Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Watching You

What drives our morality? Philosophers have argued and pondered for millennia where our sense of selflessness, altruism and honesty come from. Are we inherently good or evil? Do we only help others when it benefits us? How can we motivate people to act more morally?

One interesting research reveals a startling truth about our morality.

In 2006, psychologist Melissa Bateson published a research where she experimented with eyes. Their university tea room had an honour-based coffee and tea system, where you pay the price of the beverage into a box. Because there was no one keeping guard over the box, you could choose to cheat the system by taking a free drink without paying. Bateson wanted to see if she could influence how often people paid by making a simple alteration to the notice banner.

The notice banner had the prices for tea, coffee and milk. Bateson decided to add an image above the prices: a pair of eyes, or flowers. She would alternate the image used week by week, then recorded the total earnings and the number of drinks purchased. She would use different flowers and different eyes from various genders, ethnicities and expressions, but the eyes all had something in common: they stared directly at you.

The results were fascinating: on weeks where the notice banner included pictures of eyes, people paid 2.76 times as much compared to the flower weeks.

Turns out, seeing a depiction of eyes makes us more honest and cheat less. The same effect has been seen when using cartoons or drawings of eyes, resulting in less littering, more donations, less crime and overall more pro-social behaviours. This is called the watching-eye effect.

Why do harmless pictures of eyes make us want to do good?

The effect is likely to be an unconscious, automatic reaction. Our brains are remarkably sensitive to eyes and gaze – which is why we can easily spot people staring at us and why we are so good at reading emotions from eyes.

Furthermore, we are social animals and thus have evolved to show pro-social behaviours so that we fit into the group and live together harmoniously.

This means that when we see even a symbol of an eye, our brain automatically thinks that we are being watched by someone, pushing us to act morally to avoid punishment or embarrassment. This suggests that our desire to preserve our social reputation plays a significant role in our morality (but by no means the only factor).

The other thing to consider is that as we grow up, we are continuously taught that we are being watched, to dissuade us from bad behaviour. God will send you to hell, Santa Claus will put you on the naughty list and Big Brother will send you to prison. All of these stories and cultural beliefs fuel our subconscious paranoia of being watched and fear of consequences.

So if your lunch keeps getting stolen from the fridge, try sending a message by putting a photo of eyes on it to see if it deters your coworkers.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Hanlon’s Razor

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

This concept has been around since the dawn of time, with many astute, wise people noting that more likely than not, people cause harm not because they wish to, but because they are human.

In 1774, Goethe wrote in his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther:

“Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer.”

The more popular, simplified saying at the beginning is now called Hanlon’s Razor and it summarises human behaviour concisely and poetically.

Firstly, it emphasises that people (including us) are stupid. We are flawed creatures. Sure, we may have very capable brains, but we are also hamstrung by psychological biases, manipulation, instincts and impulses. We know that we should exercise, but instead we find ourselves binging TV. We know that we should not lash out at our partner, but we find ourselves reacting to our emotions instead of being proactive. More often than not, we make mistakes and poor decisions not because we are bad people, but because we are human.

Secondly, it shows that we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions. This is known as special pleading. By our very nature, we are egocentric. We think that the world revolves around us and we play an important role in the narrative of those around us. This means that when someone wrongs us, we can take it as a personal attack against us. How dare your coworker give you sass when they must know how burnt out you are from work? How could your spouse not understand your emotional needs right away? Why would the universe do this to us?

But if we take a step back and change our perspective, we might realise that everyone else lives in their own egocentric world. Each person has their own insecurities, hardships and flaws.

The girl who forgot your coffee order may be severely depressed, affecting her concentration. Your boss may have snapped at you this morning because his marriage is in trouble and he is not sleeping well. Your boyfriend may have insulted you not to hurt your feelings, but because they misunderstood you, they phrased something wrong, or just simply that they are not emotionally intelligent.

