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October 28, 2003

Shifting our perceptions about the people
Ali Zuashkiani  [info|posts]

Figure1.JPG Most of us may have known the fact that Iranian people are unpredictable. What I will talk about here is not unpredictability in general but unpredictability in favoring political leaders. Although everyone may be fully familiar with this issue in Iran but I want to clarify it with more examples. We all remember days in which Khomeini was being praised extravagantly, days when no one could dare to criticize either him or anyone (anything) related to the Islamic regime. Also those days that Khamenei was elected twice as an elected President of Iran. The same thing repeated several years later, for the new president, Rafsanjani. It seems that this scenario is being replicated again for Khatami. The aim of these few lines is not to blame anyone or any idea but to try to explain only a possible reason for this phenomenon.

I want to use a statistical realm called Bayesian statistic to shed light on some hidden angles of this behavior. Bayesian statistics is all about updating old beliefs when new facts are observed. It assumes that for each variable (unknown or what is not completely defined) some prior belief can be assigned (Prior Knowledge) which then can be updated to a new belief (Posterior Knowledge) after observing some facts related to the unknown variable. The unknown variable in this case can be the personality: e.g. evil-ness or angel-ness of a political leader. Assume that everyone in our mind has a place on the axis of evil-angel. The axis has two extremes: complete evil and complete angel, as shown in the figure below.


We are not usually sure about the value of things, so we can express our uncertainty as a distribution function (a little knowledge of statistic is needed here). The surer we are about a value, the tighter its distribution function that means we do not allow the value change freely in its domain.

Now consider we have a prior knowledge about a leaderís personality which is placed in our evil-angel axis in our mind as bellow:


In its best case, this prior knowledge usually comes from the leader's history, but in the societies that people stereotype other people, it can have other origins such as whether the leader is "Mullah" or "Sayyed" or whether s/he smiles, s/he is beautiful, has a calm and kind face, or other stories/rumors. When the leader comes to power, people update their knowledge about her/him. Let's assume that the leader does a number of good and bad things during her/his time in power, as shown by the points on the evil-angel axis in the figure below. These points represent degrees of evil-ness and angel-ness, which can be related to their performer (the leader).


These new pieces of data if used fully to update the prior knowledge about the leader would result in the new curve plotted next to prior knowledge curve. However, what happens in reality is that people usually stick to their prior belief and try to keep it unchanged. The only way to do that and maintain consistency in their mind is to down the weight of the points that do not conform to our prior knowledge and at the same time give more weight to the points that support their prior beliefs. Blaming other people for what the leader has done or assuming that the leader has acted under duress are but a few examples of sticking to prior belief. These modifications will result in a new graph which is depicted here:


This process happens every time a new fact is observed, however, the more facts contrary to the prior belief are observed, the more difficult it is to modify the weights and to keep the same prior beliefs. At one point this process will get reversed, which means that the level of inconsistency between the leaderís functions and our prior belief is raised to a point which can not be remedied by the down-weighting process anymore. At this point people are mentally exhausted because they haven't been successful in justifying the leader's actions. Tired of this justification process they finally eliminate their prior knowledge.

In this situation what would be the new belief about the personality of the leader? Let's look at the observed facts so far on the evil-angel axis (see figure below). You may see some shifting in the leader actions from the right to the left side of the axis which means a drift to the evil side. This can be because the people have not given appropriate feedback to the leader and the leader gradually has deteriorated.


The above curve represents the true representation of the observed behaviors, without any perception and processing bias. However dealing with a personality in the gray zone needs much more effort. According to a theory, the degree of information transmission is a function of one over uncertainty. Therefore the more uncertain we are about a system, the more difficult it is to work with that system. A personality in the gray zone as is the case in the above graph cannot be modeled as easily as a personality in the black or white zone. Keeping in mind that the people are already tired and may feel belittled because of justifying their leader's actions for many years and being betrayed in return, one can predict that people would not spend any more energy for saving their leader face. After eliminating previous belief about the leader the new belief will be made as shown below, using some modifications in the weight of each deed to outweigh the negative sides.


In its new form, the curve is much easier for interpretations and dealing with uncertainty. Every thing is again predictable and easy to judge. No need to bother each other's brains by trying to find out the facts behind each face or by attempting to find the best way to give feedback to the leaders. This is the end for the current leader, but who is going to be the next?

