People Are Irrational, and that's OK

My own confusion, clarified

Posted by fiddlemath on November 1, 2012

26 Jan 2005

People are irrational, and that’s OK.

For years, I thought this: “People aren’t rational beings, but I should act towards them as if they are. If I don’t, I’ll be treating them as if less than human.”

This is wrong. Certainly, honesty and clarity are important values in communication. Unfortunately, people have emotions, and are likely to misinterpret or disregard simply-written communication.

People aren’t rational. This is obvious on reflection. the thrust of much cognitive science in the past few decades is that people are not only irrational, but irrational in predictable ways. As such, it may be incorrect, or even immoral, to pretend that they are rational and act accordingly.

Moreover, people don’t expect rational behavior from other people. As such, there’s little or no chance of offending a random stranger by treating them as if they were irrational. What is offensive, rather, is to be blatantly patronizing.

The central lesson, here, for me: I can’t assume that people have psyches similar to mine, because they probably don’t. People are strange, irrational, subject to credulity, and likely delusional. If they’re different enough from me, then treating them as rational people is likely to be misinterpreted, and certain to be misunderstood.

21 Dec 2011

When I first wrote this, in 2005, I was trying to understand how to interact with a few people who were largely led by (to me) wildly emotional mood swings, and sometimes paranoia. I’d have a hard time talking with them - often leaving them crying or angry. To them, I was grossly insensitive to their feelings; to me, they had no control of themselves. They assumed, deep down, that a person’s behavior is primarily emotional; I assumed, deep down, that a person’s behavior is primarily rational.

I still think they were vastly overemotional people, but on the key determinants of human behavior, they were clearly less confused than I.

1 Nov 2012

I can summarize better:

  • When I was young, I assumed that everyone was “sane”: usually reasonable, rational, and in control of themselves.
  • Shortly thereafter, I realized that everyone was mad. Mad! Ruled by emotion! Not rational at all! Obviously, I though, it would be rude to point this out, or act as if it were true.
  • Quite a while later, I finally realized that my standards for madness were shared by almost no one; that emotion is the main determinant in most action, and not reason.
  • In the past few years, I think I’ve finally internalized that my own actions are primarily determined by my emotions, as well, and that pretending otherwise just means I have a poor mental model of myself.

This last point has important consequences. If I want to get me to act, an early step is to get me to feel the right way about it. I can do this far better if I’m doing it deliberately, instead of by chance. I can’t do it deliberately at all if I pretend that I am a lucid model of crystal reason.

This is now painfully clear to me. Really, I’m embarrassed to admit that I once really thought differently, and have considered removing this page. But if anyone ever reaches these conclusions faster because they’ve seen this page, then the minor cost of my embarrassment is well spent.