Friday 01 January 2016

The Psychology Of Stupidity

All of us, without exception (dare I say it), have engaged in some embarrassing acts which can be described as “stupid” in hindsight. Nowadays, with the popularity of social media, there is no shortage of examples of such acts on display by inept individuals who are quick to be ridiculed in public for their mischief. Yet, the psychological bases driving these individuals to commit stupid acts are poorly understood. In 1976, economic historian Carlo Maria Cipolla proposed the “basic laws of human stupidity”, in which an individual is considered to be acting stupid if the resultant action by the individual causes harm to others while deriving no personal gain or, worse yet, causing harm to oneself in the process. Stupidity, therefore, does not mean a lack of intelligence, for intelligent individuals can still perpetrate acts that may be stupid (alas, I am among the guilty party). Likewise, stupidity differs from ignorance, since individuals who act stupidly do so willfully despite being aware of the negative consequences of their actions. Rather, the act of stupidity is best described as a maladaptive behavior in extremis, adopted by an individual in reaction to a circumstance to which a well-defined response dictated by social norms already exists. Most recently, researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary and Baylor University in the US used standard psychometric techniques to define the dimensions of so-called unintelligent behavior. They found that stupid acts are those engaged by perpetrators in which there is a disconnect between confidence and competence, a lack of self-control, or a tendency toward absentmindedness. Importantly, the degree of stupidity is directly proportional to the assumed responsibility of the perpetrators and the severity of the consequences resulted from their failure. Regardless of the scientific explanation behind stupidity, it is almost always better to think twice before acting so that we do not find ourselves rationalizing our stupid actions with equally stupid reasons.

By Philip Jong • At 01:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Wednesday 01 July 2015

The Ethics Of Hypocrisy

In recent months, several notable public figures who are outspoken defenders of ethics and morality have themselves been found guilty of the very same morally corrupt behavior against which they have been preaching publicly. Though rampant nowadays in an age when anyone and everyone can proclaim to be a public moralist under false pretense, hypocrisy as a human fallacy has been practiced for as long as philosophers have debated on the ontology and epistemology of the human condition. Samuel Johnson’s condemnation of hypocrisy in The Rambler in 1750 famously characterized hypocrites as individuals who cowardly express “zeal” for certain desirable “virtues” which they neglect to practice and who falsely claim to have conquered their own “passions” without having earned their true “victory”. While the psychological roots from which behaviors of hypocrisy stem are still up for debate, modern studies in psychology have theorized hypocrisy to be rooted in errors in human judgment and decision making that lead to self-serving bias and other attributes of self-deception. Further, individuals who are in power are most prone to the fallacy of hypocrisy, as they are easily able to position themselves on moral high ground to challenge the beliefs and values of others but are simultaneously quick to protect their own moral stance from ever being judged. Worst yet, hypocrites undermine the effort of truly moral leaders to be recognized and inspire, forever sinking humanity into a proverbial state of moral low ground and corrupted ethics.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Saturday 01 January 2011

The Illusion Of Control

We seek, wherever possible, to be the masters of our domain. We are comforted by the knowledge that we are in control of the world around us. We feel secured with the realization that our action or inaction can exert a measurable influence on our surroundings. It matters even little how small such change may be, for we still feel satisfied simply knowing that we have some power to reshape our own reality. Yet, our emotional needs to be in control frequently blind us from the truth that we are sometimes at the beckons of others who truly have the power to control our world. Thus, any control which we perceive to have of our own lives is at best only an illusion—however comforting this illusion may be.

For example, it is known that the thermostats in many offices and hotel rooms are fakes, placed there solely for the false benefits of their occupants to manipulate so they may believe that they can adjust the heating and cooling of the building space. Likewise, the close buttons in many elevators are mere dummies, such that pressing them will not shorten the time until the doors will close. Perhaps the most pervasive implementation of these placebo switches is the pedestrian signal buttons installed in many busy city street intersections. With the emergence of centralized traffic control, most of these semi-actuated signals no longer function. Pushing the buttons (even repeatedly) will not change the speed by which the pedestrian traffic lights have been programmed to change. Even so, many unwitting pedestrians continue to push these buttons, deriving some satisfaction that somehow their small action may make a subtle difference.

