Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Anatomy of Loneliness

I often try to analyze human behavior and its underlying causes. Had things turned out differently I would have been a psychology professional. Since I am not, I try to train my amateur psychologist brain in other ways. My recent readings include studies on Loneliness. Research from University of Cornell (on a side note if you see their way of putting it, you would be mistaken for assuming psychology is all math) and Chicago finds that homo sapiens, in spite of our claims to be rugged individualists, have evolved so as to be successful in social setups. Our brains have developed to meet the demands of social living – language, relationships, coordination, and social hierarchies. Our defenses – teeth, claws (or lack of them) are insufficient against most predators. 

In this context loneliness – previously described using terms such as depression, shyness or low social skills - is concluded to be ‘perceived’ or subjective (versus objective) social isolation. For example, one possible reason can be when an early childhood attachment disappears. Even though you may still have other friends, the perceived loss is hard to fill. Another possible scenario could be the feeling that you won’t fit in a group of people at a party or social event. Even worse is threat that you won’t fit in your community or family because you don’t abide by the norm. Human brain is wired to integrate with society and actual or perceived threats to that integration cause it to be stressed.

In fact the study claims that loneliness (or perceived social isolation) drives behaviors and feelings such as low social support, shyness, poor social skills, anger, anxiety, lower self esteem and bad mood.

What I like about psychology (and research such as this) is that it helps us understand our feelings and behaviors. Knowing this if you (or I) are feeling ‘subjective social isolation’ – I mean feeling lonely or a misfit – the solution is not to press the panic button or shut out the world, but to seek social support. After all, only fifty percent of loneliness is hereditary in nature, so the other fifty percent (which I count as significant) is in your control. You might also want to reconsider how important it is for you to fit in.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Insights from Greeks: The Evolution of Morality and Religion

All cultures have their notions of religion, morality and the supernatural. Religion is most commonly based on dogma and defines morality. Divine powers are someone you turn to in your hour of difficulty or need because they can do things that you can’t. I am going through an interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey, set in eighth century Greece. Couldn’t help but compare how our thinking has evolved on the subjects.

First interesting insight is about religion. Religion in Homerian Greek (and more so a few centuries before that) is primarily based on rituals and ceremonies than on dogma and doctrines based on nature of God and man.  As a result it is flexible and open to interpretation. Gods aren’t the upholders of morality, just beings which can be approached by mortals. God’s are not beyond their vices either. (I can’t help but draw a parallel with certain aspects of Hindu religion). But in the Homerian Greece Gods are more moods than powers. When Aphrodite (the Greek God of love) shines on Helen, that emotion overpowers all her decisions and actions to the extent of her leaving her husband and child for another man. Homer’s protagonists of do not make a choice against the will of Gods. They don’t engage in deliberation to act. They go with the flow. In fact those with the power to choose against the will of Gods are actually bad people (the suitors). Professor Dreyfus, who teaches a psychology course based on the poem at University of Berkeley, says that Homer believes that those who go with the emotion actually lead a fuller life.  (He was kind enough to reply to my mail almost immediately. Bragging Time – I finished the full podcast series.)

Also thought provoking is the Greek idea of morality which (at least till then) is very tribal. Friendship, though more valued than love, is an alliance based on mutual advantage. Humanity – supposed to be an instinct today – is an aspiration, often forsaken under forces of passion and interest.  An average Greek (not the philosopher) owes service to a friend as much as he owes pursuit and injury to an enemy. Mercy, compassion and reasonableness are special graces than necessary duties.

I can’t help but contrast with the thinking of today. My first instinct is to lean towards the right to making one’s own choices. I also believe that the choices have to be deliberated e after weighing the pros and cons, including how one’s actions affect other people. I am also guilty of assuming fairness, compassion and reasonableness are fundamental traits defining us as a species. The idea that less than 2000 years we thought completely differently is an eye-opener.

I thought more about the Greek notion of morality and realized it follows naturally with going with the flow. Ancient Greeks were not afraid of acting on their first instinct. It can even be said that they were less hypocrite than people of today. But I am still not ready to believe that world would be better place if all us of did that. 

PS: That we seek divine help in difficult times is another human weakness I guess.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Thought Provoking : Indian Women Are the Most Stressed Out

Women's issues are a subject close to my heart, and recently I came across a study that was though provoking enough for me to take a break from the blogging hiatus.

A research survey done by Nielson of 6500 women across the world found that Indian women – especially the educated professional ones – are the most stressed out in the world. Indian women balance career ambitions while shouldering a large part of responsibilities of the household in a traditional unequal society. First generation career women are the most stressed out as they try to live to the Indian expectation of an "ideal daughter", "an ideal wife" or an "ideal mother", and overcompensate at work to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. While an educated Indian female is expected contribute to the earning the family bread, Indian males (or at least a majority of them) are yet to evolve to take up a their fair share of  household duties.  In fact, if I may, being educated is thus a double whammy. If you are ambitious on top of that, good luck. You just need to be a superwoman.

The purpose of this article is to commend women who have decided to take the more difficult path of trying to balance it all. What these Indian women are doing is no mean feat.  But I have even greater respect for those of my friends who have the courage to not settle for inequality and question it. The road is unchartered and tough but they are the path bearers to social change.   

The other intended audience of this article is the educated Indian male. This is an invitation to think. Can you claim that you take your fair share of responsibility at home?

The HBR article can be read here.
The other angle to this debate, that of tapping into the huge educated workforce deserves a separate post of its own.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Limitations to beating the market

One of my professors (yes I am back to school again, minor detail) is the reason I read a lot of research about the investing process and strategy. Since I have learnt that most academicians who are practitioners too are averse to public profiles, I will stay away from names and stick to the issue.

One of the limitations to generating abnormal returns is the size of portfolio. As your portfolio size increases, your ability to make more profitable bets reduces. One of the reasons is that your individual bets become large enough to affect the price of the asset in consideration due to liquidity demanded and time in which a trade needs to be executed. We recently discussed the tradeoffs between these (the execution costs) and opportunity cost.

Guess who has been feeling the pinch - Warren Buffett (the other explanation is that he is one of those upfront in setting the right expectation). The book value (BV) of Berkshire Hathaway (which considers the right performance measure) rose 13% as compared to 15.1% return on S&P 500. In the letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway he says, "The bountiful years, we want to emphasize, will never return. The huge sums of capital we currently manage eliminate any chance of exceptional performance."

It nice to have immediate validation / application of things you learn in class. Read more at WSJ (needs subscription) and Dealbook at New York Times.