Posts Tagged ‘Behavior’

Some Thoughts on God and Religion

January 10, 2016

I found myself residing once again in a locality exposed to holy noise – the simultaneous narration of the azaan from about a dozen mosques that renders the resulting sound completely unintelligible. This time there was one difference – one of the mosques had amplified itself beyond the reach of the competition and its imam had specialized in a quasi-sermon at six every other morning. Whether it was for a live audience or just for self-improvement I don’t know but almost every word of the narrative was now intelligible. After a few iterations, almost entirely repetitive, I figured out the pattern. The narration, about fifteen minutes in duration, was divided into two equal halves – the first communicated a list of things God doesn’t want people to do and the second a matching list of things God does want people to do. Needless to say, this structure allowed for dramatically rhetorical and rhythmic oration that gradually built up to a rising crescendo of moral righteousness.

The last time I checked I had found that the law of the land restricted the use of mosque loud-speakers to the amplification of the azaan and the Friday sermon. I wondered if the imam knew he was violating the law since this had been a subject of public discussion a while back. Perhaps he did but believed that this was one of the things God did want him to do and in our country, I am told, the commandments of God trump the law of the land. As was the case during my previous stay in the locality, the residents though tired of the repetitive message, were unwilling to raise the issue for fear of finding themselves at the wrong end of holy wrath.

I tried to make the best of the situation and turned my attention to exploring the relationship between God and religion which is something in our country we take for granted. It seemed reasonable to me to believe that the notion of god must have preceded the invention of religion. History does seem to suggest that from the very beginning of human existence man must have been wondrous of natural phenomena beyond his control and critically important for his survival – thunder, lightning, rain, earthquakes, fire and so on. Anthropological accounts provide evidence of how these phenomena were attributed to gods. Hence we have the very well-known pantheon of pagan gods of the Greeks and Romans – these imagined entities were the causes of various natural phenomena and some of them had to be appeased to be beneficent to human beings.

The invention of religion as we know it today seems to be a much later phenomenon dating perhaps to the emergence of large settled communities at the beginning of the age of agriculture. The stability of large communities was crucially dependent on adherence to a shared and mutually acceptable set of rules and values that yielded order and minimized disorder – hence the almost universal prohibitions against deceit, theft, murder and so on. These codes evolved to assume the form of religious injunctions.

What is of interest is that the concept of God and the institution of religion did not come together automatically – in some places they did and in some they did not with hugely significant implications. In fact, even the step of many gods being replaced by one god and fallible gods with limited powers being replaced by one omniscient creator of life was not a universal occurrence. The attribution of a divine plan to the omniscient god, transmitted to chosen sets of people charged with the mission to follow and realize it and to be judged based on their performance, was even less universal.

If we look across the world today, we can discover all sorts of combinations of godhood and codes of behavior. Aboriginal people like Native Americans retain almost all the characteristics of the pagan Greek and Roman constellations of gods. Hinduism, which should more accurately be considered a code than a religion, retains multiple gods with a great degree of freedom to deem any one of them as the patron god of a family. Buddhism is a religion without a god. The Chinese worship their ancestors and some acknowledge a benign heavenly emperor in the sky without any divine plan of sorts. In fact, Confucianism is simply a way, a guide to good living compiled by a human being without any divine sanction to enforce its acceptance or implementation.

It is only the three monotheistic religions arising in the Middle East that have gone all the way combining codes of behavior with the sanction of a single omniscient God with a divine plan communicated to followers through a holy text. And it is through these texts that one gets to the stage of knowing what God wants us to do and not to do – for example, the content of the sermon of the imam which triggered these observations.

In thinking through this evolution, it seems to me that religion has not done too well as far as its don’ts are concerned. Despite the rapid increase in the number of houses of worship per square mile of land, the incidence of code violations – untruth, dishonesty, exploitation – continues to mount and many excessively religious societies are in an extreme state of social disorder. The do’s of these religions, on the other hand, are a different matter – amenable to multiple interpretations and easily hijacked to support all sorts of political objectives. In this case, there are no countervailing forces to limit the potential damage to humanity.

