Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

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, which are there for good evolutionary reasons but which 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 have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines — but I doubt it. And 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 deal with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, learn to 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, and 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 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 elsewhere. I have exercise equipment at home: it’s not quite as good as what I get at the gym, but it’s fine, 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 it up for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to be distracted and 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 working out until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there’s no kittens, no snacks, no Internet, not even any TV except the TVs 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 typically spend at least an hour.

This is entirely irrational.

So the question is: 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, as 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 this fallacy to my advantage?

Which is the rational choice?

Another example. There’s a computer app that lets you voluntarily block your own access to the Internet. At the cost of $10, this app will let you pre-set a stretch of time during which you won’t be able to get on the Internet — so you won’t be lured by the essentially infinite distractions the Internet has to offer, and can get some work done. (In a branding effort so ironic it’s almost Orwellian, the app is named “Freedom.”) And if you’re thinking, “But I need access to the Internet to do my work!” — there’s another app, “Anti-Social,” that only blocks access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in case you need the Internet for research and just want to cut off the more temptingly distracting regions of it.

And if Freedom’s creators are to be believed, it has over 400,000 users.

Totally irrational. Why pay a company ten bucks for the privilege of not going on the Internet? Why not just, you know, not go on the Internet? But I’m buying the apps right now, even as I write this. Both of them. Because I know myself. I know that I am easily distracted. I know that I can easily spend hours on Facebook and Twitter — and as a writer, I can easily rationalize this time as work. (“I’m not wasting time, I’m doing publicity/ networking/ self-promotion!”) And I know that my willpower is not an infinite resource. I know about decision fatigue. I know that making one decision, once in a day, to not go on the Internet for the next (say) four hours will be a whole lot easier and less fatiguing to my brain than having to make that decision ten times a day, a hundred times a day, every single time I think “Oo, Facebook!” and have to force myself to stay away.

So which is the rational choice? Is it rational to try to make myself be more rational… or is it rational to accept the reality of my irrationality, and work around it and even with it?

I think this is a trickier question than at first it seems. On the one hand… obviously, if some mental workaround gets me exercising or working more efficiently, what’s the harm? But I don’t think this way about any and all consciously chosen irrationalities. I didn’t (for instance) keep taking glucosamine for my bad knee once I found out that it definitely didn’t work. A part of me wanted to, even tried to rationalize doing so, on the grounds that it probably didn’t do any harm and pretending I was doing something to heal my knee made me feel all empowered and stuff. But I couldn’t do it and live with myself as a skeptic. And when people say things like, “I know that my belief in God isn’t rational, but it makes me happy, so what’s the harm?”, it drives me up a tree. I do think we have a moral obligation to be rational. When we’re not rational, when we let ourselves think wrong things just because we want to, we can do harm to ourselves and others — because we have a faulty understanding of how cause and effect actually works in the world. (Look at parents who let their sick children suffer or die, because they believe that medical treatment will anger their god.) And I think rationality is a discipline, one which requires a certain amount of practice. I don’t think it’s so easy to be rational in some areas of our lives, while consciously letting ourselves be irrational in others. I think if we do that, we’re likely to engage in self-delusion at the very times when we most need to be on our toes.

So how do we parse that difference? How do we decide when the rational choice is to practice that discipline and make ourselves not act irrationally — and when the rational choice is to acknowledge the reality of our own irrationality, and accept it, and work with it? What standards might we apply to answering that question?

I’m kind of thinking out loud here, and I don’t really have an answer. (If others have ideas about this, I’d love to hear them!) But I can tell you one of the ideas I’m leaning toward:

There’s a difference between irrationality that denies reality, and irrationality that doesn’t.

“I won’t work out at home no matter how good my intentions are,” “I am easily distracted by shiny beads on the Internet” — these are subjective conclusions, conclusions about what is true for me. Ultimately, it boils down to a personal preference: I just like working out at the gym more. 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.

