The Power of Emotions

Emotions are something which differentiates humans from other organisms. It is a necessary part of human behavior and also helps us to interact with others’ needs in mind rather than our own, which is the basis of society. But, sometimes it gets the better of us and overpowers rationality. We stop thinking, and go with the flow of emotions. Tim Harford, one of my favourite economists, recalls an interesting story from the past in his book ‘How to Make the World Add Up’, to explain it. So the story goes something like this:

Abraham Bredius was a leading scholar on Dutch painters during the late 19th and early 20th century. He did extensive research on various Dutch painters, particularly 17th century master Johannes Vermeer. No one knew Vermeer better than him. One day, a lawyer named Gerard Boon came to meet Bredius to ask his opinions on newly rediscovered Vermeer painting Christ at Emmaus. ‘We have here – I am inclined to say – the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft,’ wrote Bredius in a magazine article shortly after. The painting was finally sold at the price equivalent to £10 million today. On May 1945, when the war in Europe ended, two officers from the Allied Art Commission went to the house of a painter called Han Van Meegeren in Amsterdam with the accusation that he had sold Vermeer’s another masterpiece to the right man of Hitler, Hermann Göring. Meegeren was arrested and he confessed that he had done a deal with Göring. The catch was, he had painted it. And not only that, he had also painted Christ at Emmaus and sold it in the name of Vermeer. After the astonishing confession, the question arises, how could a man like Bredius easily get fooled? Bredius strongly believed that Vermeer travelled to Italy, and was inspired by the religious works of Italian master Caravaggio. This was his pet theory but, there was no proof of it. Meegeren knew it and painted just that, with some Vermeer- like touches from his previous paintings. The painting confirmed Bredius’ bias. Meegeren, the Nazi supporter was soon arrested after German occupation ended. He had been partying hard when Amsterdam was starving in the war. But, this time too he made what was just needed. He painted an inspirational story of Dutch defeating the Nazis, just to gain popularity among the people who were tired fighting them. This turned the traitor into a patriot who had also fooled the right man of Hitler. All the accusations against him were dropped when he said that he had sold the forgeries just to unmask the experts as fools. Everyone believed him. He manipulated the emotions of Dutch people, just like he did with Bredius before the war. The fact is, a book written by him was also found in Hitler’s library, with ‘To my beloved Fuhrer (meaning: leader, used for Hitler)’ written on it. But, it was too late to make an impact. People just didn’t want to know. Meegeren just waved the truth away. And this way, the greatest fraud of that time took place, thanks to the emotions.

Well, I think Indian politics is also facing similar situation from the past few years. We have stopped looking at concrete data and started believing our emotions too much. Or even if we look at statistics, we try to confirm our biases (like India’s GDP is now bigger than France and 4th largest in the world. This is not the correct way to measure countries because France’s population is 5% of India’s, so that means an average French person is generating 20 times more revenue than an average Indian if our GDP is taken as equal, therefore per capita GDP is what matters). We think that car sales are down because Millennials are using Uber and Ola (or at least our Finance Minister believes so). We have made our own definitions of patriots and anti nationals. Sufferings of Pakistan will give us enough pleasure to forget if one has a job or not. Even after Demonetisation, which I call a crime against humanity and because of which more than 100 people died, Narendra Modi has remained to be a populist owing to the fact that he knows how to manipulate people’s emotions. But, he has been a total disaster on the economic front. This is not at all to say that if Congress were in power the situation would have been a lot different. Actually we are still dealing with the mistakes that the late Pranab Mukherjee made as the Finance Minister. But, this is for all of us to keep our emotions in control while analyzing something, asking questions at every stage, and thinking for few seconds before reaching to the conclusion. It is a tough job to be emotionless and even experts like Abraham Bredius sometimes can’t do so. However, if we keep this thing in mind, we are less prone to commit mistakes. And if we are successful in doing that, then sab changa si (all is well).

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