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The Irrationality of Irrationality: The Paradox of Popular Psychology

Here’s my latest on ScientificAmerican.com 

In 1996, Lyle Brenner, Derek Koehler and Amos Tversky conducted a study involving students from San Jose State University and Stanford University. The researchers were interested in how people jump to conclusions based on limited information. Previous work by Tversky, Daniel Kahneman and other psychologists found that people are “radically insensitive to both the quantity and quality of information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions,” so the researchers knew, of course, that we humans don’t do a particularly good job of weighing the pros and cons. But to what degree? Just how bad are we at assessing all the facts?

To find out, Brenner and his team exposed the students to legal scenarios. In one, a plaintiff named Mr. Thompson visits a drug store for a routine union visit. The store manager informs him that according to the union contract with the drug store, plaintiffs cannot speak with the union employees on the floor. After a brief deliberation, the manager calls the police and Mr. Thompson is handcuffed for trespassing. Later the charges were dropped, but Mr. Thompson is suing the store for false arrest.

All participants got this background information. Then, they heard from one of the two sides’ lawyers; the lawyer for the union organizer framed the arrest as an attempt to intimidate, while the lawyer for the store argued that the conversation that took place in the store was disruptive. Another group of participants – essentially a mock jury – heard both sides.

The key part of the experiment was that the participants were fully aware of the setup; they knew that they were only hearing one side or the entire story. But this didn’t stop the subjects who heard one-sided evidence from being more confident and biased with their judgments than those who saw both sides. That is, even when people had all the underlying facts, they jumped to conclusions after hearing only one side of the story.

The good news is that Brenner, Koehler and Tversky found that simply prompting participants to consider the other side’s story reduced their bias – instructions to consider the missing information was a manipulation in a later study – but it certainly did not eliminate it. Their study shows us that people are not only willing to jump to conclusions after hearing only one side’s story, but that even when they have additional information at their disposal that would suggest a different conclusion, they are still surprisingly likely to do so. The scientists conclude on a somewhat pessimistic note: “People do not compensate sufficiently for missing information even when it is painfully obvious that the information available to them is incomplete.”

In Brenner’s study, participants were dealing with a limited universe of information – the facts of the case and of the two sides’ arguments. But in reality – especially in the Internet era – people have access to a limitless amount of information that they could consider. As a result, we rely on rules of thumb, or heuristics, to take in information and make decisions. These mental shortcuts are necessary because they lessen the cognitive load and help us organize the world – we would be overwhelmed if we were truly rational.

This is one of the reasons we humans love narratives; they summarize the important information in a form that’s familiar and easy to digest. It’s much easier to understand events in the world as instances of good versus evil, or any one of the seven story types. As Daniel Kahneman explains, “[we] build the best possible story form the information available… and if it is a good story, [we] believe it.” The implication here is that it’s how good the story is, not necessarily its accuracy, that’s important.

But narratives are also irrational because they sacrifice the whole story for one side of a story that conforms to one’s worldview. Relying on them often leads to inaccuracies and stereotypes. This is what the participants in Brenner’s study highlight; people who take in narratives are often blinded to the whole story – rarely do we ask: “What more would I need to know before I can have a more informed and complete opinion?”

The last several years have seen many popular psychology books that touch on this line of research. There’s Ori and Rom Brafman’s Sway, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and, naturally, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you could sum up the popular literature on cognitive biases and our so-called irrationalities it would go something like this: we only require a small amount of information, often times a single factoid, to confidently form conclusions and generate new narratives to take on new, seemingly objective, but almost entirely subjective and inaccurate, worldviews.

The shortcomings of our rationality have been thoroughly exposed to the lay audience. But there’s a peculiar inconsistency about this trend. People seem to absorb these books uncritically, ironically falling prey to some of the very biases they should be on the lookout for: incomplete information and seductive stories. That is, when people learn about how we irrationally jump to conclusions they form new opinions about how the brain works from the little information they recently acquired. They jump to conclusions about how the brain jumps to conclusions and fit their newfound knowledge into a larger story that romantically and naively describes personal enlightenment.