Everyday, we crave for control of our small lives. When this control is not possible for real, we are quick to accept as substitute any illusion which may be proof that we are the masters of our domain.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Friday 01 October 2010

Cynicism Versus Skepticism

I am appalled by the indifference shown by some individuals between cynicism and skepticism. They habitually question with a jaded negativity the integrity and professed motives of others, and they reject without due justification others’ values and opinions that are necessarily different from those of their own. Often, they mistakenly believe that they are the best judges of society’s ethical or moral standards and that their nonconformity to the established institutions serves only to reflect their superior intellect and character.

Further, these individuals are quick to defend their practice of cynicism as healthy skepticism, incorrectly believing that they are one and the same. While both may be used to question current thinking or beliefs, blanket cynicism is all but a cowardly shield that is used to try to hide the cynics’ own insecurity of the world around them of which they understand very little. For them, it is an easy escape to adopt to remain morally superior by senselessly denouncing all societal conventions. Moreover, cynicism requires no recognition of the boundary between truth and lie, fact and fiction, reasoning and ignorance. It demands little from its practitioners, who are seemingly comforted by the empty knowledge which their indifference brings.

Skeptics investigate to search out the real answers. Cynics believe in their own answers without even looking.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Tuesday 01 September 2009

Our Obsession With Celebrity Deaths

Much of the public’s attention in recent weeks had been captured by the tragic news of a string of “celebrity” deaths. These deaths included famed actors, artists, musicians, journalists, and even political leaders. Many of us expressed grief about their losses, though our personal connections to these individuals were often tenuous at best. We took interest in their lives because they were role models, because they offered us inspirations, or simply because they made good topics for mindless gossips. Some drew our heartfelt praises by the positive contributions they had made to societies; others were mocked relentlessly by us because of the irresponsible antics they chose to portray in public.

As the world becomes more interconnected, both technologically and spiritually, all of our lives are also becoming more intertwined. Our obsession with these “celebrity” deaths is thus a reflection of our preoccupation with our own mortality—knowing that someday our own deaths may also be judged by others, rightly or wrongly.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Wednesday 01 July 2009

5-Cent Plastic Bag Levy: Eco-Friendly Practice Or Profit Grab?

Beginning in June, all retailers in the city of Toronto (where I live) began charging shoppers 5 cents for each new plastic bag used in a purchase. This was in compliance to the controversial city bylaw passed late last year mandating the levy, following a last-minute compromise deal struck between the city and major supermarkets. One goal of this bylaw is to reduce the city’s plastic wastes by 70% from its landfills by 2010. Though environmentally sound, the initiative has evoked heated debate among its supporters and detractors, including many consumers who see this levy as just another “backdoor tax” imposed by the city and profit grabbing scheme conspired by the retailers.

As an avid recycler myself, I too find the effort by some retailers to deliberately profit from the newly invoked bylaw revolting, in effect passing the “buck” onto their customers who must bear the entire financial burden of this green initiative which the retailers themselves have also agreed to participate. This is because it was the retailers who originally lobbied against the city’s earlier (and more palatable) proposal to apply a 10-cent rebate, rather than a 5-cent levy, to encourage consumers to reduce plastic bag usage. Moreover, the current bylaw supported by the same lobbyists makes no mandate to collect this fee from the retailers for the city to offset its recycling and waste management cost, thus allowing the retailers to freely pocket the fee as added profits for themselves. A number of retailers even choose to up-sell their customers at a premium (thus making even more profits) reusable shopping bags that are plastered with obnoxious advertisements, turning all of their customers into walking billboards for the retailers’ brands. Indeed, this is shameful to see that the unsound business practice by a few unscrupulous retailers makes yet another mockery of an otherwise noble environmental cause put forth by a great city.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Friday 01 May 2009

