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Why Being Irrational Is Important

Over the last few years both academia and the public have experienced a wave of literature on human irrationality. There’s Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Richard Thaler’s Nudge and Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness, three books that examine the consequences of choosing non-optimally. Our irrationalities negatively affect us as consumers (Ariely), as policy makers (Thaler), and as individuals who seek to increase subjective happiness and well-being (Gilbert). There is no doubt that we are irrational – the number of times we choose non-optimally greatly outweighs the number of times we choose optimally – but advocating for more rational behavior ignores an attitude essential to learning: a willingness to be wrong.

One of my favorite studies that illustrates how important this is comes from Columbia psychologist Carol Dweck. A few years back Dweck and her team studied how praise affects student performance. Her team ran experiments on 400 fifth-graders. First, they pulled the students out of their classrooms for a nonverbal IQ test; it was fairly easy and most kids did fine. The important part came after the test. After the kids received their scores they were told one of two things: “You must be smart,” or, “You must have worked really hard.” Next, the students were asked to choose between two tests, one that was more difficult than the first and one that was as easy as the first. They found that those praised for being smart tended to opt for the easy test while those praised for their hard work almost always opted for the more difficult test.

Here’s the problem. When we think about Mozart, Einstein, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (or any other hugely successful person) we usually think about how smart they are, not how hard they worked. This creates the illusion that said individuals got to the top because they had something other people didn’t – some sort of genius. The more accurate picture is that their perseverance, work ethic and pure passion for what they did separated them from the rest of us. Unfortunately, as per Dweck’s study, kids praised for being “smart” don’t push themselves to achieve as much as they could because they believe intelligence alone breeds success. This belief causes them to fear failure, which moreover prohibits them from accomplishing and learning more.

Dweck’s research is supported by work that also points to the importance of failure and making mistakes. Consider, for example, a recent study done by Nate Kornell and his colleagues. Here’s what they did.

Students were required to learn pairs of “weak associates,” words that are loosely related such as star-night or factory-plant…. In the pretest condition, students were given the first word of the pair (star– ???) and told to try to generate the second member that they would have to later remember…. Of course, almost by definition, they nearly always failed to generate the correct answer…. At that point they were given the target pair (star–night) for 5 seconds. In the control condition, students were given the pair to study for 13 seconds, so in both conditions there were a total of 13 seconds of study time for the pair. The team found that students remembered the pairs much better when they first tried to retrieve the answer before it was shown to them…. studying a pair for 13 seconds produces worse recall than studying the pair for 5 seconds, if students in the latter condition spent the previous 8 seconds trying to retrieve or guess the answer. But the effect averaged about 10 percent better recall, and occurred both immediately after study and after a delay averaging 38 hours.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the best way to learn is to repeatedly practice what is known so the correct answer gets burned into the brain (this is why I, maybe you too, did multiplication tables over and over again and handwriting exercises where I wrote A and a, B and b, and C and c millions of times). But Kornell clearly shows that this line of thought, where mistakes are bad and correctness is good, is not efficient.

They followed up the experiment. In the second one, students were asked to read an essay on vision and prepare for a test on it. There were two conditions, the “pretest” and “control”. Those in the “pretest” were asked questions about the test before they read it and told to guess the answers. For example, “What is total color blindness caused by brain damage called?” Those in the “control” were given more time to study and certain phrases in the test were italicized to compensate for the advantage the “pretest” students had. They found that, “in all the experiments [there was] an advantage in having students first guess the answers.” Kornell and his colleagues concluded the following:

By challenging ourselves to retrieve or generate answers we can improve our recall. Keep that in mind next time you turn to Google for an answer, and give yourself a little more time to come up with the answer on your own.

Students might consider taking the questions in the back of the textbook chapter and try to answer them before reading the chapter. (If there are no questions, convert the section headings to questions. If the heading is Pavlovian Conditioning, ask yourself What is Pavlovian conditioning?). Then read the chapter and answer the questions while reading it. When the chapter is finished, go back to the questions and try answering them again. For any you miss, restudy that section of the chapter. Then wait a few days and try to answer the questions again (restudying when you need to). Keep this practice up on all the chapters you read before the exam and you will have learned the material in a durable manner and be able to retrieve it long after you have left the course.

Mistakes are an essential component to learning. Learning about cognitive biases and irrational tendencies is vital, but appreciating failure and having a willingness to be wrong – to be irrational – is also essential.


Richland LE, Kornell N, & Kao LS (2009). The pretesting effect: do unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance learning? Journal of experimental psychology. Applied, 15 (3), 243-57 PMID: 19751074

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anonymous #

    “The more accurate picture is that their perseverance, work ethic and pure passion for what they did separated them from the rest of us.”

    Please forgive this subtle poke, but you’ve committed one of my pet peeves – referencing work ethic to describe ‘greatness’. This disturbing cultural trend is just so wrong-headed. Do you in your wildest dreams believe Bill Gates has a greater work ethic than, say, the guy who works in at framing houses, or a landscaper, or an industrial glove designer? I’d say not. Work ethic is so extremely personal that its reward is almost never monetary, except in the rare case of the self-indulgent, the ultimately insecure, and the permanently immature.

    September 21, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I think you’re right, which is why I didn’t say Bill Gates is successful only because of his work ethic. Again, the more accurate picture is that perseverance, passion, and I should’ve added, circumstance and luck, contributed. Gladwell’s Outliers highlights this point, as well as a chapter in Levitt and Dubner’s Superfreakonomics.

      I don’t know if Gates has a greater work ethic than others, but it was certainly a necessary component for his accomplishments.

      September 21, 2011
    • Kuze #

      A great example is Steve Jobs. One of the great business minds of our time was fired from his own company!

      Re:Anonymous

      Are you saying work ethic is some kind of myth? Evidence?

      September 23, 2011
  2. “Appreciating failure and having a willingness to be wrong” are are not “irrational.” From where did you get this notion? They are essential to rationality; fundamental qualities of good science–hardly irrational.

    September 25, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I’ve thought about your comment for a few days – it’s a good one that I pondered before I posted. Let’s see. I think you are right to say that appreciate failure and having a willingness to be wrong are not irrational. But I believe you are missing the general point, and that is that being wrong is an important part of learning.

      Here’s an example. I think most would say that it would be irrational to not study for a test. And indeed it would be. But not studying for a test, and then bombing it, can be really helpful in the long run. In fact, what I want to say is that everyone needs to bomb a test at some point in their lives. Most importantly, it is a lesson in how to bounce back.

      September 30, 2011
  3. On being wrong: Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong, is a must read. And your remark on “hard work” as being more important than “talent” briongs back “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.

    September 30, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Yes – both good books. I’m was particularly impressed with Schulz’.

      September 30, 2011

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