Tyler Cowen made a similar point in a TED lecture a few months ago. He explained it this way:

There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book… [they are] all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias.

The crux of the problem, as Cowen points out, is that it’s nearly impossible to understand irrationalities without taking advantage of them. And, paradoxically, we rely on stories to understand why they can be harmful.

To be sure, there’s an important difference between the bias that comes from hearing one side of an argument and (most) narratives. A corrective like “consider the other side” is unlikely to work for narratives because it’s not always clear what the opposite would even be. So it’s useful to avoid jumping to conclusions not only by questioning narratives (after all, just about everything is plausibly a narrative, so avoiding them can be pretty overwhelming), but by exposing yourself to multiple narratives and trying to integrate them as well as you can.

In the beginning of the recently released book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains how some books (his included) make a case for how one certain thing (in Haidt’s case, morality) is the key to understanding everything. Haidt’s point is that you shouldn’t read his book and jump to overarching conclusions about human nature. Instead, he encourages readers to always think about integrating other points of view (e.g., morality is the most important thing to consider) with other perspectives. I think this is a good strategy for overcoming a narrow-minded view of human cognition.

It’s natural for us to reduce the complexity of our rationality into convenient bite-sized ideas. As the trader turned epistemologist Nassim Taleb says: “We humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas.” But readers of popular psychology books on rationality must recognize that there’s a lot they don’t know, and they must be beware of how seductive stories are. The popular literature on cognitive biases is enlightening, but let’s be irrational about irrationality; exposure to X is not knowledge and control of X. Reading about cognitive biases, after all, does not free anybody from their nasty epistemological pitfalls.

Moving forward, my suggestion is to remember the lesson from Brenner, Koehler and Tversky: they reduced conclusion jumping by getting people to consider the other information at their disposal. So let’s remember that the next book on rationality isn’t a tell-all – it’s merely another piece to the puzzle. This same approach could also help correct the problem of being too swayed by narratives – there are anyways multiple sides of a story.

Ultimately, we need to remember what philosophers get right. Listen and read carefully; logically analyze arguments; try to avoid jumping to conclusions; don’t rely on stories too much. The Greek playwright Euripides was right: Question everything, learn something, answer nothing.

The Irrationality Of Irrationality

Reason has fallen on hard times. After decades of research psychologists have spoken: we humans are led by our emotions, we rarely (if ever) decide optimally and we would be better off if we just went with our guts. Our moral deliberations and intuitions are mere post-hoc rationalizations; classical economic models are a joke; Hume was right, we are the slaves of our passions. We should give up and just let the emotional horse do all the work.

Maybe. But sometimes it seems like the other way around. For every book that explores the power of the unconscious another book explains how predictably irrational we are when we think without thinking; our intuitions deceive us and we are fooled by randomness but sometimes it is better to trust our instincts. Indeed, if a Martian briefly compared subtitles of the most popular psychology books in the last decade he would be confused quickly. Reading the introductions wouldn’t help him either; keeping track of the number of straw men would be difficult for our celestial friend. So, he might ask, over the course of history have humans always thought that intelligence was deliberate or automatic?

When it comes to thinking things through or going with your gut there is a straightforward answer: It depends on the situation and the person. I would also add a few caveats. Expert intuition cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment, as Kahneman argues in his latest book, and it seems like everyone is equally irrational when it comes to economic decisions. Metacognition, in addition, is a good idea but seems impossible to consistently execute.

However, unlike our Martian friend who tries hard to understand what our books say about our brains, the reason-intuition debate is largely irrelevant for us Earthlings. Yes, many have a sincere interest in understanding the brain better. But while the lay reader might improve his decision-making a tad and be able explain the difference between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala the real reason millions have read these books is that they are very good.

The Gladwells, Haidts and Kahnemans of the world know how to captivate and entertain the reader because like any great author they pray on our propensity to be seduced by narratives. By using agents or systems to explain certain cognitive capacities the brain is much easier to understand. However, positioning the latest psychology or neuroscience findings in terms of a story with characters tends to influence a naïve understanding of the so-called most complex entity in the known universe. The authors know this of course. Kahneman repeatedly makes it clear that “system 1” and “system 2” are literary devices not real parts in the brain. But I can’t help but wonder, as Tyler Cowen did, if deploying these devices makes the books themselves part of our cognitive biases.

