We are Not Rational


Think You're Rational? Think Again

The Western world has been worshiping at the altar of our own three-pound brains for the past few centuries, but new discoveries call for “re-thinking” this belief, so to speak.

The Enlightenment

We seldom question where we may have picked up a given idea, but the prevailing idea that Reason is the supreme source of truth is fairly easy to trace. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Age of Reason, or The Enlightenment, started roughly  in the mid-seventeenth through the eighteenth century. It started with a “Woohoo-we are now free of all past biases and superstitions-we are rational and we can figure it out for ourselves, thank you.”


Each generation, at least in the West, dishonors its ancestors in this way. We are the apex of humanity, those who have gone before were ignorant and deserve to be ignored. We are rational! Rationalism holds that all humans think in the same way, reason is abstract and disembodied, and emotions are at best a hindrance to reason and at worst a symptom of disease. Reason is conscious, under control, and deals with objective reality.  Humans are rational and selfish and this combination of qualities leads to survival and even prosperity. The snag is that all these assumptions are false. Does it matter? Yes, the policies of entire nations are built on these false assumptions, and in an age when nuclear weapons sit brooding in underground silos, it matters very much.

Spock or Kirk?

Cognitive researchers, aided by advances in technology, have found that the human brain does not operate quite so mechanically as once imagined. George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive researcher at UC Berkeley and author of The Political Mind, states that studies of brain function show that human beings do not all think the same, almost all thinking takes place on the unconscious level, and emotions are essential for thinking. While people obviously share aspects of basic brain functioning, each individual constructs their own neural networks in response to their surroundings. Therefore each person thinks in slightly different ways, even if raised as siblings.

Hot Cognition: Thinking and Emotions

Not only are emotions not enemies to the thinking process, they are essential to it. Lakoff explains that we think in a networked way, having developed frames and metaphors to make sense of the world. For example, we think of a rise in height as an increase in quantity because we have observed repeatedly that pouring liquids into a glass makes the level rise. We don’t analyze this, we just assume it, and we filter new information through the metaphors and frames already in place. It is hard to change someone’s mind because its hard to change their brain. Hard, but not impossible. People do learn new things all their lives and their brains adapt, like the London cab drivers who develop a larger hypothalamus in response to the massive memorization their job requires.

Magic Markets

Because humans have different neural networks, two intelligent people can listen to the same facts and reach different conclusions. This obviously has huge practical implications in everyday life. Apparently we recognize this on some level because we say others are “hard-headed” or “His mind is made up, don’t confuse him with the facts.” In the area of finances,US economic policy is based on the assumption that humans rationally weigh costs versus benefits before purchasing anything. Supposedly, rational self-interest make the markets magically, almost sacredly, self-regulating. It is therefore close to blasphemy to impose any regulations on financiers.

Free Market Fallacy

Repeated market crashes and recessions have called the free market religious doctrines into question. According to the NOVA documentary “Mind Over Money,” not only do average consumers not behave rationally with their money, even financial professionals gamble, compete foolishly, and take irrational risks. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, illustrates flaws in human rationality using optical illusions. According to popular opinion “seeing is believing,” yet even after Ariely exposes the illusion, when viewers see the original picture they are fooled again. Another Ariely example is the offer of an all-expense paid trip to either Paris or Rome. People choose one according to personal preferences for visiting one or the other city. When offered three options: a trip to Paris, a trip to Rome with free morning coffee, and a trip to Rome without free morning coffee, they choose Rome with free coffee even if they want to see Paris.

If our economic policy isn’t working because it’s based on false assumptions, the rational thing to do is develop new economic policy. After two hundreds years of accepting that we are rational and even that our rationality will save us,changing our minds and our brains will no doubt meet with irrational resistance.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Enlightenment

Dan Ariely, “Are We in control of Our Own Decisions?”

Dan Ariely, “Predictably Irrational,” Harper Collins, 2008

George Lakoff, “The Political Mind,” Viking, 2008

George Lakoff, video, Moral Politics


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