God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
On the other hand, “Glucosamine works” or “Glucosamine doesn’t work,” “God exists” or “God does not exist” — these are not subjective questions. These are assertions about what is and is not true in the non-subjective world, the world that doesn’t disappear when we’re not here to perceive it. To hold on to the idea that glucosamine works or that God exists, simply because you find the idea comforting and would like for it to be true… that is a denial of reality.

And I care about reality. I think we have a moral obligation to care about reality, and to understand it as best we can, and to prioritize it over wishful thinking.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being irrational in our personal, subjective choices: where we want to live, what work we want to do, what kind of art captivates us, who (if anyone) we want to marry. These choices might be wrong — if we abandon our partner and our family and run off to become the world’s greatest macaroni artist, that hurts people other than ourselves — but it’s the “hurting other people” part that makes those choices wrong, not the irrationality part. Silly, frivolous, irrational passions can be among the greatest joys in our lives.

But when it comes to questions of external, objective reality, I think we have an obligation to act rationally. I think we can accept our irrationality, use it to our advantage, even embrace it and love it. But I think this acceptance, this embrace, has to be part of our acceptance of reality — not a denial of it.

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

12 thoughts on “Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

  1. 1

    Have you read “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman? It covers this peculiar aspect of our brains. Fascinating stuff from a Nobel Prize winner.

  2. 2

    ‘I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being irrational in our personal, subjective choices: where we want to live, what work we want to do, what kind of art captivates us, who (if anyone) we want to marry.’

    I don’t think deciding what form of art is good or where we would like to live is irrational. I’d draw a distinction between the irrational the anti-rational and the merely non-rational. Here’s an example of what I mean, I’m watching a sunset. If I think to myself ‘the reason why I’m seeing the red, pink and orange colours is due to increased Raleigh scattering of sunlight caused by the sun’s rays passing through the atmosphere at an angle’ the I’m being rational .If I’m awe-inspired by the staggering beauty of the sunset, then I’m not being rational, but I’m merely being non-rational there’s nothing incompatible between what I’m feeling and my understanding of Raleigh scattering. I start being irrational if I start thinking that the stunning beauty of the sunset must be the work of a benevolent creator, and I’d be positively anti-rational if I thought that those who failed to believe that a benevolent creator made the sunset and tried to understand it in terms of physical laws were spiritually impoverished, incapable of appreciating beauty and morally defective.

    Reason is the tool by which we understand the world and make informed decisions, non-reason is the basis of our experience: emotions, physical sensations and so forth. Far from being in opposition, reason can be the perfect compliment to non-reason. To go back to the sunset, I can use a rudimentary knowledge of Raleigh scattering to work out when the best time to go out and enjoy the sunset is, and try to balance my desire to see the sunset with my other needs (finishing work, getting an early night etc) to asses what the best way to spend my evening will be. The fruits of my reasoning though, will be entirely non-rational experiences (enjoying an beautiful sunset, having peace-of-mind from getting all my work done, being refreshed after a good night’s sleep) Reason delivers the goods, non-reason enjoys them!

    Irrationality is basically a breakdown or flaw in our reasoning process, drawing an erroneous conclusion, or making a flawed decision. Human’s aren’t perfect, so we’re all going to do this sometimes. Anti-rationality by contrast, can be described as a philosophical stance which juxtaposes reason and non-reason, falsely concluding that reason somehow limits our ability to enjoy non-rational experiences.

    I’m afraid that doesn’t quite answer your point, but its a bit of philosophical musing I’ve been going over for some time now!

  3. 3

    “So which is the rational choice? Is it rational to try to make myself be more rational… or is it rational to accept the reality of my irrationality, and work around it and even with it?”

    Why do you think that that’s an either/or?

    Human being aren’t entirely rational. That’s fine. Heck, you’re one of the people who linked to Julia Galef’s excellent “Straw Vulcan” talk a couple of years back.

    You aren’t entirely rational. You never will be, and would likely be much less interesting if you were. Congratulations on being human! So accept it, and use it. Use rational logic to figure out how to use it best!

