as being moral, virtuous, ethical principles that one “must” live by. Perhaps in the modern era these words have taken on a negative meaning because of the prevailing ideologies of freedom on one side, and, say, religious extremism on another. Maybe also because the new generation is actually repulsed by use of these words. They are too, as DFW himself said, didactic. I too loathe it when someone lectures me on issues like morality and what not. But all meanings & interpretations of the words aside, the reality is that these are the intrinsic elements that make us human.

I totally, completely agree with his argument on choice and education and how the latter grooms the former. What he calls knowledge is what I call information. And what he calls awareness, is what I call Knowledge. Awareness is an offshoot of Knowledge. We are spoon-fed with information from the very beginning of our conscious life, into our school life, professional life, and personal life. Knowledge however encompasses not only that which tends to our material, world life, but also our spiritual life. Hence first understanding what “awareness” is, what choice is, and how to put it in practice. An excellent example of “choice” is prevalent is a natural process of perceiving colors. My perception of the color red will be different to yours. So choice is hard-wired into us already. I chose to interpret what DFW says “the mystical oneness of all things deep down” as something relevant to the Oneness of God. You choose your meaning according to your set of beliefs.

Once a driver of a huge van carrying a heavy load of furniture happened to rashly cut our car from the front. My immediate response was to complain of how ignorant the driver was which I made vocal enough for my significant other to hear. In the brief moment, my mind had jumped to conclusions. That he must be uneducated, illiterate, having no regard for other people on the road (ironically, though not as explicitly, I was doing the same subconsciously). I had presumed that he must be on drugs which was fueled by my bias against truck drivers. That’s when my significant other cut in, and told me how I was the one sitting in the air-conditioned car, how I had to reach my destination with ease, and had no right whatsoever to complain since I was more blessed. He was right. Now that I think about it, the various possibilities of reasons why that particular driver rushed past us make me sink in shame. Maybe he was paid for every trip he made, the more shifts he covered, the more money he made, and the more money he made, the more he could secure his family’s financial well-being. Maybe the sweltering heat was coming down harshly on him and he thought of unloading the burden and reaching home as quickly as possible. But with that momentary, harsh judgment and bitter pronouncements on his character, I had stooped far too low than my supposed “education” allowed me. I, too, was a monster then. If not in my actions then at least in my thoughts.

And this is what DFW specifically addresses too. Observation of the world around us frees us from the grandeur that is self-absorption. Lately, I’ve been baffled by our lack of introspection, that is to truly ponder upon the self, the big questions of life and death and so on. Ironically, this reflects my own preoccupation with self, that I completely turn a blind eye to observation – to contemplate on those and that around me. While there is an obvious distinction between self-absorption and introspection, abundance of the latter can eventually lead to arrogant self-centeredness. A writing course I took a few months ago expressly laid stress on the importance of honing one’s observational skills as they play a pivotal role in telling stories. If I am to stand in the queue of DFW’s check-out counter, and fail to observe and understand the surroundings, I will be too caught up in my own head to make sense of what is happening around me, and why?

Sympathy, empathy, appreciation, identification, recognition, realization all are a result of profound understanding of ourselves and those around us. This comprehension gives us a choice – a choice to be either happy or sad. Choice is a blessing, and a freedom in itself.

(On a side note, I know all this is inclined towards Choice or Free-Will & that no where has predestination or fate been included, but that is a separate discussion altogether. I believe it is all balanced in the great scheme of things. And only God knows best.)

My Thoughts on Pro-Israeli Rhetoric

After reading up quite a few articles online regarding the Gaza issue, I began to notice a definite pattern in the narrative coverage of multifarious News Agencies. Here, I’ll attempt to expound on key similarities which establish the fact that not only is the content of such news pro-Israeli, but the narrative style also tends to be biased and inciting.

The key feature discussed here is what I will roughly call an Antithetical Statement.

