Do people really do what is best for them? And if not, why?
Why are we doing irrational things?
There’s a view that people are rational beings and will act logically, doing what brings them most benefit.
Trouble is, there are too many exceptions to this rule.
These exceptions are all around us. Think of students skipping classes, procrastination, drug and alcohol addicts. Think of people refusing to sell in a falling market and ending up with nothing. Think of your own irrational decisions.
What makes us do things we shouldn’t be doing?
There’s a theory that logical thinking came late in evolution. Because of that it still doesn’t work that well. Our breathing and our memory are both governed by our nervous system – yet we never forget to breathe.
We also have a more ancient layer of our brain, the emotional one. It’s much quicker and is more efficient. Intuition can help us make complex decisions very quickly and with fewer mistakes than logical thinking.
Trouble is, our emotional, or ‘quick’ brain, comes with a few hidden features.
Evolution has played with our brains for thousands of years. A useful change is a change that helps a group survive. Let us look at optimism (and by the way, the majority of people are optimists and not realists, which is why most new businesses fail). Nine out of ten optimists will die trying to cross a river to get to a new rich land. Number 10 will cross, prosper and have 20 kids. Worked out great for the population which doubled in size. Not so great for the nine optimists who died trying to cross the river.
The issue is that there are three major differences between the world when nature was programming our emotional brain and the modern world.
1) Most people no longer live as part of a common ancestry group which they need to protect.
Excessive courage, optimism, aggressiveness, vengeance… All of these have their place in a world where you are a part of a group, and you risk your life to secure group survival. The modern world is centered around an individual. Vengeance is no longer the only way to get justice, and reckless bravery and aggression doesn’t benefit most people.
2) Our survival is not at stake in our modern lives – not as often as it used to be.
Your boss is telling you off. What’s the worst that can happen? You lose your job. Best case scenario, this is just a misguided management style from your boss who has watched too many business dramas, and the conversation will have no consequences. Yet your body behaves as if this is a life and death situation. Your blood pressure is up, your adrenalin is running high, you clench your fists, your face becomes red. You feel like you could punch your boss there and then, and you won’t stop thinking about the encounter for weeks.
3) Most quick brain activities that used to make sure we survive back when we lived in groups make our life worse today.
Procrastination used to make sure we only do important things and don’t waste our energy on the small stuff – today it ruins our life by stopping us from being productive. Anger mobilized us against danger – today it ruins relationships and gets us in trouble.
A word of caution – logical thinking can work together with the quick brain to prove our feelings. Just think how different your thoughts are before and after a guilty pleasure (a cigarette, food you shouldn’t be having, playing a game instead of studying, etc). It is amazing to what lengths our conscious mind will go to delude us into believing that it’s the logical us who wants the extra piece of cake. Whereas in reality the craving we are experiencing is just a left over code that evolution did not remove from our brain…
What can we do to become more rational? My answer is, learn about the irrationality of our minds as much as possible. Luckily, when we learn about an illusion it tends to stop working (or at least becomes more manageable).
As always, I would like to recommend some books for you to read.
This book is written by the researcher who pioneered the psychology of cognitive biases causing irrational behavior.
This book is a much easier read on the subject, written by a journalist helping advance acceptance of the cognitive bias research.