Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

Here’s the conundrum: on the one hand, as rationalists, we’re striving to be rational to the best of our ability. On the other hand, as rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases that are there for good evolutionary reasons but can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases will have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines, but I doubt it. If that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.

So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to cope with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate and what we strive for, including me. But can it ever be more rational to just accept our irrationality, work around it or with it, and even use it to our advantage?

Let me give a couple of examples. When it comes to exercise, the rational thing for me to do would be to exercise at home. My gym membership costs money, and it takes time to get to the gym and back—time and money that I’d love to spend in other ways. I have exercise equipment at home; it’s not quite as good as what I use at the gym, but I can get a perfectly good workout with it. But I don’t. I almost never work out at home. And when I do, I don’t keep up a routine for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to get distracted and be enticed by a dozen other things—including the sofa.

When I go to the gym, on the other hand, I do actually work out. The only real willpower involved is getting myself there in the first place. Once I’m there, what else am I going to do? After all, I’ve already spent the time getting myself to the gym. I’m not about to turn around and go home again. It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in action. And once I start working out at the gym, it’s easier to stay in a groove and just keep exercising until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there are no kittens to play with, no snacks to eat, no Internet, and not even any TV sets except the ones that you can only watch when you’re on the exercise equipment. A typical home workout for me lasts fifteen minutes at best: at the gym, I usually spend at least an hour.

This is entirely irrational. So do I say to myself, “My gym membership is irrational, so I’m going to cancel it and just make myself work out at home somehow”? Or do I accept the reality that, irrational as it is, as costly of time and money as it is, my gym membership keeps me exercising? Do I accept the fact that my brain is easily distracted and choose to exercise in a place that keeps me focused? Do I not only accept the fact that my brain is wired with the sunk-cost fallacy but actually use it to my advantage? Which is the rational choice?


Thus begins my latest piece for Free Inquiry magazine, Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality? To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?
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10 thoughts on “Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

  1. 1

    Wouldn’t it be entirely irrational not to rationally accept your irrationality?

    I mean, what’s the point of being rational? I’d say the point of being rational is to win as much as you can. If you want to exercise, then the winning move is to do whatever you can, with whatever resources at your disposal to do so.

    As a musician, you have to figure out how to practice. It’s not a trivial task, because practicing involves a lot of repetition, but also a lot of focus and discipline. I knew musicians who could only focus 20 minutes at a time, so they took lots of short breaks but had longer practice sessions overall. Other musicians could practice for 3 hours straight, but had issues with fatigue, so they were forced to shorten their practice time and mix in some ear-training or reedmaking or something.

    My point is not that different things work for different people. It’s that rationality should go hand-in-hand with pragmatism. And pragmatism means getting stuff done.

  2. 2

    This preference may not be rational—okay, it’s definitely not rational—but it’s not a denial of reality. It’s actually a recognition of reality and an acceptance of it.

    This line summed up my thinking as I was reading your article, although I think “rational” is a bit of a slippery term here.

    The home/gym exercise issue is a good one. Understanding intellectually that you need to exercise doesn’t translate into an emotional desire to exercise. In an environment with more desirable activities and no external motivation, the emotional desires win out. To that end, going to the gym to remove those distractions is a rational solution to your behaviour, and spending that money per month is not necessarily irrational, when it provides a solution which works.

    Our emotions may not be rational, but they are still human needs that have to be addressed in any “rational” solution.

    Sex for means other than procreation is irrational. It increases the risk of disease and unwanted pregnancy, and can put one at risk of sexual assault. Emotionally however, sex can be intensely pleasurable, desirable, an a vital means of emotional bonding in a relationship. Failing to take those emotional “irrational” variables into account is the major failure of Abstinance-Only education, bolstered by efforts to keep sex as risky and irrational as possible. This is the same with the “War on Drugs” and “Just Say No” policies, which present recreational drugs as dangerous and irrational, and ignore the emotional gaps those drugs fill.

    We can try to encourage our emotions to match external reality, but that’s not always possible. I think ignoring or invalidating emotions as “irrationality” is starting to wander into Vulcan territory.

  3. 3

    I think it’s only rational to take into account the way things are, and the way our brains work – whether its rational or not – is part of “the way things are”. For example, you might say that ideally I should be able to force myself to go jogging 3 times a week through sheer willpower, but realistically I know the probability that I will actually go ahead and do it is far better if I tell everybody in advance that I am definitely going to do it (because then it would be far to embarrassing not to).

