Human Irrationality is a Fact, not a Fad

Once upon a time, we were taught that people are basically rational—at least when they have to be, at the stock market, the voting booth, the courtroom, the hospital, the school, the employment office and other important places. Economists, in particular, depended on their version (rationality=everyone is out for himself all the time) but the reliable rule of reason was important for politics, law, medicine and other fields as well. Then some economists changed their minds and put the word behavioral in front of their discipline. They reported abundant evidence that people don't know when they're being rational and can't decide to use reason at will. As these researchers were pushing against the old assumption, they (and their popularizers even more) banged the We're-Irrational drum pretty hard. So now there's a backlash: People pointing out that, foolish as it may be to say that people always think straight, it is equally dumb to claim they never think straight.


As a complaint about what I call post-rational thinking, this is largely a straw man. I've never run across a neuroscientist, psychologist or economist who claimed that people are utterly incapable of reason (what would be the point of showing them evidence that they can't make sense of evidence?). Maybe Jon Haidt didn't acknowledge his dependence on reason enough in his book. Maybe David Brooks sentimentally devalued conscious reasoning in his, as Thomas Nagel pointed out. But they didn't deny the rational mind's abilities. And then, in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the world's most famous and most honored behavioral economist, continually reminds readers that people can and do reason well all the time. So I don't agree with my new fellow-blogger, Steven Mazie, that we're awash in "a faddish denial that human beings can think straight."

Indeed, the problems posed by post-rational research (and the reasons I'm interested in it) stem from the way human beings can "think straight." It's just that they can't tell when they are doing so, can't will themselves to do so, and often think they're being rational when they are not. As a result, there is a gap between the way our important institutions officially work and the way they really work, and this gap causes a great deal of harm.

Two examples: Officially markets are efficient sorters of information that help all participants find the true prices of goods and services. In reality, markets aren't meetingplaces of rational beings, and hence are susceptible to runs, panics, bubbles and fraud. Officially, judges are trained experts who objectively apply the law. In reality, judges who have had to make a lot of decisions without a break are more severe than they are when they've just had a break. And judges who have rolled a dice and gotten a high number will choose a longer sentence than will judges who rolled a low number, for the same criminal. We need to fix markets that rest on the false assumption of perfect rationality. We need to protect the justice system against the assumption that judges are consistent from 10 to 6. To ignore the evidence, by, say, dismissing it as a fad, is to let our institutions run badly in order to preserve the fiction of rationality on which they rest. That wouldn't be terribly rational of us, would it?

In between the absurd extremes of Perfect Rationality and and Perfect Irrationality (which nobody believes in anyway) are important questions, all of them still open, and none simple: When is Reason actually engaged? How can we tell? What rules do we follow instead of logic? And, most importantly, what do we mean by "thinking straight"?

This last question is seldom addressed in books and articles on human irrationality. Instead, as Mazie notes, a lot of this material uses a thin and impoverished notion of human thought. (Deirdre McCloskey makes a similar point about the allied field of "happiness economics" here.) Often, their model of what thought is, and what it is for, is as bad as the old Rational Economic Man models. In fact, often, it is the old REM model: After all, to say that people make systematic errors when they make choices is to say that we know what is correct, and that "correct" is doing what old-school economists would do. But perhaps those economists were wrong.

For example, people who have to choose between three options (call them A, B and C) will value them differently if they previously had to choose between A and B. Economists say this is faulty thinking, because the value of A and the value of B are not altered by the presence of C. But many creatures, including slime molds, are subject to this "error." So we should at least admit the possibility that it could be more appropriate for a living being to make the "error" than to act like a 20th-century economist. More broadly, we should realize that the end goal of a better understanding of human behavior isn't a few tweaks and nudges, but a better definition of what it means to think, and be, and be well.

Research into human irrationality, then, has the potential to cure some of our most important institutions of the habitual harms they inflict on us. And longer-term, it can contribute to a better understanding of what Reason is, and what we (sometimes) rational animals are. For both those reasons, I don't think this is just a passing fad.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.