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Why we are not rational beings (or if we are)

In the novel Dune (and in its most recent film adaptation) there is a moment when the protagonist Paul Atreides must pass a test: placing his hand in a box that causes excruciating pain, knowing that if he removes it he will die instantly. The test “only kills animals” but not humans, the story goes, because humans are able to control their emotions and think of the greater good.

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The idea that human beings are rational and make logical decisions is as old as it is contested. For Aristotle, the quality that distinguished human beings from animals and plants was the rational principle: the ability to modify their behavior to achieve a specific end, that is, to free themselves from the instinct that dominates animals. Aristotle did not mean that humans always act logically, but that they have the possibility.

There is a problem with this theory: in practice, humans are fundamentally irrational. If we were rational, retirees would not vote for parties that cut pensions and health care, among other things.

predictably irrational

Psychologist Dan Ariely, in his book “Predictably Irrational”, gives us many more examples of his experiments. For example, people are willing to go to a store miles away to buy something on sale, not realizing that they are spending a lot more on the commute. Or waiting hours to get something for free, when they could wait a lot less for something they had to pay for.

Other types of irrational behavior are very familiar to us. Paralysis when making a decision, which ends up harming us, procrastination, in which we know we have to do something that benefits us, but we put it off, or even worse, people who are in toxic or abusive relationships.

Nobel laureate in psychology Daniel Kaneman and his colleague Amos Nathan Tversky in the 1970s described cognitive biases and heuristics, the mental shortcuts we inadvertently take and how they affect our decision-making. For example, the availability heuristic dictates that we base our decision on the data in front of us, not all of it. So, on Christmas raffle day, when only the winners (and not the millions of losers) are shown on television, it makes us think we have a good chance of winning, even though in reality it is only one in 100,000.

Another example of heuristics are stereotypes, such as that women drive worse, immigrants live on subsidies, or Germans are squarer. Our brain sometimes uses these shortcuts to avoid thinking, even if they are fake.

But why do our logic fail and we act irrationally? Why aren’t we all like Dr. Spock on Star Trek and we make decisions based purely on logic and statistics, on the odds of getting the desired outcome? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the survival of our species? Paradoxically, irrationality appears to be an evolutionary adaptation that has allowed us to survive.

When to think irrationally

External reality is an immense source of information. We need systems that guide our cognitive processes, that tell us what to pay attention to in order to have the best chance of surviving. These filter mechanisms evolved at a time when the natural environment was highly uncertain.

If our ancestors saw a bush moving, it made no sense to judge the odds that it was a tiger or a squirrel, and the most likely decision to survive was to run. Our brains have evolved to make heuristic decisions based on little data and mental shortcuts.

But heuristics are not just to save time, they sometimes give us the best possible decision. In a world where everything can be quantified and predicted, it makes sense to use logic. But in moments of uncertainty, instinct often wins.

A classic example is hyperbolic discounting. A friend offers us the choice between receiving 50 euros now or 100 euros a year from now. Most people choose the first option, and this is due to uncertainty. After all, the friend can forget, or break the promise, or stop being a friend. The many variables in the real world make sense to stick to whatever rewards we can get quickly.

Research has shown that we need emotions to make decisions. While calling someone impulsive or overly emotional is often a criticism of their ability to think, the truth is that those with brain damage to the part of the brain that governs emotions often have difficulty making decisions. They tirelessly weigh the pros and cons, but can’t make up their minds.

Why then do people vote against their own interests? Here comes another factor: we do not make decisions alone, but within a human group. If a decision brings us benefits but causes those close to us to judge or reject us (family, friends, neighbors), we are much more likely to follow what the group is doing and then try to justify a decision that harms us. This explains why so many people voted for Trump or Brexit, even as their lives got worse.

In reality, we need both instinct and logic, and reason is a much more powerful tool in humanity than it seems. According to researchers Mercier and Sperber, the ability to reason evolved as part of the language for making group decisions. Argumentative theory predicts that when evaluating arguments in an argument, especially with someone with opposing views, rather than being biased and lazy, people are discerning and objective. Demanding because he doesn’t want to be influenced by any counterargument, but objective because he still wants to convince himself with solid and true arguments, that’s what argumentation is for in the first place.

That is why it was possible to verify that when people reason alone, they reason badly. However, when people reason in a group dialogue context where arguments are produced and evaluated, they reason very well in a group and arrive at better solutions.

This works, of course, in groups where there is trust, even if there is disagreement. It has no effect on social media, where the information people receive is selected by algorithms to confirm what they already believe, and they don’t have to expose themselves to opposing arguments. The fact that it is a virtual and anonymous interaction makes things worse. Here irrationality can bring out the worst in every human being.

Are we then rational or irrational? Although irrationality has been dismissed for centuries as a flawed cognitive process, experts seem to agree that we need to be both rational and irrational in order to survive.

* Dario Pescador is editor and director of Quo magazine and author of the book Tu mejor yo published by Oberon.

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