Stay Rational when Things are getting Weird

A Tale about Experiments, Decisions and a Green Unicorn

i.

Eight people in a room. Seven of them are sitting behind their desks and one is standing aside. Before them is the board with five portraits of five completely different men and women. Seven people are told to inspect them and see if there are two portraits of one and the same person.

This is not photography or painting class.

This is a social psychology experiment and something weird is going to happen.

Faces on the portraits are different, it is absolutely clear from the first glance. And yet six of the people are insisting that two of them are identical, defending a ridiculous idea that a man from one of the pictures can be seen on the other one dressed as a woman. That is why it is tough to spot him at first. But if you look closely…

These six guys are in the same team. Before the experiment they were asked to assert that they see two identical people. In fact, of course, they are lying.

But the seventh person didn’t know that. When asked first, he said that all people were different. After he had heard everyone else in the room stating that they were absolutely sure a man on one picture and a woman on another were the same person, he… found a way to convince himself that they were right.

After that when given a chance to change his opinion he is declaring that he was wrong. He admits that two absolutely different persons are identical. A man is making a terrible mistake because others have done so.

Do you think the guy felt that something weird was going on? I am sure.

Yet he made a wrong decision.

More to that. There was a second experiment with the same tested person. Now instructor showed the audience two plastic figures in a form of pyramids: one was black, and another one was white.

It was clear.

Guess what?

If you can’t believe it, neither could I. Out of many times the experiment was held, there was a significant number of people changing their opinion and calling white pyramid black.

It was weird first, but then they just got used to it.

ii.

These experiments were directed by Soviet researchers to study conformity, suggestibility and social proof pressure. They were filmed and later published in a form of documentary movie called “I and others”. It is on Youtube, you can check it and practice your Russian.

People were even claiming that these experiments in reality were directed to study methods of zombification.

Won’t argue about that.

Actually, similar experiments were conducted in USA even earlier. Solomon Ash, pioneer of social psychology, was known for showing to his classroom four distinct lines pictured on a white surface. Two of them were identical.

I think you already guessed what was happening next.

The main idea is not only that so many people are heavily influenced by social standards and can easily be confused when provided with wrong information.

The most terrible mistake happens when you feel that something is not right and even weird, but choose not to dig deeper. You just accept it. Then you lose your ability to be rational.

Three steps people are making towards their wrong decision:

  1. Denying knowledge. Tested persons admit that their first (and as we know, right) claim can be wrong. Despite evidence and facts, despite their ability to make reasonable decisions based on what they see, they hesitate. They go further and accept the reality in which white could be black. They think the possibility of them to be wrong is higher than that the others are lying. Or they don’t even think: caught by surprise in a weird situation their mind goes blank.
  2. Judgement. Here comes consequences of the first step — in a world where knowledge is neglected it becomes easy to explain to yourself why others are right and your initial judgement was wrong.
  3. Distorted Perception. The scariest thing. Based on a (wrong) decision a person who made it wants to be consistent. So he or she looses the ability to correctly use his/her knowledge. Next — becoming unable to distinguish what is truth and what is not.

When in a couple of minutes white becomes black, you would be in doubt if your ability to detect what is true is working properly, wouldn’t you?

iii.

I told you about this experiment because people fail to stay rational in weird situations. It can happen to everyone. The author of this article is not an exception, so I am worried.

Obviously there are much more in these researches but the first mistake is made when a person is so confused that he or she denies knowledge (dismisses what was considered to be true) and doesn’t seek for equal substitution, doesn’t make sure new truth is logical.

What people tend to do in confusing situations is to instantly make an assumption, or judgement, and accept new reality in which their new “truth” is based on what was an irrational decision from the start.

That is why people tend to be wrong, especially when they are caught by surprise or something new or strange happens.

The key for avoiding such a mistake is simple: stay Rational from the start.

There are two types of Rationality:

  • Epistemic Rationality. When your belief and decisions are based on what you know is true. A great example is a traveller with a map: map is knowledge that guides traveller’s decisions.
  • Instrumental Rationality. Decision-making based on your values, on what you really care about. Reconstruction of your old family house may not be the best way to invest money in, but it may have a high personal value for you. Therefore in your case this decision may be rational.

It is obvious that people usually make a mistake dismissing the first type of Rationality — Epistemic Rationality.

iv.

Imagine you are walking down the street of your home city and suddenly see a green Unicorn right in front of you, just standing there and beating the ground with his (or her? I am not good at it, sorry) hooves. The Unicorn waits for you to see if you move any closer.

That’s one of the weirdest situations you could get in. Yet it can perfectly illustrate the principle we are talking about.

Your thought process? Your decision? What should you do when there is a freaking Unicorn standing across the road?!


“Well, that’s a green unicorn, I see it. Cool! I always knew they existed. Maybe I even have to save the world. Not a task I would ask for, but there is nothing you can do with it, right? Hey you, come here, we’ve got a job to do!”

Probably this type of reasoning would not be rational. I cannot provide you with exact numbers (and no one can) but when you are assuming that the Unicorn is real you have probably fewer than 0.0000000001% chance to be right. Do not let your emotions, feelings and wishes (or, on the contrary, fears) to block your ability of critical reasoning.

It would be much more rational to go for the other explanation based on what you know: Unicorns are not real (whew…).

“This must be a joke (a horse coloured in green for some kind of a parade?), or maybe there is a movie shooting nearby. Seems like it would be better to stay away from that. I see no people around, perhaps I am the only one who doesn’t know about what is going on here. I can stay here and watch what will happen or find another way if I am in a hurry.”

Yes, sure. This is so obvious. You would be rational like that in a situation like that, easy. No green Unicorns, we all know that.

I hope you still remember those experiments. I told you about them for a reason. Now imagine if you were with a group of friends — and all of them were saying to you: look, Unicorns are real!

No way, you are not buying this. You know the truth.

Oh really? Bad news: based on the experiments we mentioned, there is a scientifically proved evidence that most people in such situation will agree that this Unicorn is real.

The worst is yet to come.

There is a second step. Most people will find a reason to explain why they were so blind and so foolish before that they didn’t think that Unicorns existed.

Third step. People will believe that Unicorns are as real as horses. What is even more terrifying, their belief will be based on knowledge that they saw a “real” one once. False belief based on a false proof, and once they have it, it will be hard as hell to dissuade them. They will have their evidence, they will have their own truth and they will be consistent in their own eyes.

To avoid falling into a trap of false beliefs we should be rational from the start. It means:

  1. Go to the assumption with the highest probability
  2. Decision making should be based on your knowledge in the first place
  3. Test every thing you see or hear for a reasonable proof
  4. Before accepting a new belief, check if it contradicts the one you already have

Life is full of weird things and situations and our ability to think clearly and make right decisions is being tested every day. I hope that these simple steps will help you to make good, reasonable decisions and avoid false beliefs.

And don’t forget to say hi to that green Unicorn if you meet him. Numbers are numbers, yet it never hurts to be polite.

PS: For more (scientific) information on Rationality check out the blog that inspired me to write this article: LessWrong.

If you found this article interesting, I would be really grateful if you hit the recommend button below for others to read it. Thank you, you are awesome!
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