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The Irrationality Of Irrationality

Reason has fallen on hard times. After decades of research psychologists have spoken: we humans are led by our emotions, we rarely (if ever) decide optimally and we would be better off if we just went with our guts. Our moral deliberations and intuitions are mere post-hoc rationalizations; classical economic models are a joke; Hume was right, we are the slaves of our passions. We should give up and just let the emotional horse do all the work.

Maybe. But sometimes it seems like the other way around. For every book that explores the power of the unconscious another book explains how predictably irrational we are when we think without thinking; our intuitions deceive us and we are fooled by randomness but sometimes it is better to trust our instincts. Indeed, if a Martian briefly compared subtitles of the most popular psychology books in the last decade he would be confused quickly. Reading the introductions wouldn’t help him either; keeping track of the number of straw men would be difficult for our celestial friend. So, he might ask, over the course of history have humans always thought that intelligence was deliberate or automatic?

When it comes to thinking things through or going with your gut there is a straightforward answer: It depends on the situation and the person. I would also add a few caveats. Expert intuition cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment, as Kahneman argues in his latest book, and it seems like everyone is equally irrational when it comes to economic decisions. Metacognition, in addition, is a good idea but seems impossible to consistently execute.

However, unlike our Martian friend who tries hard to understand what our books say about our brains, the reason-intuition debate is largely irrelevant for us Earthlings. Yes, many have a sincere interest in understanding the brain better. But while the lay reader might improve his decision-making a tad and be able explain the difference between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala the real reason millions have read these books is that they are very good.

The Gladwells, Haidts and Kahnemans of the world know how to captivate and entertain the reader because like any great author they pray on our propensity to be seduced by narratives. By using agents or systems to explain certain cognitive capacities the brain is much easier to understand. However, positioning the latest psychology or neuroscience findings in terms of a story with characters tends to influence a naïve understanding of the so-called most complex entity in the known universe. The authors know this of course. Kahneman repeatedly makes it clear that “system 1” and “system 2” are literary devices not real parts in the brain. But I can’t help but wonder, as Tyler Cowen did, if deploying these devices makes the books themselves part of our cognitive biases.

The brain is also easily persuaded by small amounts of information. If one could sum up judgment and decision-making research it would go something like this: we only require a tiny piece of information to confidently form a conclusion and take on a new worldview. Kahneman’s acronym WYSIATI – what you see is all there is – captures this well. This is precisely what happens the moment readers finish the latest book on intuition or irrationality; they just remember the sound bite and only understand brains through it. Whereas the hypothetical Martian remains confused, the rest of us humans happily walk out of our local Barnes and Noble, or even worse, finish watching the latest TED with the delusion feeling that now, we “got it.”

Many times, to be sure, this process is a great thing. Reading and watching highbrow lectures is hugely beneficial intellectually speaking. But let’s not forget that exposure to X is not knowledge of X. The brain is messy; let’s embrace that view, not a subtitle.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. ST #

    Whatever your viewpoint on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, this is basically what the T/F preference is about. T’s favor at least the attempt to use logic and reason to make decisions and F’s favor “going with the gut.” So clearly, as you say, it depends a lot on the person. And the answer to the martian is that different people do both to varying degrees.

    February 22, 2012
  2. But while the lay reader might improve his decision-making a tad and be able [to] explain the difference…

    February 26, 2012

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