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Why You Don't Have to Be Rational to Run Your Own Life
Are we becoming too obsessed with the idea that people can't think straight? When I began blogging here at BigThink five years ago, I would have said no. After all, for the most part, economists and many social scientists still operate on the assumption that people are rational—that we can, whenever we choose, make decisions by consciously processing real facts through a logical calculator in our heads. (And, the economists would add, that our goal in these calculations is always to maximize our personal share of some measurable benefit, like money or square footage or fur coats). This is pretty obviously not what real people do, so why blame people for talking up the facts? Over the past couple of years, though, I've noticed loose talk about human mental incapacity being used to justify assaults on personal autonomy. If we can't think straight, after all, it follows that we need "help." And much of this "help" consists of taking choices away from human beings and giving them to organizations, machines or software.
Some examples: Once a human being called a boss would decide who would work which shifts at the local coffee shop. Today, Starbucks and many other retail chains are using algorithms to schedule workers, which is great for the bottom line (why pay more people than you need to if you can predict that traffic will be light this Thursday?). Medium, the hot new writing site, is paying some writers and editors according to the amount of time readers spend on their material. This makes for better metrics on the precise relationship between the content and the response. Or consider this technology, now being used in high school gyms in Dubuque, Iowa: It monitors students' heart rates directly, via strapped-on monitors on each kid, to make sure they are exercising enough in class. Then there is this gizmo, described by my fellow-BigThink blogger Teodora Zareva, which delivers fines, electric shocks and social-media humiliations if you do not comply with your own goals. No doubt this is much more effective than just telling yourself you should get to the gym more often.
None of these things are evil in intent. They are not inherently evil in intent. Instead, they're benign. Like the government "nudging" about which I've written a fair amount (for example, here and here) these helpful technologies are aimed at making life easier and literally more profitable. As users of such technology, most people are delighted. Each individual decision-making aid seems so reasonable and sensible, offering reliability and "seamlessness" in the place of irrationality and friction. It's only as targets of technology (the worker whose schedule is machine-written, the kid who's tired and wants to slow down while running laps) that we feel annoyed. The rhetoric of irrationality is a powerful balm against such vexation. You know, it says, you can't trust yourself.
Many of us (not all) would argue that autonomy, the process of self-governance, is valuable. It is, after all, the theoretical basis of our civil rights. So how are we supposed to preserve that autonomy in the face of evidence that machines and organizations and apps are better at making our decisions than we are?
One way would be to deny the whole problem. In 2012, my fellow BigThink blogger Steve Mazie argued that claims about our inability to reason were overblown. The other day he reran that post here and restated his argument here. He thinks the basis for perceptions of human irrationality are exotic laboratory manipulations that have little to do with real life. It is easy to support this claim with some cherry-picked examples of truly odd-sounding experiments. Few of us are ever confronted with examples of the "Linda problem" or the Wason test.
However, Mazie doesn't mention a host of other experiments that document "irrational" behavior in situations that are quite natural and familiar to people. The ultimatum game, for example, is a negotiation in which two people have to decide how to split up money or some other valuable. Dividing up something between two people is a negotiation we all engage in during our lives, from the playground to the edge of the grave. Concerned about results that come only from experiments on people in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic) societies, Joe Henrich and his colleagues have run this experiment on many different continents with a many different kinds of people. Almost no one (with the occasional exception of students recently trained in economics) does the "rational" thing in that game. I think Mazie is right that casual talk about irrationality has gotten out of hand. But I don't think it's because there is no "there" there.
And so we have a problem: Personal autonomy has been defended for more than a century by the principle that people are rational when they choose to be. This principle seems to be false. At the same time, practical challenges to autonomy—what the philosopher Evan Selinger calls the "outsourcing" of humanity to governments, machines and apps—are growing. How is autonomy to be defended?
I think the answer is this: Decouple the defense of autonomy from the claim that people are rational. Instead of defending the notion that people will make good decisions if they are free, I'd rather argue that the quality of their decisions is irrelevant. It's the process of making them that matters. We don't want to outsource that process to an institution, a company or a machine because doing so makes us value ourselves, and our humanity, less. The process of wrestling with yourself over the gym is part of being a person, whichever way it turns out. The process of scheduling workers (and dealing with their sighs and sulks and protests) is part of what it means to be in a community, and work with other people. Machines and nudges can make more of our experiences "seamless" and efficient, but hold up, we need the seams.
Perhaps this is hopeless, in the face of the seductions of our gadgets, marketing campaigns and the "psychological state" that increasingly nudges us. But isn't the erosion of personal autonomy is worth resisting?
Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.