Given the above and as a result of historical experience, it is not surprising to see in some places a movement in reverse – the separation of Godhood from religion. One comes across more and more people who consider themselves religious without necessarily believing in an omniscient God with either a divine plan or the power to judge, reward, or punish humans for their acts on earth. There are others who continue to believe in God but profess no particular religious identity. The declining global attendance in churches is one manifestation of these trends which does not imply that the people who cease to attend church have become irreligious. Rather, religion has once again been reduced to a social bond and a communal code of ethical behavior that people subscribe to without the need for divine sanction to ensure its acceptance.

I am eagerly looking forward to the completion of my stay in this locality although I am grateful to the imam for initiating this exploration. I am not sure he would approve of his sermon being used for such a purpose but perhaps he also does not fully know what God wants or intends in making his followers do what they do on earth.

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A Question of Pricing

December 5, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Here is a question of pricing for you to consider.

Imagine the following scenario:

You are getting ready to travel from Lahore to Islamabad when by chance X stops by at your house. X is also making the same journey driving his own car. X offers to give you a ride and you accept.

Consider X to be one of the following in different versions of this encounter:

1. Your student
2. Your good friend
3. Your brother-in-law with whom you are on speaking terms
4. A distant relative
5. A colleague at work
6. A neighbor whom you know but are not close to
7. A stranger who stopped at your house by mistake

If you had traveled on your own as planned, the trip would have cost you Rs. 2,000.

For every case of X (from 1 to 7) answer the following questions. You can combine the categories of X who, in your opinion would give or receive the same answer.

QUESTION 1: How many Rupees would X expect for giving you the ride?

QUESTION 2: How many Rupees would X ask for giving you the ride?

QUESTION 3: How many Rupees should you offer X for the ride?

QUESTION 4: How many Rupees would you offer X for the ride?

In each case consider two versions:

  1. You and X are Pakistanis in Lahore and the cost to you of the trip to Islamabad is Rs. 2,000.
  2. You and X are Americans in Washington, DC and the trip is from DC to New York City with a cost to you of $200.

For each case and each version, state what you consider would be the appropriate ask and offer prices from the following perspectives:

1. Social norms and conventions
2. Moral norms and conventions
3. Legal norms and conventions
4. Considerations of fairness and equity
5. Considerations of standard economic theory

Organize your answer in the following tabular form:

Consideration Identity of X (Pakistan) Identity of X (USA)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1. Social
2. Moral
3. Legal
4. Fairness
5. Economic

For each cell enter your best answer as the four-tuple (K1, K2, L1, L2) where:

K1 represents what you think X should expect of you.
K2 represents what you think X would ask of you.
L1 represents what you think you should offer X.
L2 represents what you think you would offer X.

You can indicate Not Applicable wherever you think appropriate.

After considering all five dimensions (Social, Moral, etc.) state what you believe would be the actual or most likely transaction/exchange between you and X, i.e., how many Rupees would you give X for the trip (convert shared expenses into Rupee equivalent). This will be a set of 14 numbers – 7 for each identity of X in Pakistan and 7 for each identity of X in USA.

Write a paragraph explaining the perspective and reasoning that has influenced your answers.

Write a paragraph stating the conclusions you have reached after completing this exercise.

How to Submit Answers in the Comments Section

Submit your answers in the comments section of the blog.

The table is intended to help your thinking. You may choose not to enter it as part of your answer if you feel the other answers are sufficient to describe the logic of your thinking.

If you do wish to enter the table and are unable to post it in the comments section, use the following longer format in which you will be entering each row separately:

Social: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the first row of the above table.
Moral: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the second row of the above table.
Legal: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the third row of the above table.
Fairness: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the fourth row of the above table.
Economic: Enter the 14 four-tuples in sequence from the fifth row of the above table.

Enter what you believe would be the most likely Rupee or Rupee equivalent amount you would give X for the trip in the following format:

Pakistan: (R1… R7)
USA: (R1… R7)

Where R1 is the amount when X = 1, R2 is the amount when X = 2, etc. There will be seven numbers in each row, one for each identity of X.