Antithesis is a literary device, defined as:
when the writer employs two sentences of contrasting meanings in close proximity to one another. Whether they are words or phrases of the same sentence, an antithesis is used to create a stark contrast using two divergent elements that come together to create one uniform whole. An antithesis plays on the complementary property of opposites to create one vivid picture. The purpose of using an antithesis in literature is to create a balance between opposite qualities and lend a greater insight into the subject.

For my analysis here, I will divide an antithetical statement in two parts, Statement 1 and Statement 2 respectively. Both statements are in contrast to each other. However, what is similar in all such statements is the degree of effect achieved in terms of Statement 2, which mostly has negative implications.

Antithesis is a device employed mostly in poetry. What I have labelled as Statement 2, maybe a phrase, an idea, words or a concept. Since the idea of the entire sentence ends with Statement 2, hence Statement 2 leaves a more lasting impression as opposed to Statement 1.

SOURCE: New York Times
Gaza Deaths Spike in 3rd Day of Air Assaults While Rockets Hit Israel

(On a side note, the article was written by Isabel Kershner, a British Jew. But to maintain the integrity and true intention of my analysis as mentioned above, I’ll be impartial towards the journalists and their background so as to focus chiefly on the context and the style of the narrative.)

This is the first paragraph of the article from International New York Times, dated July 10, 2014.

“Palestinian deaths from Israel’s aerial attacks in Gaza rose sharply on Thursday, while militants there fired more than 180 rockets into Israel, reaching new targets spread across a vast area of the country.”

Statement 1: Palestinian deaths from Israel’s aerial attacks in Gaza rose sharply on Thursday…
Statement 2: while militants there fired more than 180 rockets into Israel, reaching new targets spread across a vast area of
the country.

The very first paragraph of this article begins on a seemingly innocuous note that of Palestinian deaths from Israel’s aerial attack, which incurs sympathy on behalf of Gaza. But this emotion is brief, as it is immediately followed by a more brunt statement which puts the spotlight of empathy on Israel as being the real victims. It must be also be noted that the length of both statements is directly proportional to the reader’s attention and the influence it has on the subconscious. Statement 1 is short and precise, whereas Statement 2 is extended, includes a comma and the word “while” and “militants”. It also includes implicit words that make the idea of the Israeli region affected seem much more expansive than the civilian deaths; “spread across”, “vast area” and “country”.

Also note that during the time this report was published, the number of deaths in Gaza were widely attributed to the figure of around 78 (which happens to be mentioned much later on in the news). But the columnist ensured that the article starts with a vague plurality of deaths in Gaza, but with a definite and precise number of 180 rockets that had targeted Israel.

Further Research:

I noticed that the screen captures of the same article I had took the previous night were different from what the online article was showing as of July 12, 2014 at approximately 1:45 AM (around the time I’m writing this). This prompted me to go to web.archive.org where I discovered that each of the four snapshots taken of the same article (on July 10, 2014) had minor but critical differences in the first paragraph.

Snapshot @ 11:14:45 and @ 12:15:48 “The death toll from Israel’s aerial offensive in Gaza rose on Thursday, while rocket fire from the Palestinian coastal enclave reached ever-broader swaths of Israel.”

Snapshot @ 21:52:01 and @ 23:27:00 “Palestinian deaths from Israel’s aerial attacks in Gaza rose sharply on Thursday, while militants there fired more than 100 rockets into Israel, reaching new targets spread across a vast swath of the country.”

[I am not aware of what the rules are for publishing journalistic content online, given that International New York times also publishes news in print. Perhaps one article is written, and is altered accordingly provided that the main content is the same, or that the writer made an error in the first article and has to retract it. In both cases it is often explicitly stated that the writer made some changes. But such an explanation is not found on this website, which begs the question: How many times do journalists make subtle changes to their columns without bringing it to direct attention of their readership? Since once a lie, or a mistake is in circulation, a retraction is futile unless it is clearly stated.]

So, my guess is that around the time I opened the article online on my browser, the figure 100 had been changed to 180, but the number of Palestinian deaths remained obscure. The Antithetical Statements theory can be equally applied to the two sets of different snapshots taken of the first paragraph.

Not only the news itself, but the title heading also is an antithesis, with Statement 2 always inclining towards Israel’s victimization. Again, the same article has had three varying headlines:

  • Death Toll Rises in Gaza, as Hamas Hits Deeper in Israel
  • Gaza Deaths Spike in Third Day of Israel Air Assaults
  • Gaza Deaths Spike in 3rd Day of Air Assaults While Rockets Hit Israel

More instances: “Airstrikes overnight on a house in Khan Younis and an open-air beach cafe killed at least 15 Palestinians, and one airstrike hit a car used by a local news agency bearing media signs, killing the driver, Hamed Shehab, 27, the officials said. The Israeli military said it had also hit at least eight operatives from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in what it described as several precision strikes. The military said all had been involved in either the manufacture or firing of rockets.”

Same context as above, from Snapshot @ 11:14:45 “As the air campaign entered its third day, the Palestinian death toll rose to at least 67, according to officials in Gaza. Airstrikes overnight on a house in Khan Younis and a cafeteria on the beach killed at least 15 Palestinians, Gazan officials said. According to the officials, one airstrike hit a car used by a local news agency bearing media signs, killing the driver, Hamed Shehab, 27. The Israeli military said it had also hit three Islamic Jihad operatives that it said were involved in manufacturing medium-range rockets. In another strike, the military said it had hit an operative for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that dominates Gaza, saying he was involved in firing rockets against Israel.”

Both the above paragraphs begin with deaths of Palestinians and end on the note of “militants” of Gaza and firing of rockets, lending an air of persecution of Israel.

However, the older version of article ends on a completely different note which can be accessed here http://web.archive.org/web/20140710111445/http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/world/middleeast/israel-gaza.html

“The military said at least three more rockets had hit civilian communities in the Negev desert, more than 50 miles from Gaza, and that areas around the town of Netivot were hit.”

Hence the article in entirety forms an antithesis. It begins with an obvious disregard of Palestinian deaths, and ends on the assured note of exactly three rockets having hit an Israeli settlement.

SOURCE: New York Times
Israeli Leader Says He Feels No Pressure to Quit Bombing Gaza

First Paragraph: “Brushing aside criticism of Israel’s four-day-old aerial attacks on Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday he felt no international pressure to quit the operation and would not rule out a ground invasion to stop the barrages of rockets from Palestinian militants.”

Last Paragraph: “Colonel Lerner said the Israeli military was “operating to minimize the civilian impact.”

“But when Hamas embeds itself in the civilian population and uses it as a human shield,” he said, “that makes it very difficult for us.””


First Paragraph: “The Al Haj family never heard it coming: An Israeli missile smashed into their home in the middle of the night, destroying the structure and killing eight relatives in a matter of seconds. A survivor said all the dead were civilians.”

Last Paragraph: “In southern Israel, the area hit hardest by the rockets, people have been ordered to stay within close range of shelter. Summer camps have been canceled, motorists have been forced to jump out of their cars, and high school students took their final exams in bomb shelters. Many people are using a smartphone application that alerts them to incoming rockets when they can’t hear air-raid sirens.

Lian Assayag had planned a big wedding in the southern city of Ashkelon. But her special day was dashed due to the rocket fire. She decided instead to get married Thursday night inside a bomb shelter at a synagogue in nearby Ashdod.

I have mixed feelings. Everything got messed up,” she told Channel 10 TV. “It’ll be OK.””

SOURCE: Reuters
Gaza toll passes 100; Israel to counter rockets ‘with all power’

First Paragraph: “An airstrike outside a family home early Saturday pushed the Palestinian death toll past 100 in four days of cross-border fighting as Israel showed no sign of pausing despite international pressure to negotiate a ceasefire with the militants.”