    That’s no reason to not try and be more rational at the same time though. Try to spot your irrationalities, and attempt to eliminate or nullify the ones that don’t do you any good, while remaining aware of the ones you can take advantage of.

    However, I don’t think expecting to “win” and to remove all irrationality is a desirable (or rational) goal. I think it’s more like learning – you learn stuff because it’s interesting and fun and makes you a more capable person, even though you’d never expect to “learn everything”. Each step along the path is a valuable achievement in its own right.

  4. 4

    I’ve never thought of this as a conflict, really. My brain is just another part of my environment that I have to factor in when making decisions. I don’t think of the gym thing as irrational — it’s just…some aspect of how my brain works — some aspect of the environment in which and about which I try to make decisions that I might get stuff done better at a gym than at home.

  5. 5

    I’ve been a model railroader for years. I’ve sunk thousands of dollars and thousands of hours into building a replica of a real-life railroad which doesn’t actually exist. Is this rational? No, it isn’t. I’m not even rational about how I build my railroad since I hand-lay all the track (including turnouts) rather than buying flex track and commercial turnouts. When I move into a nursing home or die, whichever comes first, my layout will almost certainly be torn up, the rolling stock sold and the rest of it thrown into the trash. But I don’t begrudge any of the money or time spent on my layout because it gives me pleasure.

    Oh look…shiny…..

  6. 6

    Decision scientist here. I think the general approach to figuring out whether to kick the bias or work with it is to ask two questions:
    (1) what is the goal?
    (2) what is the impact of getting there?
    It takes a bit of layered thinking and being honest with yourself to be able to answer those questions. Bias creeps up when we try to answer those, and that skews the results. For instance, you may claim that of course you’d start exercising right now at home, you’re no slacker–people are tempted to answer with how they see themselves, not necessarily with how they actually are. This is a type of self-perception bias.

    With the gym, the goal is to work out starting now, not in six months. History shows you that you won’t do it at home, and you know it will take months to correct that behavior. The cost of membership is reasonable when weighed against trying to fight the weight of habit, given that the goal is to start now. You can’t put off exercising for the time it will take to correct your habits, and the cost of membership isn’t so exorbitant that it outweighs that benefit. The answer here depends on how much you value starting now vs how much you value the cost of membership. Down the road, after being a member for a while, you may find that you’re now motivated to exercise at home because the habit of exercising has become ingrained. At that point you could drop the membership.

    Let’s look at a behavior like emotional eating, such as eating chocolate when you’re feeling bad. The goal is to feel better. The impact is that you learn a bad behavior, it doesn’t solve the root problem behind why you feel bad, and it’s an unhealthy eating pattern–but it will superficially make you feel better. The key here is that its outcome relies on several factors: the negatives take effect only if you overdo it, and if you use it as a “solution” to your problems rather than as a break from them. Is this irrational, is it a bad idea to allow this behavior? It depends. Feeling good is seductive. Can you use it as only a break, in moderation, while knowing you still need to fix the root problem? Will feeling temporarily better make you think everything is fixed, that you need no longer deal with the real problem? Will you feel the need to eat until you feel better, even if that means eating to excess? Will you become so attached to feeling good that you don’t want to go back to feeling icky as you deal with the real problem? Of course not all of these issues come up every time you reach for an ice cream. The idea here is when irrational behaviors become problems. Recognizing it as it’s happening is extremely difficult–there’s a reason most addiction programs have “admitting the problem” as the first step.

    Now take belief in a god, in a higher power. For the sake of discussion, treat it as if it were the a deer. Innocuous enough, right? It seems so, until you realize how many policies we have concerning our interactions with them. Auto insurance when we hit them, deer hunting regulations, the disposal of carcasses, population control, keeping them out of our yards, the diseases they carry, etc. How many more policies do we have in trying to keep ourselves in line with a god? Most people would say that’s the point of our entire legal system. What’s the goal here? To not go to eternal hell, to not sin, to be happy in this life and the next. If the god is real, then it’s perfectly rational to do these things. If the god isn’t, is it worth all these just-in-case precautions, all these sacrifices? Part of the problem is that asking those questions is forbidden, and that people are naturally risk-averse: death and eternal suffering is pretty much the ultimate negative consequence, the ultimate risk. The general approach to these things is to present two sides, but that’s the absolute worst way to do it because it triggers so many biases against either side being able to consider the merits of the other.