If you replace “stupidity” with any other imperfect human characteristic such as laziness, stress, distractedness, ignorance or misunderstanding, then the world suddenly appears to be a different place. People seem less evil and life seems a little less unfair.

Lastly, it reminds us that sometimes, things happen for no particular reason. Because people are imperfect and the world runs on chaos and probability, we may be subjected to adversities that appear unjust and unfair.

It’s not because you are worthless or because someone is out to get you: bad things – horrible things – happen without rhyme or reason. The fact that something bad happened is no judgement of your character or a sign from the universe; that’s just life.

Next time you are wronged, try to stop and think before you immediately react with anger and frustration: if you were in the other person’s shoes, what intention or mistake might have caused this? Have you ever done something similar, such as accidentally cutting in line or spilling a secret through human error, not malicious intent? If you assumed the best intention, what might explain this person’s actions?

If you give people the benefit of the doubt, the world becomes a slightly less stressful place to live in.

Posted in History & Literature

Judging History

When we look back on history, there are countless stories where we wonder: “what were people thinking?”. Time after time, people have banded together to inflict unspeakable horrors on other groups of people. Consider the burning of “witches” in Salem, the mass guillotine executions following the French revolution, the transatlantic slave trade, the Rwandan genocide, the infamous Unit 731 of Imperial Japan that performed inhumane experiments on countless innocent people…

Even now, there is no shortage of examples of how a governing entity chosen by its people punishes a subset of its own population. We see homosexual people imprisoned and tortured in Russia. We see refugee children being torn apart from their parents at border control in the USA. We see brutal state policing of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs in China.

It is very easy for us to examine these stories with a judgemental microscope. How can these governments be so evil? How can the people be so foolish to elect this government? Why are people not rising up against these powers to restore justice? The problem is that it is far easier to judge people for their actions rather than their intentions, or the context and setting that triggered them. Let us take an infamous historical atrocity as an example: the Holocaust.

Although Nazi Germany was initially formed from a coup d’état, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party maintained overwhelming support from the German people throughout its brutal regime. We may wonder how such a large group of well-educated, culturally sophisticated and civilised people could be swayed to support the inhumane actions committed by the Nazi government, but if you look at the historical context, we can find some explanations.

After World War 1, Germany was in economic ruin due to the “total war” nature of WW1 using up resources, followed by the staggering reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles, with the final kick of the Great Depression. Inflation and unemployment ran rampant, leaving the populace hopeless and in despair.

But when Hitler rose to power, promising food, land and order, along with hopes of making Germany “great” again, those who had been sick and tired of their depressing situation rallied under the Nazi cause. The Nazi party capitalised on this desperation and vulnerability, using Jewish people and other minority groups as a scapegoat, blaming them as the cause of Germany’s downfall after the Weimar Republic. This allowed them to commit atrocities such as the internment and execution of millions of people, along with unprovoked war against the rest of Europe, by promising the people that it would provide more jobs, more goods and a better world for the Germans.

We can see from this case that a large part of how such a terrible situation arose was due to the desperation that people felt due to the context of global economic depression and the outcome of the Great War. If we simply judged the people for being “sheeple”, blindly following Hitler’s charismatic leadership and propaganda, then we would learn nothing out of this case study.

However, if we examine the underlying reasons for how this situation arose, we can see that the same horrors could happen again in our lifetime under similar contexts. This approach allows us to see current affairs from more objective stances and hopefully explore solutions, rather than just putting the blame on the people affected by their political, economic and historical environment. Furthermore, this frame of thinking helps us be less swayed by forces that are out of our control, as it lets us use our rational and logical thinking to make decisions, rather than our emotional reactions and survival instincts.

Posted in Philosophy

Heroes And Villains

A nearly universal belief most people seem to share is that we all like to think that we are the “good guy” in the story of our lives. We like to think that we are doing our best in life to be a positive influence in the world. No one likes to think that they are a villain; all our actions – even the questionable, harmful ones – are justifiable by our intent. Even Hitler thought that his massacre of the Jewish people and other horrible deeds were simply a means to an end to provide an environment where his own people could flourish.

