Humans are not rational agents

If you’re of the epistemological subset of thinkers who believe humans behave rationally — well then — I have news for you.


The concept of rationality as a way to describe the ideal which guides human decision-making was borne of the study of economics and of the work of J. M. Keynes and similar economic actors of his time. However, as a concept, rationality has bled across disciplines.

Economists and behavioral researchers combined have long decided that humans at best exhibit ‘bounded rationality’ (see: Herbert Simon’s work). The term ‘bounded rationality’ is used to designate rational choice that allows for the cognitive limitations —both knowledge and computational capacity — of the decision-maker. Bounded rationality is a central theme in the behavioural approach to economics, which is deeply concerned with the ways in which the actual decision–making process influences the decisions that are ultimately reached.

One of the modern day mavens of this field of research is Dr. Dan Ariely — and I am a professed fan of his work. You may have seen his books on bookshelves, or watched his Ted Talks. To summarize Dr. Arely’s work succinctly, he has found that humans are more comparable to the fictional bumbling fool that is Homer Simpson than the hyperrational Mr. Spock from Star Trek. One of the things that Dr. Ariely has found is that sometimes, rationality is not in our best interest.

When our cognitive advantage works against our ultimate motive

Something strange happens with highly intelligent people who experience high levels of anxiety. You might assume that because these people are smart, they would be able to use logic to disrupt fears which are at their root illogical (for it is often logic lapses, or an inability to reason competently, which often generate anxiety). However, it turns out that an excess of logic applied to unrelated stimuli to identify potential threats can work against what the brain was meant to do and turn an innocuous situation into a dreadful one.

Highly intelligent people have a well-tuned psychological function, which is the ability to infer. They can exact meaning and understanding from otherwise incongruent pieces of information. This is why people who have extremely high IQs (taken as a proxy for intelligence — it’s the best metric we’ve got) often report struggling with more basic things, such as social skills, or driving a car. Whereas others see the world as one dimensional, the highly intelligent see it in three dimensions. They think more deeply than is often necessitated by the task at hand. This gives them their ability to create, understand, strategize and be innovative. But, it can also be a trapping mechanism.

In the same way that a highly intelligent person’s brain can work against them, so too can excess rationality. This is because at times, they make something called a “faulty inference,” which is when falsehoods or prejudices are made from otherwise valid evidence.

The process at work in an anxious brain is that it is taking an often innocuous stimuli and extracting some kind of sense or making a prognostication from it. When you’re scared, your brain is working full-throttle to identify the thing that can potentially hurt you, and then creatively inventing ways to avert that experience or negative stimuli. The smarter the brain, the better it becomes at this.

Ways in which our brain fools us

A faulty inference is when you come up with the wrong conclusion based on valid evidence. This means that what you’re seeing, experiencing or understanding might show fidelity with the world, but the assumptions that you are piecing together from it are not, or are highly unlikely.

One example is a hasty generalization, which is when you extrapolate about an entire group of people based on one or two experiences you’ve had. This is the core bias at the base of a lot of racism and prejudice. Another example is post hoc ergo propter hoc, which is what happens when you assume that because two things happened concomitantly, they must be related — even if they aren’t otherwise.

A false dichotomy is a trapping that occurs when you assume, binomially, that there are only two possibilities that could be valid, when in reality, there are far, far more. An example of this is when your boss calls you to a private meeting, and you assume you are either be getting a promotion, or getting fired. A slippery slope is another false inference in which you assume that one event will cascade into a series of others, even if they certainly will not.

These are just some of the myriad of ways your brain can bamboozle you. Though it intends to keep you alert, sometimes, the threat becomes more ghost than ghoul, and unable to decipher the difference, your body responds regardless to an apparition.

In the same way that high intelligence may create more problems than it solves, overly-rational behavior might create too-rigid of a worldview and decision-making paradigm that ultimately works against our ends. The irrationality of our actions may bely that we subscribe to different Gods (in a Nietzschean sense) than we confess to, or maybe even realize. And it is of paramount importance that whenever we act irrationality, we strive to understand why. If there might not be a greater truth at work.

Undeniably, there are those who stand to benefit from acting more rationally. But I posit that there is often a greater truth at work in the irrational brain, one that elucidates the complexity and breadth of our needs.

Ultimately, one subscribes to higher-order functions than can be met with meer rationality. One’s wellbeing, as described economically or otherwise, is like to fall short of some other driving force, like the yearning for connection, purpose, sex and procreation, and if nothing else, the defiance or demand to be accepted as unique.

Christopher D. Horruitiner

Written by

Science, philosophy, & fiction. Expect all three. My formula for quality: 5 hour(s) researching : 1 hour(s) writing : 1 hour(s) editing. Articles forthcoming.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade