THERE is a popular Internet meme of half a human face that, as you look at it, constantly switches from frontal to side views. Essentially, the white spaces in the picture confuse our brains so that we can’t make sense of what we are seeing. The tagline is, "life is all about how we see things".

We know for a scientific fact that our eyes do play tricks on our brains. Even the intellectually sharpest of us, including Nobel Prize winners, billionaires and international statesmen, fall prey to them. What we know, or think we know, is, if not totally wrong, influenced by mental lapses.

Being in the business of thinking, I have pinned a list of the common behavioural psychology pitfalls in my office to remind me to try and avoid them if possible. The search for policies to move our country forward depends on accurate and logical assessments, not ones with coloured judgments and deepseated interests.

High on my list of items is confirmation bias or the tendency to give weight only to ideas that we agree with.

Listen to the United States presidential candidates as they campaign and you quickly catch the drift. Theirs are tirades of what they believe is right for their country, forgetting that there are other constituencies and other narratives.

The same holds true in Malaysia. From policies to promote identity, security and prosperity, we doggedly stand our ground in what we take to be "true", with everyone else being "false". This holds even when evidence, logic and common sense state otherwise. Most of us believe in what we want to believe in, and that’s a scientifically proven fact.

It seems incredible that after 59 years, we are tying ourselves up in legal, administrative and religious knots, and debating policies that ought to be common sense. True, the desire for political power and interests plays a big role in everything we say and do. But, behind all of this is what some of us believe in – only our values; beliefs and attitudes count.

Second on my list, is the human tendency for risk aversion or, to put it another way, the desire for certainty. Notice how some of our leaders start off talking passionately about the need for change only to back down later?

And, why do other so-called "national leaders" do their utmost to resist change in one way or another? Why is that?

Fear of uncertainty and the unknown is a hardwired human trait. We like what we know. And politicians cleverly use fear of the unknown to manipulate us into doing what they want. They pander to the masses, in effect locking-in the status quo, leaving the country unable to respond and thus, vulnerable to external changes elsewhere.

This is why there is such opposition to political and economic liberalisation, and this applies not just to Malaysia but elsewhere as well. Apart from challenging entrenched business interests and this includes not only the private sector but state owned corporations as well, liberalisation leads to uncertainty and risks. The costs of liberalisation, including these uncertainties, and risks are then given far more weight than the benefits.

The third item on my list is framing the discourse or, bluntly put, political propaganda.

For example, religious extremists in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia and in Malaysia, typically frame their actions in confrontational terms as a struggle between the holy and pure versus the unholy and impure.

Not surprisingly, there is a backlash in the West with some seeking to put in place stringent curbs, in effect, heightening tensions and the possibilities of confrontation.

The "us-versus-them" framing is prevalent in this country as well, hence, the perennial pendatang issue, alleged "social contracts" and so forth. Sadly, for the country, the Federal Constitution and Rukun Negara are no longer the frames of thinking and interactions that they once were. How we are to go forward when there is no longer a national frame is anyone’s guess.

There are other items on my list of behavioural irrationalities that’ have a bearing on the world and this country. Anchoring, recency bias (the tendency to weigh recent events more heavily than earlier events), herding and so forth are common habits of thinking that trap us in the present, prevent us from moving forward and may just signal our eventual demise or irrelevance.

It will do us well to consciously think more about the way we think.

This article first appeared in The New Straits Times on 16 February 2016.

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