Last Paragraph: “An anti-tank rocket fired near the Gaza border wounded two Israeli soldiers on Friday, and Israel said it had targeted seven Hamas militants accused of involvement in rocket attacks.”

Visual Antithesis

This BBC story (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28271546) starts with a caption to a video “An eight-year-old Palestinian girl was hit by shrapnel which embedded in her brain, as Jeremy Bowen reports”, and ends with an illustration of the Israel’s Iron Dome missile shield.

This AP article (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/israel-escalates-aerial-offensive-gaza) begins with a gallery of pictures depicting destruction in Palestine along with a more or less similar caption, all ending on the account of Israel’s interception of “rockets fired by militants at the country’s heartland”.

[Scrolling through the gallery, most of the pictures portray the misery of Palestinians and the description associated with each picture is relevant. Yet, they all end on a redundant and detached note, mentioning “and Israel’s missile defense system once again intercepted rockets fired by militants at the country’s heartland” again and again. Quite ironically, the gallery too, ends with a diagram of the Israeli ‘Iron Dome’.]

So from the aforementioned definition of Antithesis, I have favorably deduced that antithesis is used to create a stark contrast using two divergent elements (Palestine vs. Israel), which come together to create one uniform whole (Israel), and create a balance between opposite qualities (Palestinian deaths are equated with rocket attacks in Israel; the former is justified on account of the latter’s victimization).


I realise that this argument may be flawed in many aspects, that many of you might find it too biased or misconstrued given the nature of its intention. I also understand that many of you will have reservations regarding the choice of articles I selected to support my arguments. However, the perpetual victimization of Israel and recurrent ignorance of international media regarding the suffering of Palestinians is an age-old argument. It is already evident in the content of news, but here I wanted to establish the stylistic methoTweetd employed to forcefully execute the pro-Israeli bias; the workings of selection and placement of words or phrases that directly influence our subconscious. An excellent
example of this is a tweet by @BreakingNews (https://twitter.com/breakingnews/status/487536069424869377). A tweet can be read in just over three seconds, but it still weighs in on the comparison of deaths and attacks, rendering the former trivial and the latter critical.

What I am now interested in finding out is the conscious deliberation behind such bias as it was evident by the three altered headings for the same article. Surely it is no coincidence that the columnist or the editor virtually changed each heading as a conscious effort to bring Israel’s predicament under the spotlight. The diction employed for Palestinians is wholly different from that assigned to Israelis; “militants” vs. “army”. There is also a somewhat definitive pattern of Grouping of Palestinian causalities and the Individualized injured Israelis.


(Here, we get a detailed description of who was injured, where, when and how.)
“In Israel, one person was seriously injured when a rocket hit a petrol station in Ashdod on Friday morning, Israeli officials say.
Another Israeli soldier was injured on Thursday, by mortar fire in the Eshkol region, which borders Gaza.”

CAPTION: “The Palestinians say more than 500 people have been injured in Gaza” & “Five people were reported killed in an air strike on Rafah, southern Gaza, on Friday”

SOURCE: Reuters

“An Israeli airstrike killed five youths and wounded 15 people outside a family home in the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip early on Saturday, witnesses and medical officials told Reuters.

A rocket seriously wounded one person and injured another seven Israelis when a fuel tanker was hit at a service station in Ashdod, 30 km (20 miles) north of Gaza. Palestinian militants warned international airlines they would fire rockets at Tel Aviv’s main airport.”

I understand that it is impossible to describe each individual death or injury when the number is in hundreds. But, what we have here is a number, a figure versus a relatively comprehensive account of the few injured Israelis. 500 as a figure, is too large a number for us to fully grasp the gravity of the situation. 500 is a lot, and they all were injured in Gaza. But what does settle in the readers mind is how a patriotic soldier was injured (by a rocket, and mortar fire), where he was injured (near a petrol station in Ashdod, and in Eshkol) and when (Friday morning and Thursday).