Saturday, February 24, 2007

Everyday reasoning including irrationality

A review of Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland by Nicholas Lazzard in today's Guardian Review Section commands purchase and reading of the book. First published in 1992, the book explores the extent of irrational thinking on a daily basis. Mr Lazzard says, "There are few books about psychology that can make you laugh out loud; this is one of them."

Daily examples of irrationality are:

1. Leaping to a decision.
Much irrationality results from simple laziness. We jump to a conclusion without taking the time to think things through. On the other hand, we all know people who analyze to excess. When the cost of additional analysis exceeds the expected loss that may be avoided by such analysis (or the expected gain to be achieved thereby), it is time to stop.

2. Inadequate brain cache.
A human can hold only a small number of ideas in his mind at one time...... When faced with a complex decision, a decision maker must use at least elementary principles of decision theory if he or she is to arrive at an optimal result. Even the simple method outlined by Benjamin Franklin -- writing down pros and cons in two columns on a sheet of paper -- can greatly increase the probability of reaching a rational decision. More advanced techniques can be used to advantage in complex cases.

3. Self-deception.
This well-known pillar of irrationality can be explained by reference to the principle of cognitive dissonance -- the mental conflict that occurs when cherished beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new evidence. The tension aroused by this conflict is eased by various defensive mechanisms: denial, rejection, avoidance, and so forth.

An example of this in the book: "Almost everyone reading these pages will at some time have paid money to see a bad film or a bad play. Despite excruciating boredom, people often refuse to leave, even if the show is so bad that they would have paid a small amount of money to avoid seeing it at all. Thus, they irrationally suffer a double blow - they have spent money and they endure an hour or two's needless boredom. The sensible thing for them to do is to leave, which means they only suffer the monetary loss."

What do you do in such cases? I confess clinging to the irrational belief that while the book I am reading or the movie I am watching is execrable, it must (surely) get better if I go on reading/watching it. On only one occasion have I left a movie before the end. Its easier for me to abandon a book. If I can't finish it, I give it away.

Moreover, there are assumptions we make that cause us immense difficulties:-

The first is: "Because it would be highly preferable if I were outstandingly competent, I absolutely should and must be. It is awful when I am not. I am therefore a worthless individual."

The second irrational (and unprovable) idea is: "Because it is highly desirable that others treat me considerately and fairly, they absolutely should and must do so, and they are rotten people who deserve to be utterly damned when they do not."

The third is: "Because it is preferable that I experience pleasure rather than pain, the world absolutely should arrange this and life is horrible, and I can't bear it when the world doesn't."


Rev Dr Mom said...

There are LOADS of studies in psych that look at "flaws in logical reasoning" and and things that lead us to supposedly irrational choices.In a similar vein, the arguably best known theory of cognitive development, that of Jean Piaget, is based on the notion that mature thinking is logical. The developmental research runs into all kinds of problems because it turns out that many people never reach that most mature level. I wonder if the real issue is that humans are NOT inherently logical and rational despite our claims to the contrary.

All this reminds me that I never got the book by Wilson that we were discussing New Year's day...did you get it?

Deirdre said...

I did but confess to a superficial reading :(