    It doesn’t involve any erroneous beliefs about reality: I really do have that tendency to procrastinate, and laying these kinds of “traps” for my future self has proven to be far more effective than trusting myself to always be sufficiently motivated when the time for action comes. To not take these facts into account, would be the very opposite of rationality.

  4. 4

    This has been exactly my conundrum and exasperation with exercising. I even bought videos to get motivated to exercise at home and after two weeks of the same video I’m hating it.

    If the gym is not on the way home or if I don’t have a partner I have to meet…Ughh.

    Here on the farm I often still don’t get enough exercise but to spend 40 minutes driving, an hr etc exercising, and changing screws up the entire evening at least three days a week. I need that time.

    I did it best when we were rebuilding houses and had no hot water or water at all and the whole family had to go the Y or Rec Center for showers etc. Or when our kids had classes at the Y and I could work out while waiting for them.

    At college it was easy, the gym is between buildings. Jobs with gyms sucked as I have no desire to stay at work longer or socialize with workmates more–my entire dislike of work culture is too much time at work–why would I want to spend my time with cubicle partners than life partners?

    When my health began to fail strongly, this conundrum was a big reason I switched careers. As while I still need better exercise I don’t do too bad in farming and walking around a big chunk of land doing fences, feeding, etc is pretty sweet but mostly unattainable for the rest of the world. I totally get why many call farming a lifestyle and culture.

    I’d say get an exercise partner, some sort of fun exercise type class (rotate through them), or find a reward system that provides a decent incentive. And try not to dwell on our messed up culture that rewards sloth!

    Also little bits of activity help, stand while writing, park far away, do walking sight-seeing–get creative! Good luck!

  5. 5

    I think the key here is you have two (or more) different irrational aspects of your brain involved. If you can solve them both, great! Yet sometimes you can’t, but you can use one bit of irrationality against the other.

    In the gym example, it’s a failure of your brain that it cannot summon up willpower easily to exercise at home. A perfectly rational agent wouldn’t have that problem, but we aren’t, and we have to find a way around it. Nothing forbids us from using another irrational aspect of our brain (sunk cost fallacy) to generate more willpower; indeed, it’s a good idea. But it also means that if, for example, you find an effective way to train yourself not to use the sunk cost fallacy, it will weaken the patchwork solution to the exercise willpower problem. And then you have to weigh what is more important: the benefit you get from the extra exercise, or the benefit from making decisions more rationally because you ignore sunk costs. And in that calculation, you have to take into account if there are alternative ways to provide yourself with the extra exercise

    Now consider the God example. One part of your brain is unable to be happy if it faces the fact that there is no God. Another is very bad at updating on new evidence in favour of unpleasant conclusions. You could just believe in God, if that extra bit of happiness is more important. But the problem is that being unable to face unpleasant facts is an unusually dangerous bit of irrationality; it leads to many more bad decisions than, say, sunk cost. So the hack solution of alleviating your unhappiness, at the expense of your ability to face the unpleasant, is a very bad trade-off. Even worse, a large number of people have the ability to get used to the idea of a universe without God. Thus, we see that there is a better solution to the problem: you can train yourself to deal with unpleasant facts, which will both make it easier to accept the non-existence of God, and in general to make better decisions.

    This sort of trade-off, where embracing your irrationality to solve a problem will lead to consequences more dangerous than the problem you’re solving, is bound to pop up a lot when you’re dealing with objective reality questions. Objective reality is sharp and pointy and easy to hurt yourself with if you’re walking blindly.

    Which is not to say that subjective questions can’t be sharp and pointy, as well. If you could somehow solve the problem of lack of willpower when working out at home, the rational thing to do would be to do that and cancel your gym membership (assuming, of course, that you aren’t getting something extra from the gym. Maybe you just like the people there).

    TL;DR: Whether the questions is about objective reality or not does matter, but the ultimate deciding factors have to do with “Do I have a better solution than using one bit of irrationality against another?”, “Do the benefits of the clever hack outweigh the risk of indulging irrational thought patterns?” and other questions to that effect.

