Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cognitive opportunity costs and conflict: the case of Sri Lanka

However one views the recent history of Sri Lanka it seems like a Shakespearian tragedy on the scale of millions. The Tamil minority became so furious with its treatment by the Sinhalese majority that it turned to suicide bombing in the late 1980s, soon pioneering female suicide bombers. It then inflicted atrocity upon atrocity, including bringing down an Air Lanka flight, and later, destroying half of the Air Lanka fleet, while on the ground.

The Sinalese government and the majority of its population, despite claiming sincerity in finding a peaceful solution, were completely unable to do this. Eventually, with the help of the Chinese government, and a blind eye from most in the West, the Sri Lankan military was able to kill the Tamil Tiger leadership and for several months torture, terrify and terrorise enough Tamils for the war to temporarily end. Some people are now concerned that Sri Lanka has become a totalitarian state, but at least for the moment the suicide bombings have stopped. Though, clearly, Tamil resentment continues, more trouble appears certain, though perhaps not for a decade or more.

There are many reasons for poverty, violence and decisions which lead away from peaceful solutions. One of these is a lack of sufficient collective intelligence and foresight. Before its civil war began, Sri Lankan indicators of development were excellent for a Third World country, with a high life expectancy and high rates of literacy. Poor nutrition, a potent cause of cognitive impairment, was nowhere near as bad in Sri Lanka then as in India now. The social and health indicators among the Tamils probably weren't that much lower than the Sinhalese. Many Tamils have a culture which values learning, but the leadership of the Tamil Tigers were said to be opposed to Tamil intellectuals.

In 1956 the Sri Lankan government introduced a law declaring Sinhala as the official language. However, this provoked outrage among Tamils, in 1978 the law was rescinded. Many countries have multiple official languages, including Canada, India and Belgium. In Sri Lanka, people in government services in recent years were forced to learn both languages. The languages are not that similar; Sinhala is Indo-European, related to Sanskrit, and was probably brought to Sri Lanka over 2,000 years ago (by invaders who took power from the former inhabitants.) Tamil is a Dravidian language, with some Sanskrit influence.

Chances for each language group to practice the other tongue were limited, such when officials or health staff encountered mono-lingual speakers in their work. But chances for social exchanges in the language of the other would also seem restricted and awkward; although there are many Tamils and Sinhalese who formed friendships, where a third language — English — could provide a more neutral means of communication.

The learning of two languages (and often three, including English) by thousands of people requires a substantial national cognitive investment. It is possible, but at what cost? A recent paper in Science hypothesizes that poverty induces thoughts which lead to harmful actions, leading to deeper traps in poverty (abstract below). There are numerous complex causes for the intractable conflict in Sri Lanka (including the Tamil caste system and extremist monks); these factors extend well beyond Sinhalese language policies. However, it must be asked: did the collective mental effort of learning Tamil and Sinhalese do more harm than good?

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E. & Zhao, J. 2013. Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. Science, 341, 976-980

"The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy."