Tuesday July 05, 2022

The limits of rationality

December 04, 2016

Introductory note: Brexit, the SVP, President Trump and general Rising Rightism have proven that better ideas are no guarantee of triumph even in countries with a strong progressive presence. Why are conservatives around the world so often better at persuasion than progressives, despite the cultural and intellectual victories of progressive ideas?

I have always loved rationality, always seen it as an oasis in a vast desert. It shimmered and glittered in my mind like a severe but beautiful jewel.

How much of it was a mirage?

The study and application of rational thought is responsible for almost every great advance in human history. Mathematics, philosophy, engineering. The vast legions of scientific disciplines. Strategy of every kind.

But it is shockingly ineffective on human beings.

We reject this idea because it is comfortable to imagine that human problems have clear and precise solutions. We cannot possibly help thinking that way; there is perhaps no more hallowed principle in the modern world than rationality.

We have been taught that free will is absolute and that people are in logical control of their actions. We continue to believe this even though it is obviously an unsubstantiated half-truth at best. It flies in the face of any observation in the real world.

Nobody is rational all of the time. Most people are not rational most of the time. This holds true across class, race, gender, religious and political affiliation (or lack thereof) and most other demographics.

Am I an exception? Certainly not. I care more at an emotional level about the trajectory of my career than of my country. I feed kittens shivering in the rain but might ignore beggars on the street. When a shooting that kills ten people is televised, the images and debates completely arrest my mind, as it ignores an unseen, faraway war with thousands of casualties.

 And if asked, I would lie about all of this to your face because I know these are not things we should feel – even though we all do.

We go through much of our lives on autopilot. And who can blame us? Not only is it exhausting to constantly critique our own thoughts and beliefs, it often leaves us unhappier than when we started! Humans learn quickly to avoid fruitless effort and pain, so we do.

One study after another has proven that people are unable to separate themselves from their physical bodies, from their experiences, from the influence of their environment. To list just three extremely simplified summaries (though I recommend reading the actual studies):

The Milgram experiment had its subjects believe that pulling a lever delivered increasingly severe electric shocks. When asked to pull the lever by a man dressed in a lab coat, most of them pulled it over and over again, as many times as they were asked.

The Cognitive Dissonance experiment found people could be made to genuinely believe their own lies within a matter of hours.

The Asch Conformity study asked fully grown adults to answer an extremely straightforward question – which of three lines were longer. Almost all of them gave the wrong answer if the people to either side of them did. Social pressure was able to overcome an obvious truth.

Were all these people sadists, psychotics or cowards? Of course not. They were just human, capable of great and terrible things given the right stimulus. I referenced these particular studies for dramatic effect, but an endless clutter of psychological experiments show that most people can be influenced, without great effort, to either harm or help.

The greatest delusion of otherwise rational people is the idea that rational argument is itself a tool of persuasion. That a position that is logically and ethically superior cannot fail to win hearts and minds. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To take just two examples of thousands: breast cancer and ALS are terrible, horrifying diseases that leave completely shattered families in their wake. It is difficult to imagine more worthy causes to donate to and raise awareness about. And yet it was not these ethical and rational concerns that mobilised most people, but the iconic pink ribbon brand and viral ‘ice bucket challenge’ social media campaign.

Is it right that humans are this way? That’s a philosophical question for finer minds than mine; practically speaking, the question is meaningless. It’s like asking why trees aren’t rocks.

Rationality is an incredible thing, and essential to human progress. But you wouldn’t try to fell a tree with a hammer, however excellent the hammer might be.

All of us have probably convinced someone to change their minds on something, and vice versa. If you recall your experiences, you will realise that each time it needed more than simply having a more factual and structured argument.

Perhaps demonstrated that we understood-though we disagreed with- where the other person was coming from. Maybe we tried to get someone to think of ‘the other’ as a real, three-dimensional person rather than an alien caricature.

In every case, we probably started by remembering that once you make someone defensive, even if they are clearly in the wrong, you have lost them. It may feel good to make them feel stupid in front of others – it is admittedly enjoyable – but I would suggest we don’t have the numbers to be making unnecessary enemies.

We are a species fascinated by stories, moved by emotion and enraptured by visuals. We protect people who we think of us our own. We are capable of breathtaking grace and generosity if the conditions are right.

There are many ways through which we can convince others of progressive ideals, which I believe are both ethical and practical. But before we can do that, we have to unlearn the idea that rationality sways humanity at large – even as we wish it were so.

The writer is a freelance contributor.