Life and Death

February 2, 2011

It is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life. Old age is life’s parody, whereas death transforms life into a destiny: in a way it preserves it by giving it the absolute dimension. Death does away with time.- Simone du Beauvoir


Badlapur and the Bombay Teen Challenge

January 13, 2011

Mr Devaraj is a man with a vision and a mission. Mumbai has a red light district that is like something from a horror movie. Except worse. Girls as young as 10 and 11 are kidnapped from villages in northern India or Nepal and brought to Mumbai as sex slaves. They are kept in cages for 3 years where they are systematically and repeatedly tortured and raped. At the end of this time they are conditioned into sex slavery and have nowhere else to go. Many of these girls have HIV/Aids and children of their own who often contract the disease from their mothers.The orphans at Badlapur

For many years Mr Devaraj has been rescuing children and women from their slavery and taken them to the communities that he has built in Badlapur where they are cared for, nursed back to health and educated and trained to live normal lives. Today, I had the privilege of visiting these communities.

Mr Devaraj graciously picked me up from hotel and we drove the 2 hours through the picturesque mountains to the east of Mumbai to the first of these communities. I was greeted with many smiles and hugs and presented with a bunch of flowers after which the children sang to me whilst I drank delicious Indian tea spiced with ginger. I spent several hours with the children answering questions, looking at their art work and talking with them. The light and the happiness in their eyes are extraordinary. Just being with them is inspirational. They like jokes, and we spent time telling each other riddles. Their houses are simple but beautiful communities, spotlessly clean and maintained by the children themselves. Children as young as 3 years of age have responsibility for helping with the cleaning, the cooking and looking after one another. The highlight of the children’s week is when they can go on the computer for one hour and the older girls maintain friendships through Facebook. Do you know what Indian and Facebook have in common? Along with China, they make up the three largest communities in the world. It really struck home how ubiquitous social networking is around the world. There is a great educational programme for the young people, with individualised instruction for each child which guarantees that each child will be at an age-appropriate educational level within a year. It is truly not just an educational triumph but a triumph of humanity.

I also visited the orphanages. Often, when a sex slave dies of HIV/Aids, her children are dumped on the street. Two such children were Rhaji and Shaneer. Shaneer was three years old when her mother died and she and her one year old brother were left in the gutter. Shaneer used to make up songs for Rhaji. “Little brother, don’t cry. I will beg for food for you and I will look after you that you grow up to be a strong man”. This is how Mr Devaraj found them on the streets. A dying one-year old child with his three- year old big sister looking after him. The photographs Mr Deveraj showed me pictured two children on the brink of death. That picture was taken nine years ago. Today I met them. Shaneer is a charming and graceful girl of 12 and Rhaji is an energetic young 10 year old. They are still inseparable and happy beyond belief. The joy and the energy of all the children in the orphanage is contagious and through a mist of tears I could not help smiling. Joy like that is very infectious. I have also never been hugged by so many children in my whole life.

After eating a delicious lunch with them (Indians really know about good food, even the little ones), I reluctantly left the orphanage. Our next stop was the community for the women themselves, those who had been rescued from sex slavery. Many had HIV/Aids and today was a sad day as after a long battle, Nimi succumbed to her illness and died peacefully of pneumonia, a common complication with HIV/Aids. Although I was an outsider I was not treated as such and shared in their grief as Mr.Devaraj told them the news. They sang prayers softly amidst the silent weeping and the harsh reality of the environment from which these women were rescued really came home in a forceful way. I also visited the vocational workshop where a top Mumbai fashion designer had left her prestigious job in the city and come to Badlapur to teach the women how to make beautiful clothes and jewellery. I was presented with lovely silk trousers, handbags and earrings for my wife.

Mr Devaraj also runs a community for men who are recovered drug addicts and the educational, health and social programme that is run out of this remote, rural town community would match any major city drug rehabilitation programme for excellence of outcomes. The programme has a 98% success rate and I spent time talking with Bhandri, himself a recovered drug addict who was brought into the community 16 years as a rescued child and now heads up the programme.