    I’m straying from the point. Asking which to do, to go with or against a bias, depends on the ability of the person to recognize bias as it’s happening and then to analyse the impact of each decision. It’s a rabbit hole of biases. It’s already incredibly hard to recognize a first-level bias, let alone see it on every meta-level decision you’re making. Logic has been looking at some of this for eons, but decision science is a brand new field. There’s so many factors that distilling it down to a x+y=z type of formula is ridiculous. My two questions at the top don’t adequately cover the needed ideas; they’re naught but a starting point. This is a social science, and here as with many questions, the answer is “it depends”.

    In the future I think I’ll just write a response blog and link here. Learning!

  7. 8

    The first question is simply what does anyone mean by “rational” when the mechanism we use to judge rationality is not set up for this newcomer thought process of thinking, logic and objective rationality. General rule of thumb is that pretty much everyone thinks they are being rational. Some seem to get closer to that ideal than others.

    Part of working construction is knowing how to work with imperfect tools. A good case is the builder’s level. It is a 4′ stick with small bent glass vials that identified plumb and level for you. Lets say you want to draw a level line around a room for a tile job. You figure your height and hold the level to the wall approximately level, fine tune the placement using the vials and draw a line with a pencil using the level as a guide. Then you slide the level over another 4′ and do it all again. Figure 12 times for a 12′ square room.

    Odds are if you do it that way by the time you get back to where you started the lines will not match up. No matter how carefully you try to be the lines are always off. An error 3/8″ is likely as close as it gets, Ive seen far worse, and many builders doing a tile job would figure it is okay as long as they put the gap behind the door. (Discussions of how we error up is a discussion for another day) The thing about levels is that when new they are all pretty close to perfect but after a bit of banging around they all seem to develop almost imperceptible, but dangerous if multiplied, flaws. A simple error of 1/32″ over four feet is imperceptible but multiplied 12 times it works out to be 3/8″ and a 3/8″ difference in a tile job is pretty obvious.

    Yes, you could go out and buy another, more accurate, and much more expensive level but odds are, in time, it will also develop its own quirks. Even higher tech laser levels depend on being set up correctly and recalibrated regularly. Pursuit of perfection to avoid any error is usually a waste of time and effort.

    So, how do we get the job done with the tools we have? Is there some way to set it up so an error one way is compensated for by the same relative error the other? Is there some way to set it up so errors average out instead of multiplying? That would mean that while no 4′ section of the line was perfect the overall line would be no less accurate than any one 4′ section. Easy enough in this case. The trick here is to draw the first bit of your line and then flip the level so the opposite face is against the wall. The level, and user, is no more accurate but the error of the first use is compensated by the error in the second use.

    How would you use this technique in life? One way is to use your imagination. Flip the characters in your life. If you get around manipulative people and get bound up in prior history and mind games imagine if some other person did what they do. Would you stand for it? If you have some racial bias, most of us do, imagine if that person were another color. How would that change things? Put yourself in their position. Are your demands, or lack of demands, reasonable? Often the question is not how you, with your baggage and perceptions would want to be treated. Instead try to imagine their baggage and perceptions and figure out how they want to be treated.

    Through it all try to remember that error is inevitable, you can minimize it but it is not going away. Avoid perfectionism and accept a certain amount of error. A rule of thumb is that if I can’t spot the small errors something big is wrong. A sense of humor helps.

