Is It Me Who Lacks Empathy?

I’m somewhere on the autism spectrum. So, it was never obvious to me that people with Asperger Syndrome lack empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen thinks that people with Asperger Syndrome have an extreme male brain, which means, they have low ability to empathize.  To begin with, we have a direct, blunt way of speaking. This is not the only reason why he thinks so. But I will not get into all that here.

I think I know what this means. When I was a teen, no one could make a loose statement within my hearing distance without my expressing my disapproval, usually with detailed arguments. I found it hard to believe that people found it offensive because this would not have offended me. For long, I did not even know that this offended people. Continue reading “Is It Me Who Lacks Empathy?”

Why I Do Not Write For The Mainstream

When people ask me why I do not write for the mainstream, it reminds me of an incident that happened over a year ago. I mailed Psychology Today’s editor Hara Estroff Marano, saying that I would like to write on Asperger Syndrome. I am sharing this exchange, to illustrate why—much as I would like to—the effort is often not worth it for me. Contrary to what people believe, editors do respond (This is not true of Indian editors. They have poor personal standards.), and are not prejudiced against unknown writers at all. 

Dear Hara,

May I write an article for Psychology Today on why direct communication is a great virtue, in people with Asperger’s Syndrome? As a man somewhere on the  autistic spectrum, it was never clear to me why the direct communication  style of people with Asperger’s Syndrome is considered harsh and insensitive.  Some psychologists like Simon Baron-Cohen think that the people with  Asperger’s Syndrome communicate directly because they have an extreme male brain, and hence, low ability to empathize. But, if directness makes people  uncomfortable, this is perhaps a problem with people and not with direct  speech. People are indirect when they are not fully comfortable telling you  what they really think. An Aspie can easily claim that he finds it more  exhausting to interpret the indirect demands of people, defend himself  against their implicit accusations, and meet the indirect demands others impose on him.

I often notice that people are unable to put themselves in my shoes and understand that my disagreement does not indicate a conflict, or personal  enmity. This is a classic case of failure of introspection. I suspect that  this means that the neurotypicals are deficient in the cognitive component of  empathy. They are also unable to be nice to Aspies despite the disagreements they might have. I suspect that this means that they are deficient in the  affective component of empathy. Now, is it the people with Asperger’s  Syndrome who lack empathy? If someone is willing to defend true, unpopular  positions even when most of his peers disagree with him, I think he is a  dynamo of self-responsibility. I think literalism and disagreeableness are  the fountainhead of human progress. The triumph of the disagreeable over the agreeable is what the progress of humanity is all about.

Here is a published  work on mine. A book review emphasizing the autistic cognitive traits I noticed in Warren Buffett. And on why people like Buffett thrive in the information age:

Warm Regards,

Shanu Athiparambath

She replied:

Continue reading “Why I Do Not Write For The Mainstream”

George Orwell, Public Choice Socialist

I am not a fan of George Orwell’s novels, but this quote in 1984 capsulizes my novel better than anything I have ever read:

“To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary.”

Bryan links to a public choice paper on George Orwell:

“There really ought to be a paper on George Orwell and Public Choice.  Thanks to Loyola University senior Michael Makovi, there finally is.  He’s done a great job –George Orwell as Public Choice Economist,” forthcoming in The American Economist, is history of thought you can really sink your teeth into.  Here are some highlights.”

Yes, Ma’am

“I am bogged down with this hourly need to consult you, and with the practice of selecting articles on the basis of whether you’ve been addressed as “Malini” or “Ma’am” in the covering letters. I am also sick of this constant play of yours: to pitch one person against another for one week, and then reverse it in the next. One is also tired of your changing goalposts. The Sunday Anchor has to be reportage-driven, and then suddenly it becomes policy-driven, and then suddenly, depending on what you hear or get impressed with, it has to be made reportage-driven again. I quit because the journey had become too pointless. I had differences over editorial autonomy with the editor, Malini. There was hardly any excitement and it became too boring for me. There is freedom to pursue stories, but inside, there is no autonomy or freedom for the editors. But that is also because the majority of editors are pusillanimous and do not have the courage to stand up for their rights. It is the responsibility of every editor to tell the owner-editor where he or she may be wrong instead of agreeing to everything with a “yes ma’am, yes ma’am”

Haha. This is an excerpt from an editor’s resignation letter. I do not have a particular opinion about this guy. I suspect he is one of those brainless idiots who imagine themselves to be principled. But, he said something every editor ought to think. But, why do they behave the way they do? 