Swine Flu: A Pandemic And Cautionary Tale In The Making

In March 2009, an outbreak of a newly discovered A/H1N1 influenza, or so-called swine flu, was first detected in Mexico. Since then, confirmed cases have been reported in many other countries, including Canada, eventually prompting the World Health Organization to elevate its pandemic alert phase to declare that widespread human infection of this influenza is now present and that a pandemic is imminent. In Canada (where I live), the news has triggered intense public worry that this outbreak may mirror the SARS outbreak which caused a public health crisis across the country in 2002-3. Haste comparison to the 1918 flu pandemic has even been made, though based often on inaccurate or incomplete scientific data (such as on the true case fatality rate) on the epidemiology of this disease. Moreover, news reports of rapid human-to-human transmission and disease susceptibility among otherwise healthy young individuals have contributed to the added panic about the flu by the public. Undoubtedly, a concerted national and international effort must be made swiftly to properly survey and implement measures to control and mitigate the spread of this flu in Canada and in other countries. In the meantime, the public must be vigilant to practice good hygiene and to reduce their risk of exposure but not be led by misinformation and unfounded fear about the disease.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under Travel • Under Work • Under World
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Sunday 01 March 2009

From Segregation To Inauguration: Race In Politics

In January 2009, the world witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African American to become the President of the United States of America. The event attracted unprecedented international (including Canada’s) attention and renewed the political interest among the nation’s citizens. The transition in power signaled a new era in American politics that had long been divided by race since the time of slavery started during early colonial periods. Yet, it was not until 1954 that the United States fully abolished the practice of de jure racial segregation between whites and blacks (as well as other ethnic minorities). Despite the historical significance, Obama was not the first political world leader to rise to power in an ethnically diverse nation. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa and effectively ended the longstanding apartheid system dividing whites and blacks living in the country. As a Canadian and a Chinese myself, I am proud of the multicultural representation that currently exists among our political leaders, though this representation is admittedly far from perfect. Indeed, I long to see the day when race will no longer matter in how a country’s citizens choose their political leaders, so that the government they elect will truly serve for the betterment of all of its people, regardless of the colors of their skins.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Thursday 01 January 2009

The True Spirit Behind Making New Year’s Resolution

However arbitrary it may be, New Year represents a convenient time for us to reflect on what we have accomplished over the past year and look forward to what we can achieve in the incoming year. It is at this time that we lay out our New Year’s resolution—a set of commitments which we promise to ourselves or others to fulfill over the ensuring year. These goals are often lofty, but they are always made with the best of intention. Sadly, few of us will succeed in meeting our aspiration each year, though we are quick to strive to try again with renewed vigor the following year. Perhaps this is the true spirit behind making New Year’s resolution: even when it is in our pride to face up to our challenges, it is in our struggle to meet these challenges that we actually learn to better ourselves.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under World
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Monday 01 December 2008

Bullying In The Digital Age

Just like a local school playground, the online digital playground is sadly populated by bullies preying on vulnerable victims with intent to cause harm (both physical and emotional), humiliation, or intimidation. Unlike the local school bullies, however, these online digital bullies often cowardly hide behind the veil of anonymity offered by the internet, in attempts to escape the consequences of their immoral actions. Teenagers and young adults, who form a large part of today’s online community, are particularly susceptible targets of cyberbulling because of their age, at a time when their social circles may be predominantly driven by their online personae. In recent years, the dangers of cyberbulling have received increasing attention from the mainstream media, after incidents of suicides have allegedly been attributed to relentless cyberbulling, often by adults. Unfortunately, current legislation in many countries, including Canada, is inept to deal with cyberbulling and to hold these bullies who make such infarction accountable. As an avid online user myself, I am intolerant of anyone who makes willful gestures that can be seen as acts of cyberbulling, regardless of their motivations and justifications. Cyberbulling is a societal crime, and our society and its citizens must be protected from it.

By Philip Jong • At 12:01 AM • Under Column • Under Life • Under Tech • Under World
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