It is hard to do justice to the impact and importance of this wonderful and effective humanitarian project and I do not have the skill with words or pictures to do it justice. I urge anyone who is reading this to go to to read the real story for yourself and please make a donation. This programme saves lives and is making a real difference to Mumbai sex slaves, their children and their orphans. I am pleased to wholeheartedly commend this project to everyone. Oh, and watch Slumdog Millionaire again. An insightful and beautiful film.

The contribution of experimental approaches in informing understanding of social cognition.

March 2, 2010


This essay considers the extent to which experimental approaches have contributed to understanding about social cognition, that is, about the way in which people perceive, understand and explain events and situations in their social environment. Experimental social psychology attempts to capture the intricacy of social perception, cognition and attribution in a laboratory situation. When implementing experimental research in social psychology, data are often sought about how people react to and interpret social situations. In order to achieve this, whilst maintaining control over the experiment, researchers have developed numerous strategies to make the experiment reliable in a laboratory One method used to achieve this is through asking research participants to respond to vignettes conceived by the researcher. A vignette is a brief narrative of an occurrence, situation or behaviour. An example of a vignette is McArthur’s (1972) study testing a model of attribution in which she used descriptions of 16 different behaviours to measure the effect on causal attributions made by participants. As a rule, social experiments based on vignettes show that people use information relating to consensus, consistency and distinctiveness in ways predicted by the theory.

Experimental approaches in social cognition

Social cognition uses questions that can be tested using experimental designs. It can also use closed format questionnaires, or questions relating to values or beliefs. These approaches do not, however, necessarily reveal how people feel about certain issues. This element of social cognition may need a different method, which is one in which unprompted meanings and interpretations of thinking emerge naturally rather than through the imposition by researchers of quantitative measures and comparative questionnaires, which all have their limitations in eliciting open responses. As the social world involves not only basic cognitive processes but also the environmental context in which social cognition takes place, the experimental study of social cognition allows only particular types of tasks to be undertaken in a laboratory situation, and certain types of questions to be asked. However, the experimental study of social cognition does attempt to make generalisations about how information is processed by people with respect to the social world. Such research may also contribute to a greater understanding of people by providing data about their motives. Recent research into social cognition moves the locus of control more towards the individual, and away from the mechanics of the cognitive system. For example Ruscher et al (2000) argue that in situations where we are dependent upon others as well as ourselves, we may seek out information that sits outside the schema.

Schematic processing

Experimental studies may be used to investigate schematic processing. Schematic processing is an efficient, but limiting, method of processing information based on schemas, which are structures which contain specific knowledge. The fundamental cognitive process involved in schematic processing is categorisation. Although schematic processing is generally seen as an effective and efficient way of interpreting social experiences it may produce biases or perceptual distortions that are problematic. Schematic processing may be described in terms of being an automatic process, occurring without any conscious human control. The concept of motivation however, complicates matters. This is evident in the extent to which, within the cognitive processes, people may automatically make decisions in the context of uncertainty. Fiske and Taylor (1991) have raised this issue as being problematic. It can be seen that although schematic processing is mainly automatic and operating below conscious levels, it can be influenced by motivational conditions and purposes.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory proposes that people differentiate between internal factors and external factors in their attempts to understand the causes of behaviour. It aims to describe and clarify the processes involved in attributing reasons to people’s behaviour. This is done through asking questions relating to information processing and decision making. Certain behaviour may be explained through internal factors or through external factors. Heider (1958) argued that all attributions of causality could be interpreted in terms of these two factors and he saw them as representations of an aspect of causality. He argued that the more a person’s behaviour is attributed to internal factors, the less it may be attributed to external circumstances. However, it may also be argued that attribution theories place an over-reliance on the rationality of human reasoning. Another important issue to consider with respect to attribution theory is the assumption that people are concerned to find reasons for their behaviour in the same way as an experimental researcher. Attribution theories are primarily concerned with receiving and interpreting information. The problem is that information is often provided in the context of particular motive. If attribution theory is a legitimate social psychological theory, it should incorporate these genuine, human motives within its paradigm. It does not always do this, however. Joffe’s (1999) findings in the HIV/AIDS study use a methodology that supports the findings of attribution theory and the biases that the information processing approach has identified, although her interpretation takes a different direction.


