What if the only thing holding us back from being more rational was our weak understanding of what it means to be rational?
We all have some idea of what rationality is, but it’s only a vague idea. For the vast majority of us, rationality is a fuzzy concept, like beauty. If I ask you what beauty is, the first thing you’ll probably do is think of examples of beautiful things, and then try to see what these things have in common. You already know things of beauty by how they make you feel. Similarly, when you think of what’s rational, the first thing you’ll probably do is identify some examples that point the way. Here, however, your examples will likely be examples of irrationality. In fact, right now, you’re probably thinking about a recent news story that made you ask yourself, “Why are people so irrational?”
Rationality is not something we’re taught about in school. For that matter, most colleges and universities don’t explicitly teach their students about rational thinking. Instead, schools generally teach behaviors that are more or less rational. Schools teach us facts and mathematical methods. They teach us cultural norms, and teach us how to critique literature. Most schools have a debate team, where interested students can learn public speaking, and techniques of persuasion. This complex symphony of behaviors is what defines rationality for the majority of people today.
Isn’t it curious that we all think that a big problem with the world today is a lack of rational thinking, but we don’t explicitly teach rational thinking anywhere in our education system?
The blindness of our culture to ideal rational thinking is very costly. It’s not that teaching ideal rational thinking will somehow make us all ideal thinkers. Rather, teaching people about the ideal creates a narrative for understanding our strengths and weaknesses. By understanding the ideal, we get a means to put our actual behavior in perspective, and find ways to compensate for our irrationality.
I’ll take just one example. We all have a tendency to think that the bad acts of others are a result of poor character, but think that our own poor decisions in similar situations are the result of our circumstances. This mistake causes us to get mean. We lose patience, and scream at people who make bad choices. We’re quick to blame poor values for errors when poor situations might be the real culprit. This bias is called fundamental attribution error. A few people really do have values that offend us, but the guy who cut you off in traffic probably isn’t evil. And, the coworker who just snapped at you might not be a nasty person, but a nice person struggling through a difficult day.
Understanding this bias at an intuitive level would go a long way towards making the world a better place. Instead of getting angry, we would automatically begin to reflect on the situational factors that caused the bad behavior. We would calmly begin to consider the ways that we could create an environment that makes transgressions less likely.
In my next post, I’ll consider reasons why an intuitive understanding of cognitive bias might be an effective way to deliver the wisdom of traditional aphorisms.