[nope, no game theory fun-facts here]
Are you a rational person? If you had asked me this question during my late teens to late twenties, I would have proudly said … yes! There is a good chance I would have also started raving about how stupid people are and how 95 percent of people are completely irrational.
It feels so good to think this way, to assume that others are influenced by some kind of hormonal-emotional inner voice, while your own thinking and decisions are based on a solid weighting of information.
Looking back at myself at this age, I can now admit that all the wrong choices I made in my personal and professional life had roots in this self-perception. More than this, I believe that all the most terrible decisions people make, whether regarding themselves or others, have roots in this self-perception.
In the last few years I have freed myself almost completely from this attitude. No, this doesn’t mean I started to make stupid decisions. On the contrary, I think my decision-making has improved.
On the professional front, this also made me a better marketer and business person. And on a personal level, I am now happier and more at peace with the world, and the world is at peace with me.
I dedicate this post to all the rationality fighters, to all the super-smart techies I meet, to all the fellow liberals, to all the justice fighters. I love you all — just please stop waving the wrong flag. It will make your life way better.
Humans are incapable of rational decision-making
Usually such a sentence comes from a somewhat arrogant perspective, directed at other people, but not yourself. But the fact is that it’s a simple physiological and psychological truth.
Allow me to set it up for a second. In the core of our brain lies a structure that we call a reptile brain. It’s not just a nickname, it’s an actual structure that we have left in the human brain from the time when we used to crawl on our bellies. Beyond it lies a middle brain, which has stayed there since the early days we became mammals. The rational brain sits on top of those two structures.
Basically, our brain is something like very sophisticated software running on very old hardware that has undergone numerous upgrades. It’s very buggy and extremely prone to biases.
The biggest “problem” is that the basic functions of our brain, such as decision-making, have never migrated into the more advanced parts of our brain. They are influenced by the new and middle parts of the brain, but the true boss of decision-making is still the crocodile within us.
This means that you cannot convince people to do something outside their comfort zone by using rational rhetoric. It’s physically impossible without involving more primitive parts of the brain.
Rational arguments lead to conclusions, but emotional/primal ones lead to actions.
Just think about it: When have you seen a person change his mind about politics after a fierce discussion? When were you able to convince an Apple person to switch to Android?
In order to change established political views, people need a drama of some sort. There is nothing like blood on the streets to make a person reconsider their political views (crocodiles love blood). As to our phone example, a broken screen without insurance can be enough of a drama to turn an Apple fan into an Android phone owner.
What more intelligent people are really good at is rationalizing things in retrospect. In this respect our new brain acts like a debate team — it receives a decision it was hardly involved in making, and starts thinking of claims that support it.
Humans are simply incapable of making rational decisions without involving the crocodile within. Admit it and set yourself free!
You shouldn’t even want to be rational
Think about it. There are many types of rationale: a psychopath can see himself as being extremely rational when “eliminating” a rival. People find rational justifications to racism, misogyny, and whatnot. So why is being rational still considered a virtue?
Seeing oneself as rational is also extremely condescending. When you see another person as irrational, as opposed to simply seeing him as being wrong or misinformed, you’re implying that he’s not capable of proper thinking. You’re branding him with a personal trait that he cannot shed.
Rational thinking creates a terrible lens for looking at political rivalry and is largely responsible for increasing the gaps in modern society. Marking an opposing group as less rational immediately creates an unbridgeable gap. Who would volunteer to educate an irrational person? He is irrational — it won’t work.
To summarize this point, for me being a rational person simply means being a PUTZ, and I have stopped being one.
Yes, but you cannot compare me to all the other…
If you feel this article is a bit of a trap, you are right. I did try to make what can be perceived as rational arguments to prove you are irrational. Do you feel a bit trapped? Great! Now allow me to release you from the trap.
So, what are you if not a rational person? A smart person? An intelligent one? Maybe a person who over-rationalizes things? [I used to be one… and nothing good ever came out of it.] My recommendation is to see yourself as a critical thinker.
You think it’s just terminology? No, it’s not. Being a critical thinker demands work — it necessitates constant self-questioning and improvement, as opposed to rationality, which is a constant quality that demands no work or investment.
Improving communication with other “irrational” people
Understanding and accepting that ALL, even the smartest, people are irrational made it easier for me to approach them, to earn their trust and to convince them to follow my lead.
But most of all it allowed me to discover and deeply understand the only way to influence human decision-making (beyond personal experiences). A route that is much more efficient than rational arguments. A certain something that lights up all three previously mentioned areas of our brain [literally lights up if you look at the brain through MRI]. This certain something is stories (like those I use in this article).
From an analytical/critical-thinking perspective using stories when trying to convince people of something is the most “rational” thing one can do. The expanding body of research proves the power of stories over humans. This is the only part of human communication that has allowed us to evolve so much as a species within the 100,000 years since humans started to use language. This is the only way we truly learn.
From relationship to business, from art to science, stories are probably the only way to reach and touch humans. So if being a rational person means being a putz, being a critical thinker and a storyteller means being at the forefront of human evolution. It means using your brain to its full capacity — understanding and feeling humanity through all its aspects.
Anyway, this became a long story, and if you’ve survived so far you might want to subscribe. In future posts, I will try to tell more about the efficiency of stories in different aspects of life and about structuring proper stories for various purposes. You can also read more about my own epiphany here.