Experimental methods make a contribution in informing about the way people perceive, understand and explain their social environment. There are both strengths and limitations of the experimental approach in social psychology, especially in the way it has been applied in the area of social cognition. Billig (1987) is a social psychologist who no longer operates within the experimental social psychology field. He has argued that ‘social thinking’ (thinking about people and their experiences) involves far more than working outside the constraints of an automated cognitive system. He argues that thinking is an ‘internal movement’ between different perspectives, instead of merely simply taking one schema and adjusting it accordingly. When experimental social psychology is used in the context of social cognition, it incorporates two concepts of human psychological operation. These are the information processing approach (cognitive psychology) and the concept that people are intuitive researchers seeking truths in a rational manner (social psychology). Both these assumptions have been subsumed into experimental social psychology theory, especially in attribution theory. This results in a set of assumptions about logical methods of perceiving the environment in prescriptive ways. Value-driven information processing or biases are therefore often seen as substandard judgements. Experimental methods make a contribution to understanding social cognition. It is important to consider the theories and models which these experimental studies have set out to test to gauge their appropriateness, since empirical research and theoretical perspectives are intrinsically linked. They may enhance our understanding of how we perceive and explain our social world. However, non-experimental studies may also complement, conflict and co-exist with experimental approaches in informing our understanding of social cognition.


The strengths of experimental social psychology are linked to their theories, their methods of hypothesis testing and their contribution to the growth of a corpus of knowledge in this area. There are however, certain questions that cannot be asked using experimental methods. For example, research into naturalistic thinking about risk uncovers a complex way of thinking about risky behaviour which would not match the expectations of quantitative research scientists. Human information processing is not always bound by rules of logic or mathematics. There is also the more general issue of the contextual validity of many psychological experimental studies into information processing and social cognition. Traditionally scientific methods such as calibrated statistical tests do not realistically interpret the nature of everyday human behaviour. Our cognitive structures may be programmed to manage information naturally in the environmental context. In this case, experimental data showing bias or distortion might be due to low environmental validity of the design of the experiment. Risk awareness also highlights another complexity in the ways that bias and subjectivity in human information processing are seen. There is evidence to suggest that the information processing framework for social cognition has limitations. These limitations cannot however be separated from the influence on the selection and processing of information about intention and interpretation. Cognitive psychology and experimental social psychology promote models of the individual thinking in a mechanistic manner, or operating like an objective scientist (if there is such a thing) seeking truths in a logical and unbiased way. The evidence suggests that this may be incorrect Experimental psychological methodologies are geared towards the provision of binary ‘correct’ answers and, by implication therefore also ‘incorrect’ answers. But in human existence, this perception of correctness may not be the primary objective and indeed it may be fallacious to hypothesise that it even exists. Experimental research may operationalise tasks that are low in contextual validity and may therefore lead to apparent ineffectiveness in information processing. Human beings have their own methods by which they conceptualise risk and these have their own contextual validity in cultural terms and the individual and social purposes that they serve. The scientific paradigm with its avowed rationality may not be appropriate or relevant within social and individual contexts and the environment in which they operate. Experimental approaches may make a contribution in informing our understanding of social cognition, but they do not necessarily tell the whole story.

Reference List

Billig, M. (1987) Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Fiske and Taylor (1991) Social Cognition (2nd edition), New York, McGraw Hill

Heider, F. (1958) The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, New York, Wiley

Joffe, H. (1999) ‘Risk and the ‘Other’, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

McArthur, L.A. (1972) ‘The how and what of why: some determinants and consequences of causal attribution’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 2, pp. 171-193

Ruscher, J.B., Fiske, S.T., and Shnake, S.B. (2000) ‘The motivated tactician’s juggling act: compatible vs. incompatible impression goals’, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 39, pp. 241-256

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