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All About the “After Thought” Project

The mainstream is beginning to accept the "post-rational view of the mind, but what next? How do we rethink our societal assumptions and institutions? Join the conversation here with the After Thought Project.

In the past few years, various Bigfoot media have caught up with what scientists think about the mind. Friday, for example, David Brooks described what was wrong with Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations.” Which is, as I wrote in 2005, that human beings don’t have a single group identity that governs their choices. (So it makes no sense to say, as Huntington did, that today’s religious identity will block Muslims from acting on national identity tomorrow.) Another example: In 2008, The Atlantic let the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom tell its readers about the inconsistent, plural self: The fact that, as I wrote in 2005, none of us has a single personal identity either. We are, instead, made of many competing selves, often jockeying for control.

The arrival of the big media guns signals that the “post-rational” view of the mind is now acceptable to the chattering class, who largely shrugged it off a few years ago (believe me, I know—did you notice those 2005’s up there?). Newspaper and magazine editors, whose job is to titillate the conventional mind without giving it too much of a fright, have decided that people’s fundamental irrationality is a safe subject.

But here’s what they still aren’t talking about: If we accept that we aren’t rational, what do we do about all the vital institutions of daily life, which depend on the assumption that we are? This blog’s list of questions from 2009 keeps nagging at me: What needs changing in our approach to medicine after we know, as Dan Ariely showed, the same pills reduce pain more when patients think they’re expensive than when they think the medicine is cheap? What theory of democracy can work with the knowledge that people can pick the winners of unknown elections just by looking at the faces of the candidates? Or that people are more likely to vote to raise education taxes if they happen to be casting ballots in a school than in a firehouse?

And how are trials to be conducted when we know how easily “eyewitnesses” can be persuaded to see and unsee things? What can we do about the fact that rain affects the results of supposedly impartial interviews for medical school? Or that people buy more junk food with credit than with cash?

I think it is time to try to answer some of these questions: to map what job interviews—or food shopping, or electioneering, or doctor visits, or retirement investing—will be like in the post-rational 21st century. And there are people in our Enlightenment-era institutions who are exploring these questions.

For instance: here, in their contribution to a fascinating collection of essays on the impact on law of happiness research, the law professors Matthew Adler and Eric A. Posner note that post-rational theories are a very big challenge to business-as-usual in governments and markets. That’s because government policies are chosen with the assumption that people have consistent preferences to guide them in making conscious choices—in other words, that people know what will make them happy.

So let Pepsi market its products—those rational consumers have decided that they want the pleasures of soda and can live with the increased risk of diabetes. But if, as happiness research often suggests, people don’t know what they’re doing (so that the human mind cannot draw the risk/benefit matrix of, say, soda consumption) then markets are hard to justify morally. Adler and Posner state this with admirable clarity: “If people’s choices do not advance their happiness,” they write, “[…] then the basis of the market economy seems questionable.”

Adler and Posner think rational-mind models have some life in them yet. They aren’t ready (OK, they are so not ready) to fold up capitalism. But they, like the other essayists in the book, see that rationalist institutions cannot ignore post-rationalist facts.

Trouble is, people at work on these questions aren’t speaking across borders to one another: Law professors thinking about post-rational tort reform are not (as far as I know) communicating with public-health researchers thinking about post-rational incentives to, say, quit smoking.

This is where you come in, readers. While the Big Media echo chamber is still telling itself what you already know, let’s move on to the next set of questions. Rather than simply describing the mounting pile of evidence for post-rationality, or tracking the competing theories about it, let us figure out how these insights will change society. Let’s make ourselves a laboratory for post-rational institutions.

The dying rationalist model assumes that choice involves conscious thought, while post-rationalist evidence is all about what isn’t conscious and what isn’t thought. Hence the name of this community-building venture: The After Thought Project.

And here is Option 1 for participating: Please send me examples of a practice or policy, that engages you personally, which has changed because people no longer believe in Rational Economic Man. I’ll collect those, examine them and discuss them here on the blog.

All I ask is that any example (a) be concrete and specific (ie, a real practice in an actual place) and (b) derive from a model of the human mind that is not rationalist.

For example, if your 401(k) plan is an “opt-out” type (the sort where you have to fill out a lot of paperwork to get out of contributing), that’s a concrete example. It’s also a post-rationalist one: From the point of view of rational economic man, the 401(k) makes sense no matter how you join it. But opt-in retirement plans have lower participation, because of the irrational psychic hurdle involved in giving up a part of your salary (and the hassle of the extra form-filling). So a retirement plan that has changed to opt-out has, explicitly or not, accepted that people aren’t rational and adapted policy to fit reality.

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While I patiently wait for these, I’ll occasionally stir the pot with reports on ideas in medicine, law, social policy, schools and elsewhere for dramatic change based on post-rationalist assumptions.

Concurrently, here is Option 2 for taking part in the After Thought Project: If you’re aware of an important book or research paper with a post-rationalist take, please send a reference. This includes, of course, defenses of rationalist theories, of which there are plenty that merit close attention (Adler and Posner, I think, are in this category). The examples are for ongoing discussion; the books and papers, we’ll assemble into a regularly updated reading list.

Finally (for the moment), there’s an Option 3: If you are convinced the rational-mind model is still the best, please—challenge, criticize, scoff, snark and correct the rest of us. Maybe you can show us the error of our ways (or vice versa), and certainly everyone’s arguments will be stronger for having engaged with contradictory ideas.

So please send your examples and/or reading suggestions and/or counter-arguments. Either to me at [email protected] or, better yet, in the comments section for this and subsequent posts.

My hunch is that we can build a Web community to evaluate both concrete practices and theoretical frameworks for a fair, democratic and free post-rational world.

But maybe I’m wrong. Up to you.


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