In Defense of Being Irrational
When Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky published their paper on Prospect Theory in 1979, few people could have imagined the long-term implications.
The findings were still elementary at the time, and they hadn’t yet developed a full framework around it, but the seeds of change were there.
They had discovered that contrary to the model of decision-making espoused by modern economic theory, in real life, humans didn’t make rational decisions based on outcome, but rather, they thought in terms of gains and losses using mental heuristics that often led them to sub-optimal choices.
In short, we are irrational agents by nature, and it tends to get in our way.
Today, a whole new field of research — which we call behavioral economics — has been established to better understand this phenomenon.
We now know that our brain has certain cognitive biases that stop us from seeing the world as it really is and interacting with it in a way that will maximally benefit us. Many of these biases are a product of our emotional judgments; we are too quick to trust our intuition.
There is no doubt that this is a revolution in our understanding of decision theory. Once you’re exposed to the different ways that the brain tricks you, it’s not difficult to see the loopholes in your own thinking patterns.
Our emotions like jumping to conclusions, they often lack context, and their goals conflict with the broader ideals that our logical thoughts have laid out for us. We are always at war with them, and it’s not a war we always win.
It’s no surprise, then, that we have started to lean towards pure, rational decision-making, a method of inquiry that thinks more and judges less.
The conclusion is that emotions are outdated, and it’s time we leave them behind. And as we have seen, the logic is seductive. But is it right?
Emotions As Probability Calculators
I’ve recently been exposed to the research of psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, and it’s clarified some of my own thoughts on the matter.
According to Barrett, the current paradigm that understands our emotions as having distinct expressions, say, like anger, sadness, or happiness, is beginning to show some cracks. While these categorizations help us make sense of complex interactions, it’s not a faultless model.
Instead, she has proposed the theory of constructed emotions, which essentially states that there are no pre-existing emotions that everyone shares like anger, sadness, or happiness, but what we have is a survival system that evaluates our surroundings to create a unique emotional landscape.
The purpose of this landscape is to give us quick, condensed information about our environment so we can figure out an optimal route of action.
The thing you call anger isn’t a distinctly programmed thing, but it’s a concise information point, and it gets updated by each new experience you have to better reflect your place in the world and your understanding of reality. Essentially, what we call emotions are probability calculators.
For example, this would suggest that if an event that makes you “angry” occurs multiple times in succession without actually harming you in a way that the feeling of “anger” predicted, and you don’t aggressively hold on to that label, by the tenth time you experience this event, your initial response would have slowly changed from the feeling of “anger” toward something more representative of the situation.
This may make intuitive sense to us, but I think most of us overlook how fluid and malleable this emotional landscape is if we don’t confine it to the feelings of words that we are culturally conditioned to experience.
Now, I’m not necessarily suggesting that this contradicts with the work of Kahneman and Tversky, as even if we see our emotions as being more emergent and holistic, for most of us, they do still seem to lean towards the short-term even though the modern world rewards the long-term.
That said, it shows a level of inbuilt flexibility, and more importantly, it shows that if our emotional landscape is adequately trained, we can nudge our mind to align with the model of reality we want to create for ourselves.
The ability to quickly absorb billions of information points from your environment and then have an accurate, corresponding response ready within seconds is an incredibly valuable tool. Although it may occasionally lead us astray, discounting its value seems a little premature.
The Marriage of Sense and Reason
One of the things people who put all their faith in reason and human logic overlook is that, even if their process is correct, what they have logically reasoned is still only a map of reality and not the actual thing.
The universe is an incredibly complex system. Now, of course, if we could be sure that our logic and reasoning could incorporate every single detail of this system into its process, then it would make sense to treat such reasoning abilities as infallible. Unfortunately, we know that isn’t the case and that shows the limitations of our thinking mind.
On the other hand, given that our emotional system — that gives us information points through a sense or a judgment — has been refined by the battery of evolution for much, much longer than the thinking mind, we know that it absorbs more of the nuances of reality before it comes to a conclusion.
Many small details that we can’t identify directly are missed by the thinking mind but picked up by the intuitive mind, and while these details are small, it doesn’t mean that not accounting for them won’t produce a second or third order effect that completely diverges away from the logic we assumed.
It seems, to me, that the best decision-making system is neither fully rational nor what we would call irrational. It’s a combination of both. In fact, Barrett's model even suggests that cognition and emotion are not distinct at all.
There is a growing group of people who are calling this combination meta-rationality, and the idea is simple: reason gives us a huge edge, and we need to respect that edge, but the seeming irrationality of a well-tuned emotional system, within the right context, can fill in gaps that reason misses.
We still have the difficult job of deciding when to reason and when to sense, and in what proportions, but knowing the value of both and honing our emotional landscapes to align with our model of the world as it exists, rather than dismissing them, is a move in the right direction.
The solution to the problems that Kahneman and Tversky identified isn’t to simply accept that parts of our mind are inherently biased and that we have to avoid interacting with them at all costs. It’s to dig a little deeper and to carefully work with the foundation of these biases in a way that captures their strengths without indulging their weaknesses.
It’s not about a dichotomy of one over the other. It’s about synergy.
As far as our knowledge, the human mind is the most complex structure in the known universe. We don’t fully understand it, and we can’t fully categorize it.
In recent decades, we have seen a drift between the merits of our emotional judgments and the merits of rationality as it relates to our understanding of the world and our ability to make optimal decisions while living in it.
Led by the work of Kahneman and Tversky, this drift has favored the logical mind at the expense of the older, quicker survival system we have in place.
In a world where we know we can absorb every single relevant detail from our surroundings so that we can make fully rational choices, this may indeed be the way forward. Unfortunately, we don’t yet live in such a world.
The irrationality of our fine-tuned sense intelligence contains grains of truth that can’t be captured by active thought, and the most effective way to relate to our complex reality is to balance the input from both ends.
If emotions really do act as probability calculators, we have to do our part to refine them and then intentionally involve them into a broader, more complete meta-rationalistic system of decision-making.
Our experience of the world doesn’t always fit into the neat little dichotomies that we create to understand it, nor does it conform to rigidity.
Rationality is one of the most valuable life tools, but alone, it’s not enough.