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Irrational Decision-Making May be Right

By May 17, 2012

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Logic has been around a long time. Probability theory has been around since the 17th century. Decision theory was developed in the 20th century. So we know how to make rational decisions and that we should prefer rational decisions, right? Well... maybe not.

For one thing, you make way too many decisions over the course of the average day to imagine for a second that you generally make those decisions based on sober, rational reflection. And this isn't just true about the "simple" decisions, either...

We must start by acknowledging that many of our choices are not consciously calculated. Each day we may face between 2500 and 10,000 decisions, ranging from minor concerns about what brand of coffee to drink to the question of who we should marry, and many of these are made in the uncharted depths of the subconscious mind.

Indeed, Ap Dijksterhuis at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and colleagues have found that our subconscious thinking is particularly astute when we are faced with difficult choices such as which house to buy or deciding between two cars with many different features

Source: New Scientist, 12 November 2011

While we may never know for sure exactly how our subconscious operates, it seems pretty likely that emotions are the primary ingredient:

Our emotions may instead be the driving force in subconscious decision-making. We now know that far from being the antithesis of rationality, emotions are actually evolution's satnav, directing us towards choices that have survival benefits. Anger can motivate us to punish a transgressor, for instance, which might help us to maintain social order and group cohesion.

So says Peter Hammerstein from Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, who helped organise the workshop. Disgust, meanwhile, makes us fastidious and moralistic, which should prompt choices that help us avoid disease and shun people who don't play by the rules. And while fear often seems to lead to overreactions, this makes sense when you consider the dangers facing prehistoric humans, says Daniel Nettle from Newcastle University, UK.

On that one occasion where a rustle in the bushes really was made by a predator, the less neurotic peers of our ancestors would have paid the ultimate price, failing to pass their laid-back genes on to the next generation...

The combination of emotions and simple heuristics can produce both good and bad outcomes -- but if this is the basic way all humans are wired to think, it must have done more good than bad over a long period of time for this to have evolved as the dominant strategy...

Gordon Brown at the University of Warwick, UK, argues that we rank alternatives based on cognitively easy, binary comparisons. For example, when deciding whether 2.20 is too much to pay for a cup of coffee, you might recall half a dozen occasions when you paid less and only two when you paid more, leading you to place this particular coffee in the "expensive" category, and choose not to buy it.

This so-called "decision by sampling" approach simplifies the options, but it can also lead to bad decisions when the limited information used to rank alternatives is incorrect or based on false beliefs...

If, for instance, frequent nights out with boozy friends leads you to conclude that your alcohol consumption is in the top 20 per cent of drinkers, when in fact it falls in the top 1 per cent, you are more likely to decide to ignore the problem. Decision by sampling could even sway your choice when you face more immediate threats: people living in a society with high mortality rates are more likely to decide to put themselves at risk than someone who has had little experience of danger. ...

Natural selection can even explain our puzzling propensity to eschew choice altogether and simply follow the herd. Rob Boyd from the University of California, Los Angeles, pointed out at the workshop that we have evolved to learn from others because this is often a wise option.

"In most situations it is way beyond an individual's capacity to know the best thing to do," he says. But we are good at recognising who to copy, says Laura Schulz of Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has found that even young children assess the expertise of their "teachers". As a result, our conformist tendencies often lead to surprisingly good choices ...

They allow us to fit in when we start a new school or job and make wise purchases of the latest products without full information on the alternatives. The flip side is that we can also all fall into line with the immoral or illegal behaviour of those around us or be swayed by manipulative leaders.

This is all true of all of us. What does it tell us, though, about how rational we really are? How rational can we really be if our own brains have evolved to make decisions in ways that eschew any explicitly rational, logical processes? Granted, the above may be "rational" in the sense that they tend to produce reasonable, acceptable outcomes most of the time, but they aren't "rational" in the sense of relying upon evidence, reason, logic, etc.

This brings up the distinction between means and goals. It's important to have good, strong methods of arriving at good results -- but if you can generally reach good results with less rational, less systematic methods, that need not be so bad, right? Good, systematic methods of decision-making may be important, but to what extent should they be the goals in and of themselves?

May 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm
(1) Eric O says:

Can’t it be said that trusting one’s instincts rather than deliberating on the best course of action might be a rational decision in and of itself?

For example, if I’m at a bar and I’m presented with a large choice of beers of varying prices, I could assign values to the beer based on taste (give it a 1 to 5 scale), consider the price, try to remember my high school calculus and determine which beer is the optimum beer.

Or I could just go with my instincts and just choose whichever beer appeals to me at that particular time.

The thing is, not only do I want to have a good beer at a good price, but I also don’t want to interrupt my enjoyable evening with friends by scratching out calculations on a napkin just so that I can determine which drink to order. In that sense, I’ve made a rational decision to not make a decision based on rationality.

May 18, 2012 at 6:12 pm
(2) Karen says:

I like intuition. It’s served me well over the years. But as far as I can tell, intuition is really just internalizing knowledge you’ve acquired. If you’re good at acquiring knowledge, your intuition gets really good. Mine has certainly improved as I’ve aged.

I detest “seat-of-the-pants” decisions. I recognize that they’re inevitable, and avoid them when I can. My best decision-making comes when I intuitively make a decision, then analyze it to see if it’s the best one. Still, quite a bit more often than not, I go with my original intuitive decision.

I guess I want the best of both ways of thinking!

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