The brain is also easily persuaded by small amounts of information. If one could sum up judgment and decision-making research it would go something like this: we only require a tiny piece of information to confidently form a conclusion and take on a new worldview. Kahneman’s acronym WYSIATI – what you see is all there is – captures this well. This is precisely what happens the moment readers finish the latest book on intuition or irrationality; they just remember the sound bite and only understand brains through it. Whereas the hypothetical Martian remains confused, the rest of us humans happily walk out of our local Barnes and Noble, or even worse, finish watching the latest TED with the delusion feeling that now, we “got it.”

Many times, to be sure, this process is a great thing. Reading and watching highbrow lectures is hugely beneficial intellectually speaking. But let’s not forget that exposure to X is not knowledge of X. The brain is messy; let’s embrace that view, not a subtitle.

A Brief History of Popular Psychology: An Essay

It is unclear when the popular psychology movement started, perhaps with Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, or how it is defined, but it could be generally described by the public’s growing interest in understanding people and events from a sociological, economical, psychological, or neurological point of view.

Over the last decade the New York Times bestseller list has seen a number of these books: Ariely’s Predictably Irrational (2008) and The Upside of Rationality (2010), Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (2006), Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis (2006), Lehrer’s How we Decide (2009), and Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge (2008). What unites them is their attempt to “explore the hidden side of everything,” by synthesizing numerous academic studies in a relatable way, drawing upon interesting real-world examples, and by providing appealing suggestions for how one can understand the world, and his or her decisions and behaviors within the world, better.

The popular psychology movement is the result of a massive paradigm shift, what many call the cognitive revolution, that took place in the second half of the 20th century. Although it’s starting point is unclear, George A. Miller’s 1956 “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” and Noam Chomsky’s 1959 “Review B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” were, among others, important publications that forced psychology to become increasingly cognitive. Whereas behaviorists – who represented the previous paradigm – only considered the external, those involved in the cognitive revolution sought to explain behavior by studying the internal; the cause of behavior was therefore thought of as being dictated by the brain and not the environment.

The cognitive revolution naturally gave rise to the cognitive sciences – neuroscience, linguistics, artificial intelligence, and anthropology – all of which began to study how human brains processed information. A big part of the revolution revolved around the work done by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman and Tversky developed a cognitive bias and heuristic program in the early 1970s that changed the way human judgment was understood. The heuristics and biases program had two goals. First, it demonstrated that the mind has a series of mental shortcuts, or heuristics, that “provide subjectively compelling and often quite serviceable solutions to… judgmental problems.” And second, it suggested that underlying these heuristics were biases that “[departed from] normative rational theory.”

Kahneman and Tversky’s work was vital because it questioned the notion that judgment was an extensive exercise based off of algorithmic processes. Instead, it suggested that people’s decisions and behaviors are actually influenced by “simple and efficient… [and] highly sophisticated… computations that the mind had evolved to make.”

Their work was complimented by Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross’s 1980 book Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment, which outlined how people’s “attempts to understand, predict, and control events in their social sphere are seriously compromised by specific inferential shortcomings.” From this, a list of cognitive biases began to accumulate. These included: attentional bias, confirmation bias, the endowment effect, status quo bias, gambler’s fallacy, the primacy effect, and more.

The cognitive biases and heuristic program was just one part of the cognitive revolution however. The other equally important aspects came a bit later when psychologists began to empirically study how unconscious processing influenced behavior and conscious thought. These studies stemmed from the 1977 paper Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes, by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson. Nisbett and Wilson argued that, “there may be little or no direct introspective access to higher order cognitive processes,” thereby introducing the idea that most cognition takes place automatically at the unconscious level.

