Thursday, 28 December 2017

I used to think people made rational decisions. But now I know I was wrong

Deborah Orr in The Guardian

It’s been coming on for a while, so I can’t claim any eureka moment. But something did crystallise this year. What I changed my mind about was people. More specifically, I realised that people cannot be relied upon to make rational choices. We would have fixed global warming by now if we were rational. Instead, there’s a stubborn refusal to let go of the idea that environmental degradation is a “debate” in which there are “two sides”.

Debating is a great way of exploring an issue when there is real room for doubt and nuance. But when a conclusion can be reached simply by assembling a mountain of known facts, debating is just a means of pitting the rational against the irrational. 

Humans like to think we are rational. Some of us are more rational than others. But, essentially, we are all slaves to our feelings and emotions. The trick is to realise this, and be sure to guard against it. It’s something that, in the modern world, we are not good at. Authentic emotions are valued over dry, dull authentic evidence at every turn.

I think that as individuality has become fetishised, our belief in our right to make half-formed snap judgments, based on little more than how we feel, has become problematically unchallengeable. When Uma Thurman declared that she would wait for her anger to abate before she spoke about Harvey Weinstein, it was, I believe, in recognition of this tendency to speak first and think later.

Good for her. The value of calm reasoning is not something that one sees acknowledged very often at the moment. Often, the feelings and emotions that form the basis of important views aren’t so very fine. Sometimes humans understand and control their emotions so little that they sooner or later coagulate into a roiling soup of anxiety, fear, sadness, self-loathing, resentment and anger which expresses itself however it can, finding objects to project its hurt and confusion on to. Like immigrants. Or transsexuals. Or liberals. Or Tories. Or women. Or men.

Even if the desire to find living, breathing scapegoats is resisted, untrammelled emotion can result in unwise and self-defeating decisions, devoid of any rationality. Rationality is a tool we have created to govern our emotions. That’s why education, knowledge, information is the cornerstone of democracy. And that’s why despots love ignorance.

Sometimes we can identify and harness the emotions we need to get us through the thing we know, rationally, that we have to do. It’s great when you’re in the zone. Even negative emotions can be used rationally. I, for example, use anger a lot in my work. I’m writing on it at this moment, just as much as I’m writing on a computer. I’ll stop in a moment. I’ll reach for facts to calm myself. I’ll reach for facts to make my emotions seem rational. Or maybe that’s just me. Whatever that means.

‘‘Consciousness’ involves no executive or causal relationship with any of the psychological processes attributed to it'David Oakley and Peter Halligan

It’s a fact that I can find some facts to back up my feelings about people. Just writing that down helps me to feel secure and in control. The irrationality of humans has been considered a fact since the 1970s, when two psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, showed that human decisions were often completely irrational, not at all in their own interests and based on “cognitive biases”. Their ideas were a big deal, and also formed the basis of Michael Lewis’s book, The Undoing Project.

More recent research – or more recent theory, to be precise – has rendered even Tversky and Kahneman’s ideas about the unreliability of the human mind overly rational.

Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-Conscious Nature of Being is a research paper from University College London and Cardiff University. Its authors, David Oakley and Peter Halligan, argue “that ‘consciousness’ contains no top-down control processes and that ‘consciousness’ involves no executive, causal, or controlling relationship with any of the familiar psychological processes conventionally attributed to it”.

Which can only mean that even when we think we’re being rational, we’re not even really thinking. That thing we call thinking – we don’t even know what it really is.

When I started out in journalism, opinion columns weren’t a big thing. Using the word “I’ in journalism was frowned upon. The dispassionate dissemination of facts was the goal to be reached for.

Now so much opinion is published, in print and online, and so many people offer their opinions about the opinions, that people in our government feel comfortable in declaring that experts are overrated, and the president of the United States regularly says that anything he doesn’t like is “fake news”.

So, people. They’re a problem. That’s what I’ve decided. I’m part of a big problem. All I can do now is get my message out there.

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