Enter the two paragraphs indicating your perspective and reasoning in thinking through this exercise and the conclusions you drew from it.

Feel free to ask any questions of clarification on the blog before finalizing your answers.

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What Governments Do and Why

August 28, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

A seminal book of the 20th century, at least for academics, was An Economic Theory of Democracy, published in 1957. In it, Anthony Downs applied economic theory to the study of politics and, among other things, inferred what a rational government would do given its incentives.

At its simplest, the theory claims that a government aims to stay in power and therefore, if it is democratic, adapts its policies and actions to appeal to a majority of the electorate. For example, in the current run up to the elections in India, the general wisdom is that the ruling party would spend extensively in rural areas to negate a likely swing to the opposition in urban ones. (Contrary to Downs’ prototype, though, it seems it is not the effectiveness of expenditures that matters most to voter sentiment in India – it is the courting that is important.)

Incentives are the key variable in Downs’ proposition and in normal circumstances a government’s incentives are aligned with the objective of retaining power. Having observed Pakistani politics for decades, however, a circle of friends has inferred a variation that might better explain outcomes in the country. It might also illustrate the nature of the gulf that has opened up between the politics of India and Pakistan.

The essence of the variation is that the incentive of a typical Pakistani civil government (as a whole, not of rogue individuals within it which is a more universal phenomenon) has not been re-election but the maximum accumulation of wealth during any period in which it is in office. For one, the duration of its rule in any given period was highly uncertain given that real power was wielded behind the scene by actors other than itself. Therefore a strategy to satisfy the wants of any part of the electorate might yield no returns whatsoever. For another, it knew, given the paucity of political alternatives, that in the merry-go-round of Pakistani politics its turn would eventually come again. Thus it made strategic sense to build up a war chest to sustain it during its period in wilderness and be available when re-entry appeared possible.

This strategy was abetted by globalization when virtually all Pakistani leaders arranged safe havens abroad to recuperate when out of power or to which to escape when things got hot. Some are foreign nationals ruling by proxy from abroad; others shift abodes as and when the situation demands.

One consequence of the safe havens was that the leaders parked all their capital assets abroad and retained just running expenses in local currency. The operating game plan was then entirely tactical and risk-free – to do whatever was needed to extend their resource-extracting rule in the short term till such time when the music stopped. At that moment, they could take flight literally with the clothes on their backs and await some patron or the other to engineer their return.

With such incentives there was little need or time to do anything for the electorate barring the incidental byproducts of the process of making money (large infrastructure or service contracts, for example). This was quite unlike India where electoral strategy demanded the amelioration of some constituency at the very least. Governments could guess wrong (as with the Shining India strategy) but none could afford to ignore all the constituents all the time.

The complete apathy towards citizen needs in Pakistan is plausible in this perspective. A victim is the democratic process itself. Unlike in India, the real opposition is no longer represented by alternate political parties but increasingly by groups that reject the worldview of electoral politics altogether. The rejection also removes compunctions about the destructive economic consequences of their actions. They can survive on the bare minimum and believe everyone should too till the desired alternative is attained from which the nation would rise purer and stronger.

In exploring the fundamental divide in the politics of India and Pakistan, I often think back to the 300 years of the Mughal Empire. Half this period was dominated by the six Great Mughals whom everyone recognizes. The other half was populated by dozens of emperors most of whom few can recall. This was the period dominated by behind-the-scene king-makers who shuffled puppet emperors at will, retaining them only for the legitimacy they conferred.

This could explain how democratic India and Pakistan both remain overwhelmingly dynastic and yet on different political trajectories. I am tempted to conclude that Indian politics is a continuation of the first half of the Mughal Empire while Pakistani politics resembles more the second – the rule of kings versus that of king-makers.

Of course, in the age of democracy kings don’t rule till they die or are deposed – they can take turns in office. From the viewpoint of incentives it makes a huge behavioral difference if a leader knows he has to remain at home when out of power as opposed to one prepared to flee abroad to seek a patron.

