An Irrational Undertaking: Why Aren’t We More Rational?

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11 Responses

  1. anon says:

    Great post. Keep ’em coming.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “short of putting every person into a TMS machine that makes us faux-savants by knocking out affective and social functions,”

    Why the “faux”? I believe the research suggests that there’s nothing fake about this, it’s not a subjective impression of greater clarity and objectivity, but the real thing.

    Were it safe and easy, periodically subjecting one’s self to such a process might not be a bad idea. After all, anything that keeps you shortsighted, might actually leave you too shortsighted to see a solution that better satisfies rationality AND whatever function cultural cognition is maximizing.

    • Amanda Pustilnik says:


      “Faux,” because TMS induces a transient, savant state rather than organic savant syndrome. Certainly, the savant abilities are real while the person undergoes target TMS. But savant syndrome is a condition with numerous diagnostic criteria; a person in a transient savant state would not meet many of those criteria. By analogy: Some psychedelic drugs can induce a schizoaffective state in the drug user, but, despite the similarity in presentation and the homology of some of the underlying processes, one wouldn’t call the drug user “a schizophrenic.” Beyond the transience of the experience, his or her schizoaffective presentation would only reproduce some of the symptoms and pathologies of organic schizophrenia. But where “state” ends and “trait” begins can often be up for grabs.

      Whether it might be beneficial to enter at TMS-induced savant state: Perhaps! Personally, I would be very curious to try. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary to experience, just briefly, what it would be like to draw whole cities from memory or effortlessly calculate square roots to the tenth decimal? Those would be novelty experiences, though. What more serious purposes do you think it might serve?

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    Speaking as an engineer, who says those aren’t serious purposes? Man, would I ever love to have a “temporary savant” button I could press once in a while. Might be a very effective study aid, too; How does reading materials under the influence of this effect retention?

    Though I was really thinking of the effect it might have on that “cultural cognition” you spoke of, if people could occasionally stick their heads out of their own boxes, and look around. I encounter so many people on the web convinced that nobody could disagree with them about issue “X” without being evil. Could they maintain that conviction once they’d looked at the issue without their blinkers on, even if they did eventually have to don them again?

    Oh, and I’m really getting tired of “invalid data” every time I hit “submit”.

    • Amanda Pustilnik says:

      Brett – thanks, first, for letting me know about the “invalid data” issue. I don’t maintain this blog but I’ll call it to the attention of the folks who do. Is it possibly a browser issue? Might depend on the version of the browser you’re running. (Although – to let me biases show – my guess would be that you, as an engineer, would already be running a current browser and/or would have thought of that issue already yourself.)

      As for what being temporarily thrust out of the affective frame and into the rational frame might do for people’s perceptions: I suspect that, along with understanding that reasonable minds can differ, we’d all be appalled at how self-serving we would discover ourselves to be – that we would see how frequently our carefully reasoned and deeply held points of view just happen those that align with our interests.

      My wonderful torts professor, Judge Guido Calabresi, used to say, “It’s not that most people lie. It’s just that, when we have an interest at stake, we become … confused.”

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    A couple of points apropos of “The core insight of cultural cognition is that people react to new information not primarily by assessing it in the abstract, on its merits, but by intuiting their community’s likely reaction and conforming to it.”:

    First, what are something’s “merits” “in the abstract”? E.g., as is well known, the norm that it’s desirable to maximize utility doesn’t follow analytically from the definition of utility itself. Normativity comes from somewhere.

    Second, “legal decision makers” are themselves subject to cultural cognition effects. (That’s so in spades for the legislative and executive branches.) And that has an impact not only on substantive legal decisions per se, but on the design of legal institutions. E.g., back when certain forms of overt discrimination were more OK, it used to be that to vote or serve on a jury in various countries you had to be male, have a certain income of amount of property, etc.; in the current more egalitarian age these qualifications have been relaxed or eliminated in many places. Your post doesn’t deny that these effects are relevant to institutional design, but it doesn’t highlight them either. They’re all too easy to overlook, as in the Thaler and Sunstein dichotomy of “Planners” and “Humans,” which seems to suggest that the decision-makers in the former category have somehow transcended membership in the latter. BTW my point isn’t to attack these effects categorically, but to acknowledge their inescapable impact; whether they lead to good or bad results probably varies from case to case.

    Finally, apropos of your comment about (idiot-)savants, the terminology we use often encodes our cultural biases. While you’re careful to explain that “rationality” isn’t necessarily a sign of an “unimpaired” brain, the word itself still has very strong positive connotations in our culture. Maybe we should escape the 18th Century, and instead of referring to “rational” behavior we should talk about “affectless” behavior instead? (Though by tactfully avoiding to point out that one can be rabidly selfish and yet still “rational” in the economic sense, there is cultural calculation in this suggestion, too.)

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    [typo: income or amount of property]

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    “[W]e’d all be appalled at how self-serving we would discover ourselves to be” — assuming we were indeed to discover that, why would such a discovery be appalling, rather than seen as a vindication of the principles of economic science?

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    It’s quite possible we wouldn’t be appalled while the machine was on, because of it’s effects, and wouldn’t be appalled after it was off, because we’d ceased to be objective, and would just dismiss the effects as delusional. But it would be a cool experiment to run.

    Perhaps just as useful would be something that could monitor our brains, and simply let us know when the affective frame was overriding the rational. Perhaps by sounding an annoying buzzer.

    The degree to which we can control the behavior of our own nervous system, and exert influence over things we think are entirely automatic, if only granted the relevant feedback, is remarkable. Controlling sweat glands in a specific patch of skin. Modulating your heartbeat, or even shutting it off for a beat or two. Invoking the mechanism that paints background across blind spots to make selected objects disappear from view. The operation of our own nervous system is far more under our control than we typically realize, we just lack the signals needed to assert it reliably.

    Perhaps an indication of when exactly we’re being irrational is all we need to gain the ability to be rational whenever we want? To be savants on demand?

    In regards to invalid data, latest Firefox. At least I’ve learned to put my comments into the clipboard before hitting submit…

  8. Devorg says:

    From 40 years spent in development of machines that can think:

    “Rationality” is a fiction — derived from cultural metaphors and myths that have relatively little connection with reality.

    Animal consciousness, including the human kind, attempts to fit perceived patterns into patterns programmed by the physical nature of the animal and by training from experience and other sources. This arrangement neither imputes nor implies rationality.

    The premise of “rational” it is merely another fiction serving the convenience of those who seek to profit by it.

  9. May I suggest that what seems irrational is actually unwise short-term selfishness, the hallmark of our species. From my 22 years as a trial lawyer, that consistent conduct together with just plain dishonesty explains human actions.