Wilson continued his research in the 80s and 90s, eventually developing the concept of the “adaptive unconscious,” a term he uses to describe our ability to “size up our environments, disambiguate them, interpret them, and initiate behavior quickly and non-consciously.” He argued that the adaptive unconscious is an evolutionary adaptation used to navigate the world with a limited attention. This is why we are able to drive a car, type on a computer, or walk without having to think about it.

Complimenting Wilson was Yale psychologist Jon Bargh who significantly contributed to the study of how certain stimulus influenced people’s implicit memory and behavior. In numerous experiments, Bargh demonstrated that people’s decisions and behaviors are greatly influenced by how they are “primed”. In one case, Bargh showed the people primed with rude words, such as “aggressively, bold, and, intrude,” were on average about 4 minutes quicker to interrupt an experimenter than participants who were primed with the polite words such as “polite, yield, and sensitively.”

Also in the 80s and 90s, neuroscientists began to understand the role of emotion in our decisions. In the 1995 book Descartes Error, Antonio Damasio explicates the “Somatic Markers Hypothesis” to suggest that, contrary to traditional western thought, a “reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behavior.” NYU professor Joseph LeDoux was also instrumental in studying emotions. Like Wilson, Nisbett, and Bargh, LeDoux advocated that an understanding of conscious emotional states required an understanding of “underlying emotional mechanisms.”

Along with emotion and the unconscious, intuition was another topic that was heavily researched in the past few decades. It was identified and studied as a way of thinking and as a talent. As a way of thinking, intuition more or less corresponds to Wilson’s adaptive unconscious; it is an evolutionary ability that helps people effortlessly and unconsciously disambiguate the world; i.e., the ability for people to easily distinguish males from females, their language from another, or danger from safety.

Intuition as a talent was found to be responsible for a number of remarkable human capabilities, most notably those of experts. As Malcolm Gladwell says in his 2005 best seller Blink, intuitive judgments, “don’t logically and systemically compare all available options.” Instead, they act off of gut feelings and first impressions that cannot be explained rationality. And most of the time, he continues, acting on these initial feelings is just as valuable as acting on more “thought out” feelings.

By the 1990s, when the “revolution in the theory of rationality… [was] in full development,” the line between rational and irrational behavior became blurred as more and more studies made it difficult to determine what constituted rational behavior. One on hand, some (mainly economists) maintained rationality as the norm even though they knew that people deviated from it. On the other hand, individuals like Herbert Simon and Gerd Gigerenzer argued that the standards for rational behavior should be grounded by ecological and evolutionary considerations. In either case though, rational choice theory was what was being argued. Because of this, the 1990s saw books such as Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality (1994), Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Mind (1996), and Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (1991). Each perpetuated that idea that behavior or decision-making was to be judged by a certain standard or norm (in this case, rational choice theory) as the titles imply.

However, when all of the facets of the cognitive revolution – cognitive biases and heuristics, the unconscious, emotion, and intuition – are considered, the idea that we act rationally begins to look extremely weak; this observation has heavily influenced the popular psychology movement. Pick up any popular psychology book and you will find Kahneman, Tversky, Nisbett, Wilson, Bargh, Damasio, Ledoux, and others heavily cited in arguments that run contrary to rational actor theory.

What’s interesting, and my last post touched on this, is that each popular psychology author has something different to say: Dan Ariely pushes behavioral economics to argue that we are all predictably irrational; Damasio argues that reason requires emotion; Gladwell, David Myers, and Wilson suggest that mostly thought is unconscious and our intuitive abilities are just as valuable as our rational ones; Daniel Gilbert and Jonathan Haidt illustrate how our cognitive limitations affect our well-being; Barry Schwartz shows how too much choice can actually hurt us; and Jonah Lehrer draws upon neuroscience to show the relationship between emotion and reason in our decision-making.

As a result of all these assertions, the human condition has become seriously complicated!

If there is something to conclude from what I have outlined it is this. Implicit in any evaluation of behavior is the assumption that human beings have a nature or norm, and that their behavior is deviating from this nature or norm. However, the popular psychology movement shows that our brains are not big enough to understand human behavior and our tendency to summarize it so simplistically is a reflection of this. We aren’t rational, irrational, or intuitive, we are, in the words of K$sha, who we are. 

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