These contrasting imperatives, incentives, and strategies have led to divergent political trajectories in Pakistan and India and thereby to the different fate of their citizens – the one ignored, the other appeased.

The first completion of the political term of a civilian government in Pakistan could signal a change. Constraining further the power of king-makers could bend the Pakistani trajectory towards the Indian model, itself a variant of the Downs prototype. When that happens, Pakistani citizens would attain parity with their Indian peers. It would make little difference in their immediate conditions but place them on a better political platform for the long struggle ahead.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He would like to thank Nadeem ul Haque for discussions on this topic. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on August 27, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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L’affaire DSK: What Can We Learn?

May 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

What can the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn tell us about stereotyping and our biases? I intend to present for discussion five biases pertaining to religion, nationality, gender, communalism and civilization. (more…)

Some Thoughts on Patriarchy

May 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities.

The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes. (more…)

On Prayer and Superstition

April 3, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Prayer, superstition, luck, talent, effort, unity, professionalism – what was it that won the Cricket World Cup in the end? I am reasonably convinced it was some combination of the last five; all the more reason for a fascination with the first two that were so visibly on display. What exactly is the role of prayer and superstition in our lives? Why do we resort to these devices? How seriously are we to take them? Are they harmful or harmless? A whole host of questions wait to be asked and addressed.

At one level, there is a simple explanation. Any endeavor where the stakes are high and the outcome depends on some element of chance gives rise to nervousness and anxiety. And these feelings need to be assuaged. While participants in the endeavor can focus on the rigors of preparation and the demands of performance, spectators have no similar vehicles – prayer and superstition serve as substitutes. (more…)

On Culture and the Clash of Cultures

March 18, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The “West” versus the “East,” the “West” versus “Islam” – there is much talk of the clash of cultures in these ideologically charged times. Yet, there is as much confusion about the understanding of culture itself. If we are to be clear about the nature of the conflict, we need to first define what the argument is about.

Culture as a thing in itself: “the power of culture”

Culture has many dimensions and meanings – we can talk of the power of culture as well as of the culture of power – and some of the meanings have altered over time. In its original sense the notion was applied to humans as it was to the earth, the equivalent of agriculture – a way of cultivating the mind akin to cultivating the soil. It was common to speak of a cultured person as one who had cultivated good taste (even the choice of the word ‘taste’ hints at the commonality of the origins) – tastes could be refined with effort much like sugar. In this usage, culture was something an individual aspired to acquire and refine. The oft-heard European characterization of Americans as ‘uncultured’ reflects this usage. Within countries, ministries of culture were the facilitators of the cultivation of tastes.

It is less common these days to speak of culture in this manner because the focus has shifted to conflict and therefore away from the individual to the group. Yet, some of the sense of culture as taste remains when there is talk of the “cultural wars” between highbrow (elite) and lowbrow (popular) cultures.

Culture as the ethos of something else: “the culture of power”

There is a transition to associating culture with a pattern of behavior when one refers to the culture of power. Notions of the cultures of affluence or poverty convey the same sense – the powerful or the affluent or the poor behave in ways that are recognizable and common to the members of the group. It is also common to speak of the culture of organizations – the distinction was often made between the vertical culture of IBM (based on hierarchy) and the flat culture of Apple (based on equality).

The culture of a place

This transition to the behavior of groups can be rooted further in a specific geography. The association of culture with place – the culture of New York, for example – is an obvious extension although it is not as simple as it seems because a place can contain subgroups with quite distinct cultures of their own – say, the poor and the rich or the elite and the commoners. This nuance is vividly illustrated by an observation about New York by E.B. White: “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” All these distinct subcultures come together to comprise the composite culture that New Yorkers claim as their own.

Residents of New York and San Francisco would insist that the cultures of the two cities are very different. One cannot conceive of saying about New York what was said of San Francisco – “If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Those going to New York might be better advised to wear a Blackberry on their hips.

