Mental models (draft)

The mind is interesting, isn’t it? We can never know what the other person is thinking unless we communicate in love and truth. Even if we know a person well, we can only hazard guesses at his or her motivations.

An essential question is “how do we think?” and the further question is “can we know more about this discipline to help us encounter beliefs and motivations?”

Developing Pluralism

Before we explore that, I refer to the earlier post “A world of beliefs“.

“I like to annoy people who think that a religion can contain the whole truth. No religion, it seems to me, contains the whole truth. I think it’s mad to think that there is nothing to learn from other traditions and civilizations.”

– Ninian Smart, The Future of Religion: An Interview with Ninian Smart

There is no a priori reason to think that your worldview is more valuable than another. Every person is equal in dignity, voice, and so on. Even joining an organized religion is personal. Unfortunately, many resort to claiming that their worldview/religion is more worthy.

Why does this happen?


And then experience – Religion expresses many dimensions of human experience. Such an approach is “polymethodic,” multiperspectival, comparative, and cross-cultural. The phenomenologist of religion needs to take seriously the contextual nature of diverse religious phenomena; to ask questions, engage in critical dialogue, and maintain an open-ended investigation of religion; and to recognise that religions express complex, multidimensional, interconnected world views. This focus on religions in terms of world view analysis lead to the contemporary interest in the globalisation of religion and global pluralism.’ Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education OR Lai Ah Eng Other Fields

  1. Futures studies
  2. Intelligence studies

Dialogue settings

I have been using a pseudonym online to avert unwarranted attention. A pseudonym strikes a balance between anonymity (user #0694) and accountability (my real name) and is a widely accepted norm that builds on the concept of the user.

Many online sites like Amazon use a reputation management system which connotes expertise (prolific commenters) as trustworthiness. Yet the fact that prolific Yelp (site screenshot below) reviewers are invited to parties offers some sign that expertise can be turned into arbitrary forms and is certainly not exclusive towards cultivating trust.


Technology has not solved the basic online trust problem then:

  1. Who is the person behind the user?
  2. What are the motivations of this person? Even if he or she claims one or a particular set, how do we know its veracity when we do not know the person?

The following is a simplified representation of the most common dialogue settings.

Face value known Motivations known Person known
Online encounters
Offline encounters
Offline relationships

✔ = Ideal case | ✖ = Unrealistic

Behavioral economics

A recent behavioral economics conference in Singapore catalyzed my thoughts on the relationship between trust and behavioral economics and its application for dialogue.

What is behavioral economics?


“Drawing on aspects of both psychology and economics, the operating assumption of behavioral economics is that cognitive biases often prevent people from making rational decisions, despite their best efforts. Behavioral economics eschews the broad tenets of standard economics, long taught as guiding principles in business schools, and examines the real decisions people make.”

– Harvard Business Review, The End of Rational Economics

Behavioral Game Theory

As opposed to traditional game theoryfactors like beliefs and norms can play a role in behavioral games and affect how one would rationally make decisions.

What is a game?

As Wikipedia puts it: “A game must specify the following elements: the players of the game, the information and actions available to each player at each decision point, and the payoffs for each outcome.”

The interpersonal encounter is a good example. Imagine two persons have quarreled, the quarrel has not been resolved in peace, and both have walked away. These two persons are the players of the game. They know what has gone on (information), there are options on what to do next (actions), and there is value attached to the outcome of making each choice (payoffs).

What is different for behavioral games?

In our interpersonal encounters, we tend to scope the decision making of the other person before we make our choices. We hold out the hope or belief that the other person will very likely not maximize the force of his or her position after some time. For example, the transgressor might hope that the other person will not see the fault as strongly as he or she has after a week has passed. (Realistically, In a quarrel, it is often the case that both are transgressors and victims.)

The victim might hope that the transgressor has reflected and concluded that he or she has said extreme and hurtful words. And the former hopes that he or she might go on to think that more has to be considered. There is an interpersonal relationship on the line, and people should transcend self-preservation in human relationships. This line of thought can thus trigger social cooperation.


If both persons truly desire to be respectful and considerate of each other’s feelings, a spirit of forgiveness will prevail, they will reconcile, and their bond will be stronger than before (words from a Christian brother). If one of them does not truly desire to be respectful and considerate though, is this still a behavioral game?

Yes, simply because there are other forms of social cooperation. Let’s say that the transgressor has not reflected in that manner. But he or she has reflected that there must be rapprochement to preserve his or her social legitimacy, such as among a group of friends. So he or she moves to patch up. Even the victim might think that it is more practical to be gracious and hence “forgive”.

These can be presented through a matrix:

Choices Neither A or B considers an ulterior motive by the other Only A does not consider an ulterior motive by B Only B does not consider an ulterior motive by A Both A and B consider an ulterior motive by the other
Neither A or B has an ulterior motive Payoff 1 Payoff 2 Payoff 3 Payoff 4
A has an ulterior motive Payoff 5 Payoff 6 Payoff 7 Payoff 8
B has an ulterior motive Payoff 9 Payoff 10 Payoff 11 Payoff 12
Both A and B have ulterior motives Payoff 13 Payoff 14 Payoff 15 Payoff 16

Realistically, interpersonal encounters typically represent some form of Payoff 16. It is therefore important to study the notions of trust, reciprocity, and altruism to consider how they fit into our encounters. This might then help us understand how we dialogue.

A world of beliefs

During my university days, one of my favorite reads was Ninian Smart’s first book on worldviews. As Wikipedia puts it: “His concept of religions as worldviews, and his value-free approach to religious studies – that is, refraining from elevating a single understanding of ‘truth’ as some sort of evaluative criterion of religious authenticity – opened up for him the study of non-religious ideologies or worldviews.”

What this means is that there is no a priori reason to think that your worldview is more valuable than another.

I have also joined the Catholic Church recently and studied theology last year. In the Vatican II declaration Nostra aetate, conscious of its past tone of condemnation, the Church is intentional about highlighting what unifies, not what divides.

Today, the world has become so pluralistic as to embrace same-sex marriage in the US. For Christians at least, this is a time of reflection. On one hand, Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” On the other hand, we are living in a postmodern world of ‘truths’.

Where do we stand? How do we speak? (and more importantly, how do we listen? ) I would like to quote from a book I have studied at a religious retreat in May:

As we work to rebuild trust or to build it for the first time, we must pray and work to avoid the natural reactions to the distrust directed at us. We need to avoid such things as defensiveness, seeing ourselves as a “victim,” and avoiding or judging those who don’t trust us.

– Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus

Through this reminder, we recall basic but oft-neglected qualities like trust and respect in our encounters with others. Too often, we believe that this should only apply for our loved ones and not for strangers. But are we cognizant of the need for trust and respect in all human interactions?

Because of my idealist temperament, I have a deep affinity with the notion of trust and often wonder about its place in a world of ‘truths’. Meanwhile, a website like is doing a good job at educating netizens about respect.

On this blog, I hope to record some reflections on love, dialogue, and understanding on matters of ethics and religion. Once again, I hope that you will enjoy reading my posts.