Let me try to understand this. Even if people were angels billions of years ago, when they were hunter-gatherers, many conflicts would have emerged. But, of course, they were not angels. We descended from risen apes and not descended angels. Resources were very limited. People were loyal to their tribe—at any cost. When people disagreed, the price they paid was often their life. Over billions of years, people developed strong instincts to see disagreement as a reflection of lack of personal loyalty. But, at least some people were tempted to disagree with others, or correct others, as put-down tactics, or to condescend to them. Even today, the people who disagree with their colleagues or correct their bosses are the people who do that at the cost of their own  jobs. Truth doesn’t mean anything to *most* people. So, why do they do that? Perhaps because these truth-seeking “traitors” do not like them. Otherwise why should they, or so they reason. Genuine respect for truth, fairness and principles is an evolutionary novelty. Most people, especially people with low intelligence do not comprehend such evolutionary novelties.

They do not know that there are some strange fellows who really do care for the truth. But, the modern, comfortable society produces more such people. The modern society also produces many people who spend more time with books or machines, and develop more respect for facts of reality than group loyalty. Such people (Writers, thinkers, scientists, and the nerds who grew up reading them), have developed strong norms against being a fence-sitter, or living a lie. They also verbalize these norms. The nerdy kids spend more time with books or computers, internalizing verbalized norms, while the normal kids mix with their peers, internalizing the intuitive norms of human communication. The verbalized norms are more respectable than the intuitive norms, because at least on the surface, they sound noble. The intuitive norms, if verbalized, would seem unspeakably ugly. Now, it is true that even normal folk are aware of the verbalized norms of their betters. They are dimly aware that these norms are “respectable”. But, deep inside they suspect that this is bogus. They are philistines, and cannot imagine how someone can be so deeply attached to ideas, or their own prose. So, when someone brings up these norms, or acts according to it, they feel that they are just being difficult. Or playing fool. Or blackmailing them. Not surprisingly, consistently defending the truth is harder than almost anything. If you have a valuable piece of information, it might do more harm than good if everyone responds badly to it. This piece of information might have great value. But, if people respond so badly to it that it would outweigh any benefit it might have, it might be better if you keep that to yourself. But, if people respond well to it? The point is that it should start somewhere.
So, the people who care for the truth might air those truths hoping that it would change others for good. But, it *probably* won’t. Perhaps they should accept idiocy, cruelty and wastefulness as a necessary price to pay for being part of a group. But, there is a problem. 1) The people who care for the truth are incredibly bad at predicting how others might respond to the truth. So, where do they draw the line? It is not clear. No one will tell you this. It is culture-specific. It is context-specific. Normal folk know it by some seraphic intuition. 2) If the truth-seekers become cynical panderers, they will sound like fakers. They will find it exhausting to the point that they cannot pull it off. This might do more harm than being plainly blunt. People might stand disagreement, but not condescension. 3) But, for artists, scientists , thinkers and other innovators, going along to get along is disastrous. If you are creative, going along to get along will never get you anywhere in the long run. If you do not know why journalism is so disappointing, this is the reason. Journalists are not intelligent, creative folk.

Psychological Health And Self Deception

define_normal“Many mental health professionals promote the idea that depression and other emotional disorders stem in large measure from irrational thinking. Depressives, they claim, believe false ideas about themselves and others. They are self-deceived and out of touch with reality. Irrational, self-deceptive thinking is alleged to be a factor distinguishing depressed people from “normal” ones, but this psychiatric homily turns out to be badly mistaken. Scientific research leads to the opposite conclusion that depressives seem to have a better grasp of reality than the “normal” psychiatrists treating them. Lauren Alloy of Temple University in Philadelphia and Lyn Abramson of the University of Wisconsin designed an experiment in which one of the investigators secretly manipulated the outcome of a series of games. Both depressed and nondepressed subjects took part in these fixed games. Psychologists have long known that “normal” thinking involves an element of grandiosity: we tend to give ourselves credit when events work in our favor, but dish out the blame to others when they pan out to our disadvantage. True to form, the non-depressed subjects overestimated the degree to which they had personally influenced the outcome when the game was rigged so that they did well, and underestimated their own contribution to the outcome when they did poorly. Turning to the depressed subjects, Alloy and Abramson found that depressed individuals assessed both situations far more realistically. The rather startling conclusion is that depressives may suffer from a deficit in self-deception. Similar results were obtained by the distinguished behavioral psychologist Peter Lewinsohn, who found that depressed people are often able to judge others’ impressions of them more accurately than non-depressed subjects are. In fact, these people’s ability to make accurate interpersonal judgements degenerated as their depressive symptoms diminished in response to treatment. Others have found that high levels of self-deception are strongly correlated with conventional notions of mental health, and that subjects with so-called mental disorders evidence lower levels of self-deception than “normal” people. This research suggests (although, of course, does not conclusively prove) that “normality”—whatever that word means—may rest on a foundation of self-deception. Remove or undermine the foundation, and depression or other forms of emotional difficulty may emerge. If mental health depends upon a liberal dose of self-deception then perhaps, as the philosopher David Nyberg wryly remarks, “Self knowledge isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”-Why We Lie, David Livingstone Smith

Economics And The Mundane

Source: Wikipedia

Years ago, when I first read that there is a strong relationship between welfare payments for single mothers, and the number of welfare mothers, I found it surprising. I have no doubt that this is true, and this fits in so well with my cynical view of the world. But, I still find it hard to believe that many teenagers are willing to bear illegitimate children for a measly welfare cheque. This is a common mistake. Intellectuals often grossly underestimate the lure of the welfare cheque. It is hard for them to imagine that there are people who find the life of a welfare bum tempting. The fact that there are teenagers who are willing to bear illegitimate children for a welfare cheque is just too unbelievable.