  6. 6

    On reflection, as I went to help my daughters do soccer, I realized I am an exercise opportunist. I am not a routine and authoritarian person so I have to keep interest and sensory input up or I fail. From my perspective that means for two months it will be doing soccer with the girls to help them and use that to help me. By November I will be chopping wood (we only have wood heat in a stone house) and carrying it into the house, much less finding it, felling it, etc. Unlike my friends I refuse to get a splitter or use a wheelbarrow as that exercise contributes.

    When I lived in cities I liked to walk the streets. In MPLS I walked through Dinkytown and back. When the route got boring I started memorizing guitar music as I walked. Or song lyrics, or just listened to audio, NPR trying to concentrate on knowing what they were talking about. When I lived near river road I got rollerblades for one year and did that. When I lived in Roseville I got a bicycle and did that. I need the changes.

    San Fransisco is great for walking. I love that city. But when I worked in Milpitas and lived in Los Gatos I would drive to Santa Cruz just to walk the drives by the beach which added the fun of people watching. Then I worked my way up the coast to Half Moon bay.

    If I had a meeting in Berkeley I would walk the campus or go up to the Berkeley Hills. Even visiting Oakland or Freemont I walked around and thought of Alice B Toklas. If I had a concert in Saratoga, I’d show up early and take a walk.If went to a concert at Laguna Seca I’d show up early for a walk or even the Cow Palace. I guess maybe that is easier to do if you’re like it–that is the trick, demanding enough to do it and enjoyable enough to want to do it.

    Best system for kids I saw in mother earth news was a generator hooked to a bicycle and a battery. Generator output is kept to speed of bike to one to one ratio–one of riding at midspeed equals one hr of TV. When you could more easily get permanent magnet generators it was the green way to balance health with decadence.

    Treadmills, nordic cross, magnetic bike or rollers, or rowers were not workable for me. No matter how I assisted them.


  7. 7

    I exercise at home. I go to the county library and get a movie, preferably an action movie without an involved plot or a lot of dialog, slap that sucker on, and have at it on my machines, or just calisthenics. On a good day I work it hard for about half an hour. This gives me three workouts per movie and when combined with a couple of miles of fast walking after dinner works for me. I try to do it six or seven times a week.

    For most of my life I missed movies. So I have a lot of catching up to do. I’ve seen a lot of flicks. A really good movie gets me going and I push it hard for over an hour. Works for me.

  8. 8

    As you stated, as long as you have vetted the irrational behavior as something you don’t yet have a direct solution for, and there is relatively little harm in the “work around”, it ‘s fine . We all have tiny “work a- rounds” we indulge in all day but probably don’t even recognize them . We behave the way we do through a complex propulsion of biological chemistry , familial experience, and cultural/environmental influence. Our behaviors all have meaning and origin; sometimes we don’t have the time or ability to deconstruct them all (oodles of therapy or cognitive work ), and re-direct them from a conscious perspective. Thus, a work around, is perfectly logical.
    Someday we will put more investment into psychiatry/social psychology as a branch of medicine than we do now, and have better, more standard outcomes to behavioral problems . At this point psychiatry competes with our addiction to religion (as a solution to behavioral problems), so society does not fund or invest in social psychology as much as it could. The solutions are more complex than traditional medicine of course, because of the triad of influences mentioned above. But if we can put Opportunity on Mars, I think we can do a better job of social psychology giving us some answers to behavioral conundrums. Meanwhile, thankfully, I’m a 5 minute drive to my gym.

  9. 9

    What your conundrum demonstrates is that exercise is a more complex activity than it appears on the surface. It comprises needs for comfort and community that go well beyond the need just for gear, space, and convenience.

    Our reasons for procrastinating – in this case, on exercising at home – are always valid. I don’t know if they’re always rational, but I think they might be if you dig down deep enough.

    (The book I’m currently writing, btw, is about how to overcome procrastination in diet and exercise.)


  10. 10

    The only part of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I liked (and liked a lot) were his concepts of gumption, gumption traps, gumption setbacks, and gumption hangups. While it is considered the lynchpin for his platonism I saw it as entirely separate. As you might guess I don’t make a line in the sand that cleanly splits rationality from irrationality. Rather things we wish to do versus what it takes to get them done. What builds up gumption versus what tears it down. Even if you embrace game theory and utility factors you still need buy in, gumption to do it, and that is an ongoing conversation…with a separate set of traps, rewards, and momentum changes.

    In this sense gumption is profoundly important as it may define success or not and most of us don’t want that dynamic made so clear.

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