But there comes a point in our lives where we are faced by a situation that challenges this belief. More often than not, it is when someone close to us, such as a friend or partner who we trust in to know us well, criticises us. Not superficial things such as critiquing your fashion sense or correcting your grammar, but digging deep and shining a bright spotlight on a flaw in your person, pointing out how much you have hurt them because of what you said or how you acted.

Such an event typically shocks us to the core. Because of the invisible social contract, we rarely point out people’s character flaws out of politeness and to avoid hurting them. This means we do not always know our own deepest flaws. However, sometimes enough is enough and people will explode in a fit of rage to let you know that you have hurt them through your behaviour. You have not been the good guy. You have been a villain.

Our response to this type of situation defines who we really are. An appropriate response is to listen to this criticism, have a period of introspection to understand your flaw and make an effort to try and correct this and improve yourself. This is a display of maturity. But if you become defensive, reject all criticism and continue to act in a way that hurts those around you, then how could you call yourself a hero?

Remember that life is not a story revolving only around you. You are simply one of many characters, like other people, in the grand, unifying story we call life. Whether you develop your character to be a mature hero willing to accept and improve on their flaws, or an immature villain deluded that they are always good, is up to you.

Posted in History & Literature

The Devil’s Interval

(See below NB for a simple guide to musical notes and tones)

In music, depending on what notes you use in a single chord, you can produce beautiful harmonies as the tones complement each other. The opposite of this is called dissonance and it results in a harsh, unpleasant sound. A famous example of this is a tritone – a chord made from two notes exactly three whole tones apart. In a standard C major diatonic scale (which doesn’t involve any flats or sharps), there is only one tritone per octave: F and B. But on the chromatic scale (all keys), any number of tritones are possible.


Historically, the tritone has been the black sheep of music theory due to its dissonance crashing any harmony of a song and being difficult to sing. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the sea of beautiful harmonies that other tones make. The tritone was hated so much so that it was named diabolus in musica (“the devil in music”) or the devil’s interval since the Middle Ages, even being banned in the production of music prior to the Renaissance. To this day, the tritone is suggested as an “evil”, “scary” sound.

Over time, composers worked around the tritone until they realised that thanks to the connotations, the tritone was a useful way to express “evil” in a musical way. The cultural association was exploited freely in works such as Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata, where the tritone is used to depict Hell. The association is found in modern music as well to produce an unsettling feeling, such as the opening notes of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. The tritone is a common feature of heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath.

Even though these songs use the devil’s interval, they are not at all inferior to “normal” major scale music. They are still beautiful in their own, interesting way. Perhaps the notion of good and evil have no place in judging whether something is beautiful or not.

NB: Musical tones are noted using the alphabet: C, D, E, F, G, A and B, with a flat(b) to denote a semitone lower, or a sharp(#) to denote a semitone higher. This is easy to visualise on a piano keyboard, where a single tone interval involves a white key, a black key in between and another white key. The interval between a white key and a black key is a semitone.


(Image: Portion of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights depicting musicians’ hell)

Posted in Philosophy

Fundamental Benevolence

Mencius, a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, proposed a thesis that diametrically opposes Xunzi’s theory of fundamental malevolence. He claimed that human beings are fundamentally good. According to Mencius, people are inherently altruistic and courteous, wanting to help a fellow man. He stated that people are born with all the qualities needed to build virtue: compassion, humility, modesty and ethics. Through mental training and discipline, these traits respectively develop into: humanity (yin, 인, 仁), righteousness (eui, 의, 義), courtesy (ye, 예, 禮) and wisdom (ji, 지, 智). Mencius believed that as every man and woman are born with all the qualities needed to become a saint (seung yin, 성인, 聖人), anyone could become a “good person” through disciplining one’s mind. According to this theory, evil is only a product of bad environments and people inherently act benevolently when matured in a good environment with adequate teaching in etiquettes and social order. Thus, the act of harming others and murdering are because the person’s fundamental nature was corrupted by a harsh life and environment and because they lack virtue and discipline. A person who strives to perfect their morality is a gentleman (gun ja, 군자, 君子), a person who does not is a petty person (so yin, 소인, 小人). In Confucianism, gentlemen are highly respected while petty people are shunned.