One should note that in this conceptualization of the composite culture of a healthy organization or place, the differences in the subcultures of its members, their religions or ethnicities for example, have relatively minor importance. Thus the culture of IBM is not sensitive to the different religions of its employees. Likewise, residents of Chinatown and Little Italy readily identify themselves as New Yorkers.

This is rather more difficult for us to appreciate in South Asia where we have witnessed composite cultures fragment and polarize around subcultures of language, religion or ethnicity. Nevertheless, despite the traumas of recent history, it still remains possible to speak meaningfully of a composite culture of UP or Punjab that subsumes religious differences. Indeed, we often speak of an even larger Ganga-Jamni culture that emerged out of the interaction of two initially very distinct cultures – something that was the subject of Dara Shikoh’s justly celebrated work, Majma-ul-Bahrain (“The Confluence of the Two Seas”).

Culture and religion

This conception of the composite culture of an organization or place should caution us against falling into the trap of giving primacy to religion in the discussion of culture. Religion influences culture but is itself embedded in pre-existing cultures – every place has a culture before religion is introduced into it. It is for this reason that the culture of Saudi Arabia is distinct from the culture of Iran or Indonesia even though they are now all countries with Muslim majorities. It is also the reason why society in Pakistan shuns social equality when the message of its holy book espouses equality quite explicitly. And within Pakistan, the social norms that prescribe how honor is defended in the different provinces vary from each other and also from the prescriptions of the Shariah.

West, East, Islam: misplaced categories

We are now in a position to return to the issue of interest – that of the so-called clash of cultures. It should be noted immediately that there is a serious incompatibility in talking about a culture clash between the West and Islam – the former is a spatial unit while the latter is a type of a non-spatial organization. We can either talk of a clash between Christianity and Islam or remove the incompatibility in some other way.

A formulation in terms of Christianity and Islam is much too broad – one has never heard, for example, of a conflict between the Christians of Latin America and the Muslims of Sub-Saharan Africa. Reformulation as a conflict between the West and the East is equally problematic because the East itself is too large a unit – there is little that can be considered common in the cultures of South Asia and East Asia, for instance.

Conflict of cultures or conflict of interests

A little thinking should reveal the intellectual laziness or subterfuge in such formulations. What initially motivated the proponents of the theory of culture clash was the problematic of the different interests of the USA and Europe on the one side and the Muslim countries of the Arab world on the other. It lent a false generalization to the articulation to conflate the former with the “West” and the latter with “Islam.” No doubt it also helped to mask the real nature of the material differences in interests that fueled the conflict. Over time, the generalization acquired the momentum of a self-fulfilling prophecy as more and more people began to see the world in its frame of reference.

Posed against each other in this formulation were the democratic, secular, and peace-loving values of the “West” against the totalitarian, religious, and aggressive values of  “Islam.” After the recent developments in the Arab world the mask has slipped to some extent from the emptiness of this conflation and questions have begun to be asked about the odd reality in which the friends of the “West” in the Arab world were precisely those totalitarian autocrats who were receiving billions of dollars to deny democracy and freedom to their own people. The choice of friends was the giveaway in the gulf between the rhetoric and reality of this false clash of cultures.

Culture and values

Although there is a very clear political economy rationale to the articulation of the clash of cultures, let us set it aside for the moment to discuss the conceptual issues in the understanding of culture. What exactly might we mean when we speak of a culture of the “West?” We are in the realm of geography and had mentioned earlier the notion of a culture of New York that was distinct from a culture of San Francisco. If we think of culture as a manifestation of shared values, to what extent can we enlarge a geographical unit while still recognizing some significant value that remains common across that unit?

In this sense can we associate certain shared attributes with as broad a geographical unit as the “West?” We can say perhaps that the West is relatively horizontal in terms of social relationships and that religious beliefs have relatively little impact on political behavior. In contrast, we can easily recognize some societies that are relatively vertical in terms of social relationships and where religious beliefs have relatively greater impact on political behavior. South Asia immediately comes to mind but note that East Asian societies are markedly different from South Asia in many respects so that a simplistic West-East classification would be very misleading.

