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Irrationality 23: Causes, Cures, Roots

01/23/2013

Sutherland pulls it all together and makes a few recommendations. It looks like the first edition was published in the 90’s, and this one was published in 2010, so I’m wondering how much material here is from a decade ago. The recommendations are sparse and very speculative. Sutherland admits that many conclusions are not based on evidence, and that he expects more info to come in over future years. Any improvements in rationality may only be short term, or are just preliminary and not rigorously tested. That’s really surprising, given that this field covers how to achieve and gain pretty much everything that is important to anyone. I’m glad CFAR exists. At least someone is trying here.

The causes seem pretty sparsely argued as well. I think Buonomano’s Brain Bugs is likely a good intro to the actual causes, and Sutherland does hint to neurological causes of irrationality.

Lastly, Sutherland makes a few arguments against being rational, but given part of his definition of rational action as that which is most likely to achieve one’s ends (practical rationality), I don’t think his cases always apply. For example, he argues against being too ruminative, since you might be seen as boring. If you really value being not boring as an end, then rumination is not rational. He also points out that spontaneity is often valued more than thinking things through. If so, then it may be rational to be spontaneous. The contradiction seems to occur in epistemic rationality, not practical rationality, which seem to be different things at times.

Kindle Notes:

Underlying the many different kinds of irrationality described are five basic causes. I should stress that the first three are speculative. One stems from evolution. Our ancestors in the animal kingdom for the most part had to solve their problems in a hurry by fighting or fleeing. A monkey confronted by a lion would be foolish to stand pondering which was the best tree to climb: it is better to be wrong than eaten. It is probably for this reason that when under stress or high drive, people act and think in such stereotyped ways (4454).

A second broad cause of irrationality is that parts of the brain appear to consist of networks of nerve cells initially connected together at random (4474).

A third general reason for irrational thinking also arises from mental laziness. To reduce the need for hard and prolonged thought, we have developed a number of tricks for taking quick decisions. These are called ‘heuristics’, that is, ways of thinking that will usually produce a passable but not perfect result quickly (4498).

A fourth contribution to human irrationality is our failure to use elementary probability theory and elementary statistics and the concepts to which they have given rise (4505).

I have not stressed the final general cause of irrationality – self-serving bias – mainly because it is so obvious (4514).

The most general approach would be to try to persuade people to keep an open mind, to come to a conclusion only after they have surveyed all the evidence and to realise that, when occasion merits, it is a sign of strength not weakness to change one’s mind. They should also be taught to seek out evidence against their own beliefs and if they find it, to be on their guard against misinterpreting or ignoring it (4518).

Taking decisions in a hurry or while under stress is a mistake, since one’s thinking is too inflexible. Where the evidence does not point conclusively in one direction, people should suspend judgement, which most find hard to do (4522).

It has been demonstrated that learning statistics helps people to deal rationally with some problems drawn from everyday life (4532).

A further paper provides evidence that the ability to take rational decisions in everyday life correlates with people’s success at their work, in particular with their level of salary (4548).

One can even question whether it is desirable for everyone to be completely rational. We prize spontaneity but, as we have seen, rational decision-making often takes time. When lovers meet, a spontaneous kiss is more cherished than one delivered after careful reflection (4593).

Note: Doesn’t that mean it’s irrational to think too much about it?

Second, very ruminative people, concerned only to take the best decision, can be rather boring (4597).

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