The truth about us is far more complex and subtle

Leonard Mlodinow writes in Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior:

We all make personal, financial, and business decisions, confident that we have properly weighed all the important factors and acted accordingly – and that we know how we came to those decisions. But we are aware only of our conscious influences, and so have only partial information. As a result, our view of ourselves and our motivations, and of society, is like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. We fill in blanks and make guesses, but the truth about us is far more complex and subtle than that which can be understood as the straightforward calculation of conscious and rational minds.

What I keep saying. We’re not 100% rational, to put it mildly. It’s rational to be aware of that, to realize it applies to ourselves as well as other people, to realize it applies to us and to others, to try to be aware of what follows from that. It’s not rational to expect 100% rationality from other human beings. It’s not rational to assume that one is oneself 100% rational.


  1. Athywren says

    Well speak for yourself – I am a being of pure logic and don’t even have a meat-brain to get in the way of my superior thinks.

  2. qwints says

    This is a great point, and something I encountered with economics courses in college. It was hilarious how many freshman left their first undergrad course with a ‘perfect’ understanding of human economic behavior only to see it demolished by advanced courses that involved looking at practice instead of just theory.

    The relationship to “Thinking Fast and Slow”, which you talked about a while back, seems pretty clear.

  3. Shatterface says

    The relationship to “Thinking Fast and Slow”, which you talked about a while back, seems pretty clear.

    Except Kahnaman’s point, for which he won the Nobel Prize (for Economics, not psychology) is that our unconscious biases mislead us, and that being aware of our irrationality helps us avoid making expensive mistakes.

    It’s not a Get Out of Rationality Free card.

  4. qwints says

    I don’t understand what you’re saying, Shatterface. What’s the difference between the idea that “our unconscious biases mislead us” and the idea that “we are aware only of our conscious influences”? Those seem to be part of the same fundamental idea that the abstract ideal of the purely rational decision maker doesn’t match how people actually make decisions.

  5. Brony says

    Without brain science tourette’s syndrome would be a terrifying thing and honestly makes me more understanding about how our history ended up the way that it has in many respects.

    But there is an advantage to having one’s unconscious mind invade and having to learn to understand the logic of emotion to make better sense of the world. Irrationality has a shape. I just wish more people were familiar with that shape.

  6. Ben Finney says

    Right, modern science is consistent in its findings on this.

    It’s the same message from Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work (detailed in Thinking, Fast and Slow); from much of Stephen Pinker’s work (e.g. How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate); from Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s work (Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)); and so much more of modern psychology and, later, neuroscience.

    We’re not good at rationality (merely better than other animals). Our thinking is most of the time irrational, driven by emotion; emotion is crucial to our ability to make decisions. Our rational thinking is a lot of effort, our brains employ all sorts of tricks to get us to avoid thinking rationally. And that’s not good or bad, it just is.

    I’ll need to add Mlodinow’s Subliminal to my short-list for reading on this subject. Thank you, Ophelia.

  7. maudell says

    I’m still confused as to why Mlodinow wrote a book with Deepak fucking Chopra. I was surprised to find Mlodinow praising Chopra for his bullshit (clips on youtube).
    Can’t help to think about that and cringe now…

  8. Omar Puhleez says

    I think that our short term needs as perceived too often trump our longer-term strategic planning, complicated as well by private interest trumping public interest.
    It follows that private short-term interest can finish up as the most deadly factor in the game.
    Witness items like the following, that flood into my email inbox:
    “There are only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, and their paradise forest is being destroyed to make palm oil plantations for Krispy Kreme’s suppliers. Palm oil is a natural ingredient in doughnuts and other yummy foods, but producers in Indonesia are wrecking the environment and exploiting local communities to make it.”
    If it were not for the likes of Kaytee Riek,, the whole planet would be more rapidly trashed by those seeking private short-term interest. ie more rapidly than it is at present.

  9. Omar Puhleez says

    From memory, reptilian nervous signals travel at about 1 m/s. It follows that a large raptor could sneak up on a browsing brontosaurus and take a bloody great chomp out of its tail. The pain signal would start out on its painfully slow journey up the spinal cord. When it reached the head, the response would probably be to turn the head and take a look at the painful area. But the signal from the conscious brain would take some time getting back down to move the tail out of harm’s way. Meanwhile, the brontosaurus would just have to watch more of its tail being eaten.
    Apparently as a result, dinosaurs developed a second brain in the lower spinal cord.
    Would have helped. Sort of.
    Socially, we are very much like large dinosaurs. By the time we become aware of it, the damage is done. Often irreparably.