    I think you misidentify the problem as irrationality when what you seem to be facing is a classic problem of internal conflict and drives. You are easily distracted so find something that will occupy your mind while doing what you should. I watch movies while I exercise. I used to seldom go to movies. Using the DVDs from my local library I have pretty much caught up on all those big movies I missed. Unfortunately it doesn’t work well with wordy consume dramas. Damn hard to exercise hard to Sense and Sensibility. On the other hand a good action film really boosts performance. I’m thinking of trying books on tape. Catch up on all that literature I’ve been meaning to get around to.

    IMHO your best bet is to avoid cute tricks like that internet disabling program. Too often I see those as just another distraction and mechanizing of the internal conflict instead of developing a mechanism to negotiate a solution. Instead of toys try cutting a deal with yourself. Imagine you are negotiating with someone you respect. Something you like for something you need to do as the basis of the deal. Try to make it a win-win proposition. Start small and work up.

    This might give you a double benefit. You do more of what you need to and do it by negotiating with yourself and not neglecting either of the drives. No winners, no losers. Both sides get respect. Everything you want to do and everything you need to do gets a turn.

    And if you blow the deal and screw up, take it easy. You can do better next time. Try to screw up in the opposite direction so the errors cancel each other out. And laugh.

  8. 9

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with harnessing our biases to work for us, but it is dangerous. If your ability to motivate yourself to exercise is dependent upon falling victim to the sunk cost fallacy, then you may develop an attitude where you see that particular fallacy as overall helpful and beneficial. As a rationalist, you should be resisting and trying to get over all fallacies that you are able to recognize. It’s fine to harness them, temporarily, for your benefit, but it should always be viewed as a temporary shortcut until you are able to get past the fallacy.

    This wouldn’t be the case if the sunk cost fallacy was limited to your motivation to exercise, but it isn’t. You can probably identify other areas of your life where you fall victim to that fallacy in less beneficial ways. If you allow yourself to think fallaciously in one area, it will be much harder to prevent in other areas. For that reason, I don’t support the decision to “accept” our fallacious thinking.

    tl;dr – it’s ok to harness your irrationality as a temporary measure, but it’s best to try to get over it in the long term.

  9. 10

    @wfenza: These don’t acquire the same kind of reinforcement that a learned behavior does. You can’t unlearn a bias, and you can’t reinforce it. No amount of disassociation will cause you to feel less of a pull towards it. What you can learn is to identify it and what its impact is. Then you can decide whether you wish to allow it or to toss it out. It’s like working with any other natural restraint: gravity, chemistry, biology, the weather. You know it’s hurricane season, so you choose to either not live there or to buy flood insurance. You choose to carry a mattress down the stairs, or you choose to drop it out your window. Those aren’t perfect analogies, but they’re somewhat close. The point is that it’s silly to do things the hard way every time when there’s no reason to do that. These mental shortcuts exist for a reason: they are useful, it’s just that they’re not always applicable. You just have to remember that they’re rules of thumb, not laws of nature. They come built in because they save us a lot of mental effort. Having to constantly stop and reinvent the wheel each time would have killed us, and still would paralyze us.

  10. 12

    Interesting “in a nutshell” question:

    Is it rational to buy lottery tickets?

    The answer is obviously no if the only upside is the vanishingly small chance of getting any money from them. The reason people buy tickets at all, one could argue, is because our brains are unable to rationally respond to such massively unlikely odds.

    Given our irrational brains, however, you could argue that money isn’t the only possible reward for buying a lottery ticket. What if buying a lottery ticket gives you hope? What if your life is shit and right now you don’t see any way of it getting better and you just need a way to believe things can do better for a little while? What if a lottery ticket gives you that hope specifically because of the irrational way your brain responds to it?

    If what you need is to be able to hope that things will get better, and buying a lottery ticket makes your brain able to hope that things will get better in a time when little else works, then even if the brain-reasoning behind that hope is ultimately irrational, is it not a rational decision to buy the lottery ticket anyway?

    I think it is rational. I think it’s rational because irrational things can be applied in rational ways. I don’t think applying the bugs in our irrational brains in rational ways to rational problems is irrational.

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