Michael Riley was a British naval radar officer in the First Gulf War. He saw a blip that scared him, headed toward a U.S. battleship. Yet the radar profile seemed to match U.S. fighter planes he’d seen repeatedly. For forty seconds, he tracked it, trying to spot a difference, but couldn’t. He had to decide. “Shoot it down,” he ordered.
Riley was right: it was a missile.
Investigators reviewed the tapes, struggling to figure out Riley’s unexplained intuition. Eventually, they found the subtle clue in the timing of the blip’s first appearance on the radar screen.
Had Riley acted rationally?
I’ve mentioned how my wife twits me for supposedly believing in reason, when humans so often seem irrational. And a whole spate of books has shown, from a scientific standpoint, all the ways in which we make bad, irrational decisions and choices, because of specific quirks in how our minds work. (I recently read one, Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.)
Plato saw reason and emotion as two horses pulling a chariot, with the charioteer struggling to make them work as a team. But while reasoned thought and emotional response are distinct mental modules that even operate in different brain areas, yet they do work together. For a normal person, they are so intertwined that it’s really a single combined process of mental functioning.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people injured in specific brain localities responsible for emotion. They did become calm and emotionless. But not Spocklike paragons of rationality! In fact, their lives fell apart because they couldn’t make the simplest decisions. Because making any decision or choice entails serving some objective. That objective is supplied by emotion; indeed, it supplies the entire framework for everything we do. Remove emotion and we are not left rational, but adrift without meaning. Damasio’s patients didn’t even care that their lives fell apart.
And emotion is not the opposite of reason. It is a different form of it. When you experience the emotion of anger, it isn’t just something that happens to you; it happens for cause, and normally it’s a perfectly logical response to that cause. Emotion is always prompting us to serve and advance our needs and interests. Oh yes, it’s a crude tool, and frequently misfires. But in the big picture, emotions do an excellent job of steering us. Again, look what happened to Damasio’s patients without emotions.
The Riley and Damasio stories are discussed in Lehrer’s book. He also reports an experiment with fascinating implications:
Test subjects were given four decks of cards to pick from. Each card meant either winning or losing money. Two of the decks were overly loaded with losing cards. It took the average player fifty picks to start avoiding those “bad” decks, and eighty before he could say why. But here’s the stunning thing: after only ten picks, the player’s hand already showed signs of nervousness when reaching toward a “bad” deck.
In other words, a deep intuition figured out the game long before the conscious rational mind did. Michael Riley’s story is similar. Something in his brain spotted the signature of a missile, even though his conscious mind could not see it; and indeed, it was very hard even for the subsequent investigation to see it.
But isn’t this Rationality with a capital R? Wasn’t Riley’s unconscious intuitive mind being supremely rational? Wasn’t this true of the card pickers too? Their minds also reached a correct insight long before conscious thought could.*
This should not really surprise us. We evolved in a very challenging, threatening environment, which often required quick life-or-death decisions. We had to make those decisions as good as possible. Often there would not have been time to think them through with conscious rationality. That’s why we evolved the quick intuitive capabilities shown by Riley and the card pickers.
This also accounts for the thinking “defects” discussed in the books I’ve mentioned. A good example: when weighing potential gains and losses, we tend to overweight the risk of loss; a big cause of bad investment decisions. But it’s obvious why our brains are wired this way. For our caveman ancestors, a “negative outcome” might easily have been death, an excellent reason to be much more loss-averse than gain-hungry.
That particular vestige from our past probably does disserve us today, more often than not. But that’s only one of innumerable mental biases, decisional shortcuts which enable us to smoothly navigate through all the choices facing us continually throughout the day. If we had to analytically think our way through every decision, we couldn’t function. So even if some of those shortcuts sometimes work badly, in the ways the books say, as a package they serve us exceptionally well. And for us to utilize this package of intuitional, emotional mental shortcuts is therefore the height of rationality.
You might suppose that we humans are controlled less by instinct compared to other animals. But in fact, we have a far larger repertoire of instincts. That indeed is the depth of sophistication of our big brains; our range of complex behaviors not even requiring us to stop and think.
This doesn’t mean the prefrontal cortex – where conscious rational thinking occurs – is superfluous. To the contrary, it’s a great boon to have both systems, with the rational thinking module also far more developed than in any other creature. This means we are not slaves to our emotions and intuitions, but can take their benefits while also knowing – a lot of the time – when not to. Our best thinking is when we think about our thinking, to consider the reasons behind it, which enables us to revise it. Thusly using both systems together – reasoned thought and intuitive emotion – gives us much better results than would either alone.
All this is why I see humans as rational even when they’re not.
* Such intuitive decision-making is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.