  10. John Morales says

    Omar Puhleez @13:

    Socially, we are very much like large dinosaurs. By the time we become aware of it, the damage is done. Often irreparably.

    Within your metaphor, I note there are such things as reflexes — and we have a term for social reflexes: ‘enculturation’.

  11. Silentbob says

    @ 10 maudell

    I assume you haven’t read the book! – it is adversarial, not collaborative. War of the Worldviews was a book form of a debate, with each author alternately making a case (Mlodinow for science, Chopra for “spirituality”) and their opponent writing a rebuttal. Mlodinow wasn’t teaming up with Chopra, he was debunking him.

    Needless to say, in my opinion, Mlodinow ran rings around Chopra.

  12. Brony says

    @ John Morales

    Within your metaphor, I note there are such things as reflexes — and we have a term for social reflexes: ‘enculturation’.

    Nice! I like that.

  13. sonderval says

    @Omar #13
    Nope, reptilian nerve signals are not that slow, as far as I can tell that is a very old myth (together with the “second-brain-in-the-hip”-myth). Just step on the tail of a 5- meter long croc and see whether you get a 5 second head start…

  14. Omar Puhleez says

    John and Brony:
    “Within your metaphor, I note there are such things as reflexes — and we have a term for social reflexes: ‘enculturation’.”
    Please correct me if I am wrong, but I have always understood ‘enculturation’ to be the process whereby an individual acquires the culture of their tribe, or wider community.
    Does primacy of the short-term goal, and speed or lack thereof of social response to a longer term issue (eg threat) get included under that rubric as a matter of course? Not that I know much in that area.
    The dinosaur example is not so much about reflexes, although they arguably developed to get around the time-lag in neural pathways, but of consciousness and awareness of danger while in responsive paralysis.

  15. Omar Puhleez says

    “Nope, reptilian nerve signals are not that slow…”
    Well, they have no absolute speed, and are temperature-dependent, giving the mammals and birds a head start on the reptiles. So one brain or two, the old dinosaur was not likely to be so quick off the blocks on a relatively cold day. Lacking decentralised decision-making, it could well finish up watching its tail being eaten by some mammalian carnivore newly arrived on the scene.
    Where I live, the snakes all hibernate in winter. The odd one that gets uncovered is pretty well helpless and generally passive. Which is just as well as the Australian Eastern brown snake is one of the deadliest in the world.

  16. A Masked Avenger says

    Thank you, Ophelia! My early exposure to the “rational” community–not to be confused, I think, with the “skeptical” community–was in University, where I found an eclectic mix of vulcans and Randroids. I felt the seductive pull of their claims of “pure logic,” and the realization was hard won that no such human exists, and they’re kidding themselves. Rand’s attempt to derive cigarette smoking axiomatically as a “rational” habit is a poignant example of self delusion.

    What I’ve found personally helpful is to cultivate awareness, as best I can, of what’s going on in my head. I’m satisfied realizing that “I believe this because my mom told me so when I was five,” or, “I believe this because the alternative is too horrifying,” or whatever. It doesn’t exorcise my demons and make me a Vulcan, but it reduces the self delusion factor.

  17. Brony says

    @ Omar Puhleez
    Think about it like this. There are two processes in cognitive sciences that are called system one and system two (or similar, there is a little controversy on naming). “Thinking Fast and Slow” linked by Ben Finney above discusses them and there is also this,

    System one can be thought of as reflexive responses, the sort of thing you do “without thinking” (which does not really exist but is instead more like “acting without awareness” or “acting via the unconsious”). System two is when you have a reason to stop, assess what you are seeing, and consider altering, removing, or creating new system one responses (or system two analysis habits). Both systems engage in a context dependent manner depending on what is in perception which heavily involves cultural cues, rituals, traditions and other things that are learned expectations and triggers.

    System two is heavily involved in the learning process and learning a new skill can be thought of as repeated uses of system two to develop new system one routines. This learning process is where sensitivity to cultural context and group identity occurs and is ingrained.

    Evolution basically took “stimulus-response” and sandwiched in a bunch of things that let pause and consider, or respond quickly, as well as divide up reality into lots of pieces.

  18. A Masked Avenger says

    Logic is extremely hard. Evolving a logical inference machine is similarly hard. And pointless: why evolve something expensive to assess threats precisely, when you could evolve a simple phobia with roughly equal survival value?

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