But, economists are quite vocal about their belief that monetary incentives can influence many decisions we take in our personal lives, including “baby making”. Free market economists are unusually likely to think so. But, I do not think this is because economists find this easier to imagine than other social scientists. If introspection can fail other intellectuals, it can fail economists too. I believe it is because economists are far less romantic. Economists are often more interested in the truth than politicians, policy analysts and journalists. They look into observable facts of reality.

Economists are also unusually likely to see the influence of monetary incentives in the everyday things we take for granted. In his The Freeman article The Mystery Of The Mundane, Peter Boettke argues that economics students should be more open to the mystery of the mundane: Continue reading “Economics And The Mundane”

The Institution Called “Marriage”

This is perhaps not true of orangutans, chimpanzees, and Japanese macaques. They prefer older females.

Marriage is a contract. Governments in many parts of the world sets the default contractual agreement. This does not disprove the fact that marriage is a contract. The government plays a huge role in the employment contract too, but no one argues that employment is a superstition or that a relic of our barbaric past, except perhaps, well, socialists. This is not ideal, but there is nothing unusual about a marriage contract.

Why is this complex? Heterosexual men and women like companionship. They also love to have children. They conjugally pool resources. In the US, for instance, nearly 50% of the marriages end in a divorce. It makes sense to have a contract. I have heard people argue that they are soul mates and they live as if they have but one heart and one purse between then. If this is true, I envy them, but I think that they are lying.

There is a tendency among people who had paid obeisance to traditional social mores for long to now bend the stick the other way, and ask, “Surely you don’t believe in marriage, do you?”  This is nonsense. This is a fraud. This is a revolt against human nature, against common sense. I do not know whether anyone takes the feminist slogan seriously, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” But, when they do, I suppose it just prolongs single-hood. There are of course, variants of this, as Amit Varma said in “To Hell With Family Values . This worldview is perhaps taken seriously by a few: Continue reading “The Institution Called “Marriage””

What Pains You?


Income inequality is considered a social evil. But, it need not be true that income inequality is unjustifiable. It is perhaps true that some people are brilliant, and work harder. But, there are some clear-cut cases where this simply does not apply. Many workers can raise their income twenty folds by moving from a third world country to a western capitalistic democracy. A large majority of the people on the earth earns far less then they deserve because income is “locally determined”.  This is obvious, but few intellectuals take this seriously enough. Therefore, what pains them is not inequality.

Humility is considered a virtue. But, it is not clear that someone who has a modest opinion of himself accurately perceives reality. It is still possible that they are overestimating themselves. Hitler might claim that he had his flaws. It is not clear that someone who has a high opinion of herself is overestimating herself. Ayn Rand had once said that she wanted “The Fountainhead” to sell at least a hundred thousand copies. But, there are situations where it is perfectly safe to not rate yourself very highly. I think the world would be a better place if people were willing to trust the experts. Experts have spent decades studying subjects of which people know nothing about. They know more than the common public. But, when a common person disagrees with Milton Friedman, he is not likely to think that Friedman could be right. People do not value such humility. Therefore, what pains them is not lack of humility. Continue reading “What Pains You?”

Every Clever Update

Every clever update is a trap.

“I should inform the editor who cut my best passages of the broad opportunities offered by the oldest profession on earth.” When I post this as an update on Facebook, people react hysterically. Why? What is going on?

An American writer blocked me after saying that I am a bigot who hates women. But, did I even say that the editor is a woman? No. Even if it is true that the editor is a woman, does it follow that I hate women? No. I was writing about someone who did something that is very wrong. If people are not truly sexist, they would know that the least important factor in all this is her gender.

But, why does it matter to them so much?  They see a reflection of themselves in her. When people indentify with someone, the facts of reality do not matter to them anymore. They have their judgment in their minds. Continue reading “Every Clever Update”

All Pain, No Gain

I “loved” School.

Imprisonment can be considered effective if people voluntarily submit to it. This is rare, but our schooling system is a close candidate. Much of what school forces you to do is intrinsically painful. Children have better uses for their time. Yet, they spend even up to two decades or more in school. Then, they do not have much of an option. In many parts of the world, schooling is free and compulsory.

The convicts in the penitentiary almost never ask for an extension of their prison sentence. But, the brightest students often want to extend their term in school. When they graduate, they look back at their school days through rose-colored glasses. In a sane world, young men would be hesitant to admit that they have wasted much of their time in useless pursuits. But, the workplace rewards people who have jumped through more academic hoops. Continue reading “All Pain, No Gain”