The “Monty Hall problem”, which we looked at in a recent post, is a revealing example of the ways in which, despite our vaunted intelligence, our cognitive intuitions are often misleading, or simply wrong. This is worrisome: just how extensive is the problem? If we can’t trust our intuitions about simple probabilities, then what else can’t we trust?
Answering this question is made more difficult by the fact that in making this inquiry, it is our suspect cognitive apparatus itself that must perform the inspection. How can we be confident that this machinery can reliably detect its own defects and limitations? The problem requires careful and disciplined attention.
We like to think that we are fully rational decision-makers, that we make our free choices in the illuminating glow of conscious awareness, and that we do so by way of a transparent and defensible process of reason. This is utterly wrong, of course: we spend most of our time in a kind of waking sleep, we react to almost everything in an entirely mechanical way, and nearly all of our cognitive processes are altogether inaccessible to our introspection.
But that our mentation is so mechanical means that once its workings are understood it is, like the behavior of any other machine, predictable. We may not be as rational as we think, but we are irrational in many consistent and reliable ways.
Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has devoted his academic career to this project. He has published a book about it called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and has created a website devoted to the topic as well.
Here is a brief video in which Dr. Ariely introduces us to his subject.