Values and social structures

Thinking further along these lines would suggest that these attributes are not intrinsic to people but related to the structures of societies at particular moments in time and that there is a relationship between structural attributes and social values. The values of a pre-industrial society could be expected to differ from those of an industrial one. We can quite readily characterize a set of values as “feudal” and another as “capitalist” – it would be quite natural for honor and loyalty to be carry more weight in the former while the bottom line and merit gain more prominence in the latter. This also suggests that values change over time as the structures of societies evolve. Europe too was feudal, clerical, and dynastic at one time.

The clash of values

This should lead to an important observation. The fact that societies have different values does not imply that they must necessarily clash. To revert to an earlier illustration, IBM had a vertical culture while Apple had a horizontal culture but this in no way made a clash between the two inevitable. There was competition for sure but even this was modulated within the meta-rules of a composite capitalist culture.

However, and this is an equally important observation, when there is a conflict of material interests, real or perceived, one can expect a clash of values even within the same society. One can see this in the conflict over caste-based quotas and reservations in India as well over race-based affirmative action in the US. These material conflicts are recast in terms of a clash of values, between social justice and individual responsibility or between desert and merit, for example.

The conflict of interests

The key to understanding an articulation of a clash of cultures is to recognize the underlying clash of material interests and to identify the parties representing those interests. From there one can follow how the conflict of interests is recast as a conflict of values, how each party characterizes the values of the other as the exact opposite of its own to the point that the conflict is transformed into one between good and evil. This rhetoric of good and evil is then used to rally popular support – how often have we heard in recent years that “they” hate “us” because they dislike our values and our freedoms.

Seeing through the fog

This strategy continues to pay because there is always a pool of people ready to line up behind it. The resulting jingoism and chauvinism leads many to fall into the deeper hole of believing and wanting to prove their values superior to those of anyone else. This is easy enough – any one of hundreds of possible indicators can be picked as evidence of the superiority. Thus many Muslims claim Islamic values superior to Western values because the divorce rate is lower in Muslim countries. The failure to realize that they are comparing apples and oranges or that there may be other indicators suggesting the opposite conclusion illustrates well the benumbing influence of seeing the world through the lens of a clash of cultures. There are no clashes of cultures, only clashes of interests masquerading as clashes of cultures.

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On Values: The Example of Marriage

November 21, 2010

I found our discussion on values and behavior (On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior) particularly useful. Here I wish to summarize my conclusions and illustrate the arguments further with reference to the ongoing changes in attitude towards the institution of marriage.

The principal conclusions are the following:

  1. Moral values and related behaviors are not static. They can often change with surprising rapidity.
  2. The possibility of change can be triggered by any number of reasons – wars, famines, technology, etc. (more…)

On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior

November 17, 2010

Reading a 1956 interview with the writer William Faulkner, I gained an insight into religion that I wish to share with readers. In order to set the context for Faulkner’s remarks, I will reproduce a section of the interview and then focus on the part that triggered the new thought in my mind.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any artistic advantages in casting the novel in the form of an allegory, as the Christian allegory you used in A Fable?

FAULKNER: Same advantage the carpenter finds in building square corners in order to build a square house. In A Fable, the Christian allegory was the right allegory to use in that particular story, like an oblong, square corner is the right corner with which to build an oblong, rectangular house. (more…)

Achievement and Risk-taking

June 20, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

We are reproducing, with slight changes, an article that discusses popular myths about the behavioral attributes of high-achievers. The objective is to show that some inherent and constant disposition is not a defining variable in achievement.

A recent article titled ‘Successful risk-takers’ advised readers to take only moderate risks if they wanted to be high-achievers. Before you follow the advice, imagine that you meet an old high school friend with whom you used to do the most risky things, and you suggest repeating them for old-times sakes. How likely are you to be told that he couldn’t because he was now a respectable married man with a young daughter to care for? If you have experienced the above, or find it plausible, you can conclude that the amount of risk people take depends upon circumstances. And that conclusion can be the starting point of an argument with the theory presented in the article. (more…)