We are more rational than those who nudge us

Steven Poole writes: Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile, yet the news from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors. We prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.

The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time.

Other versions of the message are expressed in more strongly negative terms. You Are Not So Smart (2011) is a bestselling book by David McRaney on cognitive bias. According to the study ‘Why Do Humans Reason?’ (2011) by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, our supposedly rational faculties evolved not to find ‘truth’ but merely to win arguments. And in The Righteous Mind (2012), the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the idea that reason is ‘our most noble attribute’ a mere ‘delusion’. The worship of reason, he adds, ‘is an example of faith in something that does not exist’. Your brain, runs the now-prevailing wisdom, is mainly a tangled, damp and contingently cobbled-together knot of cognitive biases and fear.

This is a scientised version of original sin. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find troubling. A culture that believes its citizens are not reliably competent thinkers will treat those citizens differently to one that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? And we do have a choice. Because it turns out that the modern vision of compromised rationality is more open to challenge than many of its followers accept. [Continue reading…]

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