Not Only Are We Irrational at Times, We Are Predictably Irrational

Sunni's picture

For any Objectivists and other hardcore rational types reading: does the second part of my title make this assertion easier to accept? I suppose you want to know what I’m basing it on before you answer ... well, come in to the screening room to find out.

I don’t recall whether NonEntity sent me the link to this TED talk, or whether I found it after watching the one he did recommend. Anyway, the field of behavioral economics is no longer brand new, but is seeing much greater interest in its work these days. I find it fascinating too, even if I was embarrassed back in grad school to be a sought–after example of such thinking. It isn’t necessarily problematic or faulty thinking, as I hope this vid shows ... all the same, even for someone like me who knows very well that Homo sapiens is not always the most sapient creature, it can be discomfiting to be singled out for it.

The vid features behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who wrote a book titled Predictably Irrational:



Fascinating stuff. For those interested in another perspective in the field, one of its founders—psychologist Daniel Kahneman—also gave a thought–provoking TED presentation.

I didn't find most of this

I didn't find most of this to be earth shattering, the beginning with the optical illusions is something I thought most people knew about. I am also not sure that the examples that he gives later are really examples of stupidity as much as just unconscious thought processes which can of course mislead people. Humans wouldn't even by able to function if all decisions had to made in a long thought-out way. Ariely's final comments gave me a little cause for concern when he talks about designing society with this information in mind. I don't know exactly what he has in mind so I don't want to attribute ideas to him that be does not hold, but I know that others will seize on such data (and most likely distort it) in order construct a totalitarian society.

It isn’t stupidity

I didn't find most of this to be earth shattering, the beginning with the optical illusions is something I thought most people knew about.

Knowing about them is one thing; being able to ignore them is another—and that was his point. Even when one is shown that a perception of difference is illusion, one generally can’t “correct” one’s seeing.

I am also not sure that the examples that he gives later are really examples of stupidity as much as just unconscious thought processes which can of course mislead people.

I don’t think Ariely is trying to demonstrate human stupidity; it seems to me he’s trying to show that, despite the desire to think of ourselves as fairly reliably rational and logical, some trivial things show that we aren’t (the Rome/Paris/coffee study is a good example). Given the complexity of many decisions we make these days, I think it’s a very good idea, at the least, to be aware of the way framing of options can distort our decision making.

Well it's true that one

Well it's true that one cannot correct one's seeing, that has nothing to do with being logical or rational so I'm not sure why he even used that in the first place.

As for the human stupidity thing, I probably worded that wrong, but the fact is that such presentations will often interpreted by many as suggesting such a thing. As for these things showing that people are not rational, one thing I would like to point out is that data should not be used as a analysis of the people themselves. As an example to make that more clear as the last sentence was vague, I recall someone once on some television news-type show saying how they wanted to try new things because he was 54 and that at age 55 research had demonstrated that most people stop trying new things (or something like that) the thing is that using such data is if it is some immutable law is an absurd way of viewing statistics. In the example of organ donation, Ariely never really considers what motivations people might have about that issue, perhaps most people do not feel that strongly about the issue one or the other. I would guess that the results might be different if the question was whether people's organs could be harvested when they were alive, but then again I could be wrong about that to. The point that I am making is that the statistics are one thing and the interpretation is quite another and I think it is important (in order to be rational ironically) to at least consider other ways of looking at these sorts of things.

The thing that concerned me about his comment at the end was that I am not sure what kinds of things he would propose to get around mental limitations. The pictures that he showed involving physical limitations, vehicles, things to lift vehicles are good things that in my view expand human freedom and are motivated by such a desire. If that is what he is proposing to get around mental limitations than I am completely on board.The concern that I have is that what some people propose as a solution to our mental limitations is turn society in a gigantic Skinner box.

Lastly, one area where I differ from many is that I don't think that rationality is as exactly a straightforward concept as many people think it is. I don't think that many things can really be judged to be rational or not, I believe they are either. For example, the decision to live or not is in my view not a rational one. Likewise, my views about the desirability of liberty are not rational. I may appeal to data in order to argue for a free society, but fundamentally those are built upon non-rational presuppositions that I hold. The difference, I would contend is that when I am more honest about this fact than the self-styled pragmatists who claim to be free from biases. To apply that to the thing in question, I don't believe, as some do, that the case for freedom is dependent upon whether people make (what are in my view) good or bad decisions because from my perspective, I see people make horrible and stupid decisions all the time.

Care to offer a definition?

Well it's true that one cannot correct one's seeing, that has nothing to do with being logical or rational so I'm not sure why he even used that in the first place.

Wouldn’t it be considered a major bug if a seeing computer had this kind of flaw? I agree, perceptual failings aren’t the best examples of faulty thinking; to me these kinds of things highlight that our brains do not always work logically—because I think it is logical to expect that something as complex and capable as the human brain should be able to be self-correcting in this kind of situation.

The point that I am making is that the statistics are one thing and the interpretation is quite another and I think it is important (in order to be rational ironically) to at least consider other ways of looking at these sorts of things.

Indeed. Statistics are just numbers, and can be used in all kinds of dubiously creative ways.

The concern that I have is that what some people propose as a solution to our mental limitations is turn society in a gigantic Skinner box.

Well, the Skinnerians already see society in that way; and any other very strict determinist could view it in a similar way, just substituting their terminology for Skinner’s. But that’s part of why those comments didn’t bother me: behaviorism had its heyday already, and was found quite wanting, both in explanatory and predictive power.

Lastly, one area where I differ from many is that I don't think that rationality is as exactly a straightforward concept as many people think it is. I don't think that many things can really be judged to be rational or not ...

I’m interested in your thoughts on what rationality is.