Are human beings good-natured? The theory of fundamental malevolence states that human beings, like all other animals, are selfish beings who only care about their own needs and will willingly harm others to fulfil their greed. Contrary to this, the theory of fundamental benevolence (성선설, sung sun sul) teaches that people are altruistic animals who will support and help each other. We proved the validity of fundamental malevolence from an evolutionary perspective with the example of a hungry lion. An animal case scenario that supports the theory of fundamental benevolence is the ant.

By observing an ant colony, we can learn that altruism can assist in survival. An ant by itself is quite powerless, but when millions of ants come together to form a colony, they can build great cities to protect themselves, they can farm to feed everyone and they can easily overcome any foe of all sizes. Ants do not become jealous of another ant who has more food. Instead, when they are full, they will store excess food in a social stomach so that they can share it with another hungry ant they come across. Through cooperation, understanding and connection – that is, the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3 – ants are able to compete and survive in nature. In fact, ants thrive anywhere in the world and can easily adapt to almost any environmental change. When comparing the two ultimate species that dominated nature, human beings and ants, the commonality is that both build societies. To build a society, individuals must get along with each another, and the key to building relationships is goodwill.

Thus, we have proven that fundamental benevolence can also be supported by evidence from nature. If so, are human beings fundamentally good or evil? The more you study people, the less credibility there is for fundamental benevolence. Of course there are plenty of stories of altruistic people, but “generally” people are still selfish animals who prioritise their own gain. No matter how much you say “I care for other people and wish everyone in the world happiness”, the reality is that you will only really care and love for people within your monkeysphere, while not caring nearly as much for the starving child on the other side of the world.

This is not to say that “good” does not exist on this world. It is just that the fundamental nature of human beings is likely to be evil, as Xunzi posited. However, as we grow, we learn social order, etiquettes and morality and we try to suppress our basal instincts as much as possible. Although our efforts are usually successful, we still slip up every now and then. On the contrary, some people do not even make the effort to hide their true nature and we label these people as “evil”.

Whether we are fundamentally good or evil, the truth is that we have both the potential and ability to develop our own character and sense of morality. Whether you will be an ant, who builds great cities and strive for a society where everyone helps each other stay well-fed, or a lion, who stalks prey all alone to feed itself day-to-day; that is your choice.

Posted in Philosophy

Fundamental Malevolence

Human beings are fundamentally evil. This was a theory concerning human nature put forward by Xunzi – a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, along with Confucius and Mencius. Xunzi stated that human beings naturally seek out only their own interests and greed, envying and hating each other so much that they are bound to fight if left alone. He suggested that people needed to learn etiquette and culture themselves to correct this.

Xunzi’s philosophies are on a background of the chaotic setting of the Warring States Period. The Warring States Period was a period when China was split into many different countries, all warring with each other to gain dominance over each other’s lands. During these wars, Xunzi saw countless cases of people looting and killing each other, which led him to the conclusion that people are naturally selfish beings. He believed that human beings focus on their greed and self-preservation from the moment of birth. He also believed that leaving people without order would indubitably lead to social chaos. Thus, to effectively rule over the people, a leader must place limits such as laws, ethics, etiquette and culture.

From an evolutionary point of view, the theory of fundamental malevolence (성악설, sung ak sul) makes sense. Would a starving lion mourn the death of a baby zebra? Protecting one’s own interests is a great way to increase your chance of survival and propagating your genes.

The more you carefully observe people’s behaviour, the more credibility the theory seems to gain. Human beings are selfish beings who become jealous of others for having more than themselves, kill someone because they tried to take away their love and engage in fratricidal war because others do not share their beliefs. You as the reader may state that you cannot imagine hurting anyone, let alone taking a life. In that case, let us examine the following thought experiment.

One day, you are kidnapped. When you come about, you find that you are trapped in a pitch-black room, tied to a pole. The room appears to be completely empty and you cannot see or hear anything. Suddenly, you hear a voice coming from the other side of the room. The voice talks about how it will murder you in a violent, excruciating way, over and over. The voice continues to threaten you in a macabre way for three days. Just when you are near your breaking point from the overwhelming fear of imminent death, another voice appears. The voice says: “If you nominate someone you are close to that I can kill in your stead, I will let you go and not harm you in any way”. Would you have the courage to not give a name?

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Phones, golf clubs, scissors, forks and knives, the order of writing… Almost everything in this world is made for the convenience of right-handed people. Because of this, there is a hypothesis that left-handed people have a relatively shorter life expectancy compared to right-handed people.

Dr. Diane F. Halpern of California State University conducted a research comparing the life expectancy of right-handed people versus left-handed people. The results were astounding; the mean life expectancy of right-handed people was 75, while left-handed people only lived 66 years on average. Dr. Halpern posited that this was due to left-handed people becoming stressed living in a right-handed world, shortening their life expectancy. Of course, there were debates about whether the results were reliable or not and there was heavy opposition from the left-handed community. But if the left-handed people are enraged about being discriminated against by society, this would stress them out and actually shorten their life, so it might not be best not to debate about the issue.

Left-handedness has historically been associated with evil. The word right also means “good”, while left-handedness is formally known as sinistrality, which shares its etymological origin with sinister. The word for right is associated with good things throughout the world, while left is associated with bad things. In Korea, 오른 (oreun, right) has the same pronunciation as 옳은 (orlheun, true)“. The Chinese character for left (左) is also used to mean “improper”. In medieval Europe, left-handed people were thought to be associated with the devil or witches and were often executed. Left-handed people have been unjustly hated throughout time and space.

Posted in History & Literature


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who will guard the guards?

One of the most basic instincts of a human being is to doubt. We do not easily extend our trust to strangers. This is a natural response that is very beneficial for your survival from an evolutionary perspective (consider the overfriendly dodos that were wiped out by humans). As civilisation has progressed and the size of societies grew, people devised legal systems to lower their vigilance against each other. This was because instead of wasting time being suspicious of others, we devised specialist roles who would do that for us, allowing us to live in peace with each other. These specialists who stay alert and guard us enforce the law and stabilise our society. However, what would happen if the people that protect us from evil become evil? Is it not a scary thought to think that there is no one that watches the watchmen?

Emperor Qin Shi Huang who united China to form the Qin dynasty divided up his people, setting up a mutual guard system to enforce his rule. Informing became a civil obligation. To not report illegal activities was illegal in itself. The system of informing was as follows: five families form a group with each group being watched by an official warden who reports on them. This official warden is carefully observed by an unofficial surveillant. Five groups come together to form a tribe. If it is found that at any level something was not reported, the blame was turned on every member of the group. Thus, a circle of surveillance is formed.

This method was extremely effective and Emperor Qin’s rule of terror was unstoppable. Crime rates plummeted while productivity rose. The problem was that the people’s quality of life was pathetic. Emperor Qin’s system of watching was later adopted by Nazi Germany. The people under the rule of the Nazis had to live in fear of being reported by their neighbours. This method is also seen being used by Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Is this truly the best system to keep peace? Laws are put in place for the happiness and safety of the people, yet over-surveillance is an ironic concept that exists for those who hold power rather than the people.

How much should we trust another person? And who will watch the watchmen?

Posted in Philosophy

Two Wolves

An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them: 

“A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf is evil – he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority and ego. 
The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. 
This same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person too.”

They thought about what the elder had said, and then one child asked his grandfather: 
“Which wolf will win, Grandfather?”

The elder simply replied:
“The one you feed.”