04 January 2012

The Rationalizing Creature

It turns out that humans aren’t so rational after all:

For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment.
Now some researchers are suggesting that reason evolved for a completely different purpose: to win arguments. Rationality, by this yardstick (and irrationality too, but we’ll get to that) is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena. According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth.

Basically, humans have a tendency to make a variety of decisions and take sundry ideological stances before thinking them through.  Most of us do this unconsciously on a daily basis (think of driving a car, for example).  However, we don’t generally think of a reason why we do what we do, and when confronted with the why of our behavior and opinions, we craft an ex post rationale for it.

Often, our rationales are deceptive and self-serving.  The 2008 bailouts, for example, were touted as a way to save the economy.  Perhaps many of those who proposed the bailouts really believed that the bailouts were good for the economy.  What’s interesting is how some who supported the bailouts and benefitted directly from them argued for them in selfless terms.  What’s even more interesting is how all humans do this, albeit in regards to different things.

Anyhow, the point made in all this is that we are not as rational as we would like to suppose.  We often do many things out of subconscious habit, laziness, greed, and self-promotion.  Sometimes we don’t even know why we do something; we simply “feel” something and act accordingly.  And only when we’re confronted with the “why” of our behavior do we even think to provide a reason for doing what we did.

Thus, the lesson to take away from this is that those who assume humans are rational (most notably economists) are completely bonkers, and any behavioral model predicated on the assumption of human rationality is most likely completely wrong.  Humans are finite beings with near-infinite desires.  Being rational is not optimal in this event, for a careful consideration of every potential decision will inevitably lead to having fewer enjoyable experiences and goods by mere virtue of the fact that time spent contemplating decisions reduces the number of decisions that will eventually get made.  Therefore, the rationalizing tendency among humans in light of their finiteness is perhaps the most rational thing they do.  And those who ignore this fundamental rationality are fools.

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