How Noble In Reason

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.

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5 Comments

  1. JK says

    I should likely click the links but I’m on Spring Break. Perhaps tomorrow.

    I’ve come to understand that should two totally unrelated subjects intersect in multiple timezones, on the “small-scale” then likely – one’s vision is too narrowly spotted.

    Humans on “primordial plain” were given range of vision.

    It can be trained to be ignored…., but why, what purpose?

    Posted March 14, 2009 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Addofio says

    Just to point out the obvious–in order to decide, or prove, that an action or idea or conclusion is irrational, there has to be some human thinking process that establishes rationality. So don’t get too carried away with rhapsodies to our irrationalities.

    Yes, the vast majority of our cognition is automatic, and a good thing too. But not all of it is, and that’s a good thing too. The automatic cognition enables us to walk and chew gum; the other stuff enables creativity and probability puzzles. And I’m sure you’re grateful for both.

    Posted March 17, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Just to point out the obvious–in order to decide, or prove, that an action or idea or conclusion is irrational, there has to be some human thinking process that establishes rationality. So don’t get too carried away with rhapsodies to our irrationalities.

    I wouldn’t say I was being rhapsodic about our irrationality; I thought I was lamenting it.

    And we do have various thinking processes that establish rationality; in, for example, the Monty Hall problem, we can make a thorough examination of the rationally determined course of action given the desired outcome.

    As you say, it is to our advantage that much of what we do proceeds automatically. It would be quite impossible simultaneously to manage everything we do by way of conscious attention. But the point here is that we often deceive ourselves as to what is in fact on automatic pilot and what isn’t, and that often these mechanical, unconscious processes give us untrustworthy results that we naively rely on nevertheless. We are better off, then, if we can learn to be more mindful when we need to, and to know when that’s appropriate. And Dr. Ariely’s work helps to show us our weaknesses in that respect.

    Posted March 17, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  4. chris g says

    From the same guy… this is pretty good! “systematic exploration of our intuitions”
    http://blog.aaronedelheit.com/2009/03/17/cheating/

    ps. and it’s got some interesting religious implications right in the middle of the lecture in case you want to fast forward!

    Posted March 17, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Thanks Chris, we’ll take a look.

    Posted March 17, 2009 at 11:37 pm | Permalink