An open letter to Virat Kohli

Dear Virat,

My 9 year old son and I are huge fans of yours. I am writing this open letter to you  as a father and a fan. I thought when Sachin retires, I would stop following cricket altogether, but thanks to MS and you- the following continues.

You have been an exceptional player and are currently enjoying the form of your life. But by deciding to not endorse Pepsi and a fairness cream, in my opinion, you have become an exceptional person as well. Millions of people look up to you and you have lived up to them by becoming a more responsible endorser. Thanks Virat!

If you will indulge me a bit, I can try and explain why your recent actions are so important.

Super smart people dont get the audience that super smart billionaires do. Its a fact of life. So these two super smart people, built this company and got super rich and now they have the audience. Anyway, one of them has been saying this for a long time now- that we humans aren’t as perfect or rational as we think we are. As part of evolution, we humans received a piece of algorithm from our ancestors millions of years ago. The algorithm essentially helped the ancestors to do three things – 1> avoid predators, 2> find food and 3> find mates. By passing on this algorithm, nature ensured that the human specie survived.

Now, mother nature, put a lot of short cuts (mental biases) into the algorithm. She did this, so that we can sense the stimuli and very quickly decide what to do. It has all these kinds of short cuts like a word association test:

See predator: run.

See food: grab and eat. (In fact we overeat when hungry, because that is also a part of our algorithm- who knows when we will eat next.)

See potential mate: do the mating dance.

She put these short cuts, because you couldn’t take too long to decide what to do. If you waited too long, you would find yourself in the belly of a lion or didn’t find mates to pass on your genes. (Yes, yes- god and evolution theory both can coexist. When you believe one, temporarily suspend belief in the other. We can talk about it the next time.)

A lot has changed in these million years, but the piece of algorithm in our minds hasn’t evolved much. Even though, we don’t live in the jungles of Africa anymore, our biases still remain. Yes- hate to admit it to you, our algorithms are a bit defective. I didn’t know it too, but the guys at Pepsi, Coke and others knew this all along and have been exploiting it.  While there are many such biases, I am listing just 3 of them down (because you have important matches coming and need to rest) and how the big companies are using our biases to their advantage:

A bias for what we like

When you play those big match winning innings, we love you! The smart guys at Pepsi figured it long ago, that by putting a Pepsi in your hand, some of that love would also get transferred to Pepsi. (In the jungle analogy, that would be seeing a sudden flight of birds and associating it to danger.) How clever! And by constantly repeating this message twenty times an hour, these associations only become stronger. We don’t know what the real Virat Kohli drinks, but we do know he drinks Pepsi on TV. And if Pepsi is good enough for Virat, it is good enough for me. It sounds ridiculous saying that out loud, but notice how our minds just takes the short cut to an answer.

A bias for what is easily available

Lets say its a hot day and I am in the streets of Delhi. I am extremely hungry and thirsty.  And a hungry and thirsty man in 2017 is just his counterparts in 1017, 0017, -2017,… . He will grab the option that is easy; his limited mental resources is even more constrained by the hunger. And in the Delhi of 2017, what do you think is easier for me to find? Coke, Pepsi, Coconut water, Nimbu Paani or plain water?

Big budgets for marketing and distribution have put Coke and Pepsi literally, within arms’ reach of desire.  And availability changes behavior. And pretty soon, what was okay to have once, becomes okay to have it again.

A bias for what everyone else is doing 

When was the last time, we served our guests home made Nimbu Paani or tender coconut? Everybody and everybody they know drinks Coke and/or Pepsi and serve Coke and/or Pepsi to their guests. Heck, even Deepika Padukone gatecrashes into a neighbor’s house just to drink Coke. What chance in hell do I have, if I serve coconut paani? You see, standing up for what you believe in a crowd is extremely hard. Only in movies, does the hero stand up for justice. But in real life, the hero is as brave as the average man.

We humans also have a second System- lets call it System 2. System 2 is more rational, and can do complicated stuff like 23 X 373. Its what we use when we want to solve complicated problems. But System 2 is slower and also more energy intensive. When you want to decide to take a quick single against say Maxwell, its your System 1 (the one that uses short cuts) which makes a quick decision to go for it or not. But when you are selecting your playing 11, you are more likely to use System 2 because it needs to factor in a lot of things like players’ form, weather conditions, opposition etc. System 2 is energy intensive and slow and Mother Nature put in us an inherent bias for System 1 over System 2.

You see Virat, it is no coincidence that Pepsi approached you to endorse their products. You are after all the current alpha male. But by not endorsing Pepsi, you have possibly saved a few lives. And in case, you are feeling too bad about the money, that is normal too. We humans have a bias to avoid losses. But I have this to tell you: a couple of researchers found that once basic human needs are met, more money does not lead to more happiness. So I think, in time, you will come to see that a little less money will not affect you at all.

With gratitude, admiration and best wishes,

Vikas Kasturi

PS: Please try and convince MS to switch over to your/our thinking.

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