[P.S.] The word "leader" can be replaced with some other things such as friend, an idea, a religion etc.

Ordak D. Coward at October 28, 2003 04:38 PM [permalink]:

Intereseting, however I believe a few things can be added to Ali's model to explain the sudden shift from one end of spectrum to the other end.

One is the number of levels the spectrum is quantized into. There should not be many such levels, say five is a reasonable number, two at each side spectrum and one in the middle.
Something like this:

This way it is easier to model the people's inability of provding a more accurate valuation of 'leader'. I beleive this distribution of the quantized levels is in some part due to our Iranian culture and its religions. Even if a person is not religious the value system that is formed in his/er mind is heavily affected by concepts like duality (from Zoroastrianism) and Shia's laws dividing things into five categories(vaajeb, mostahab, mobaah, makrooh and haraam). And, this is in addition to the inherent natural inability of the brain to use a continuous spectrum of values.

The second addition to Ali's model, is the notion of a critical level which Ali already suggested in his article. That is, as the perceived value of the 'leader' differs from the preexisting value, we tend to consider some of the value samples as outliers, however after a while, by reaching a certain critical level, we consider the outliers as part of the real data samples, and this causes a sudden shift of the perceived value of the leader. -- So far, I am repeating Ali -- However, with the shift of the perceived value, there is a tendency to give more weight to the samples that reinforce this shift of perceived value. This reinforcement usually causes another sudden shift to the other end of spectrum.

M.S at October 28, 2003 05:08 PM [permalink]:

A random observation :)
Your axis of evil seems to be biased in favor of right wing. Angels are in the right end of the axis.

AliS in Wonderland at October 29, 2003 06:55 PM [permalink]:

Well Ali if you want to develop your model further consider this point. As you said in your posting:
"but in the societies that people stereotype other people....."
Now consider the effect of each individual on the stereotype they represent. To say it simpler how many incorrect examples of stereotype "X" are needed to shift peoples judgement of that stereotype. I mean do you think the stereotypes go through a similar shift from angel to evil and vice versa ? For example how many bad examples of stereotype "X" leaders are needed to ruin that stereotype for leadership?

Zahra at October 29, 2003 07:40 PM [permalink]:

This seems to be a phase transition model. Lets suppose that the number of bad things that a leader do is the order parameter, then there is ritical number of bad things to do.

Then a smart leader should resign before getting to this critical point!!! (something that Khatami could probably do before talking about Shirin Ebadiís Nobel prize :)

Ali at October 29, 2003 10:13 PM [permalink]:

Dear Ali, I agree with you. The same is true for stereotypes as well. People who are strong representative of their stereotype will have much more effect than those which are weak representatives. For example if the people of Iran believe some day that Khomeini was leading country poorly, this would have more effect than if the same happens to the Khamenei. Therefore there is a connection between each stereotype and those who represent that stereotype. Obviously, the total number of bad examples which cause the people to change their mind about a stereotype will depend on the prior belief of the people about that stereotype.

Ali at October 29, 2003 10:25 PM [permalink]:

Dear Zahra, you are right. Actually, my motivation of posting this article was the speech of Khatami about Shirin Ebadi. I was witnessing the changes in my friends mindís about Khatami following his speech. In this case what Khatami did was considered as a heavy action which made a very fast transition in minds of his friends. I do not judge Khatamiís action but such a fast transition should be taken into consideration and we need to ask ourselves ďwhy?Ē. I am not talking about the ordinary people, I saw many highly educated persons who changed their mind within few hours about the person which they had known for at least 6 years, the person who was being praised by many of them for many years.

AliS in Wonderland at October 29, 2003 11:20 PM [permalink]:

Well I don't think this is the place to discuss this but since Ali's answer to Zahra is about something which is important for me I'd like to comment on that. I do not believe what Khatami said about Shirin Ebadi was wrong. Of course it would decrease his popularity but when you think about it that was the only rational action he could do. As an intellectual he appreciated this event but as the president of Iran he can not comment so freely which both points are quite obvious from his speech.
Have a look at the following two links I do not completely agree with them but at least they analyze this issue more rationally and do not jump into conclusions
2- This one is rather funny but there is truth in what Nabavi says: go to SOKHAN ROOZ 4SHANBEH 23 MEHR