Posts Tagged ‘rationality’

The sense of grievance: a personal lesson

December 30, 2015

UnknownOne factor motivating Islamic radicals is a deep sense of grievance. A feeling that Muslims are victims of injustice, disrespected, a grievance crying out for expression and expiation. Humans have a pre-installed injustice detector (mine is set on “high”). These are powerful feelings.

imagesWe traveled as usual to my wife’s family for the holiday. My daughter flew in from Jordan. On Christmas eve I got left at the hotel, waiting for my wife to fetch me around 2 PM. Well, two came, then three, and four, and the next one. I could have called her but somehow got it in my head that she should call me. So instead I chose to wait and nurture a grievance, feeling disrespected. This grew to prodigious proportions by the time she arrived at 5:20.

Turned out she’d had a very rough day, chauffeuring people through terrible traffic. Oh, and by the way – the previous day had been her mother’s funeral. But none of that trumped my sense of grievance. Unknown-1I expected my wife to fall on her knees in contrition. When instead she pointed out what I should have done, my umbrage multiplied.

I think of myself as cool, rational, reasonable. And while I fumed, I did carefully analyze whether my intense feelings were truly justified. Yup, they were, I concluded.

But my truculence was making my beloved wife very upset, and finally, remorse for that overcame my sense of grievance, fortunately before it could ruin Christmas. And once the boil was thusly lanced, in the cold light of reason I could see how unreasonable and petty I had been. images-1Indeed, I was kind of shocked at how such a demon of fierce feeling had seized control of my brain. While in its grip, no mitigating factor mattered.

It made me think of Muslims and Palestinians and the sense of grievance. And of the late Edward Said, whose all-encompassing “blame the West” perspective on the Middle East remains influential. I could grasp in a new, personal way just how powerful such emotions can be – how impervious to reason – and to any other considerations, least of all consideration for the other side. Without dismissing Muslim and Palestinian grievances, there is indeed a lot to be said on the other side; and the grievance mindset can betray one’s own best interests. But when that demon gets hold of you – as it did me, briefly at least – it won’t listen to reason. This is how you get suicide bombers.

Unknown-2Well, my wife likes to chide my supposed belief in rationality, and this episode certainly scored one for her. But of course I don’t believe humans are always rational. Rather, it’s that we are capable of rationality (as I was, in the end). And (go ahead, cynics, have fun scoffing) I believe we are getting better at being rational — and thusly making a better world.


Reason Versus Emotion ?

September 13, 2012

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.

Truth or Happiness: Must We Choose?

August 28, 2012

I recently heard a talk by Gary Brill , who teaches psychology at Rutgers, discussing studies showing religious believers are happier than nonbelievers.

 Defining happiness can be elusive – a feeling that one is happy? Perhaps a more useful concept is well-being, or flourishing, which describes an entire life rather than just one emotion.

Anyhow, Brill did discuss data showing religious believers report greater happiness, suffer fewer psychological disorders (unless you count religious belief itself), recover better from setbacks, cope better with stress, and even have better health and longevity. Religion often does entail rules against harmful behaviors; and imparts a sense of meaning and purpose to life. All this contributes to a positive mental outlook which might affect our immune systems (thus further explaining the health effects). Brill noted that while fervent religious believers get these benefits, weak or conflicted believers are worse off than nonbelievers.

Morality (and feeling moral) is also important to us, and we’re constantly told that religion gives us morality. However, studies have shown that the actual moral behavior of religious believers is no better than for nonbelievers. Furthermore, there is no sign of moral breakdown in those European countries, particularly Scandinavian, where religion has almost vanished from people’s lives. To the contrary, these are among the world’s most orderly societies, with lower social pathologies like crime, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, etc., than in Godly America. (This shows, yet again, that basic morality is built into us by evolution, part of our adaptation of living in groups where social cohesion was vital for survival. We don’t get morality from religion; religion gets it from our human nature.)

Another factor in positive psychology is one’s relationship with truth and reality. We want to feel we are effective agents in negotiating our way through life’s reality. Brill invoked a thought experiment by philosopher Robert Nozick: Imagine a machine that simulates pleasurable experiences, producing sensations and emotive feelings identical to the real thing, or even better. Would you spend your life in the machine? Most people say no. They value truth and reality. This too comes from our evolutionary heritage: for our ancestors, distinguishing reality from illusion could well be a life-or-death matter.

 And of course there is obvious dissonance between this truth tropism and religion. Some of us reject the Nozick machine of religious faith, and prefer living in the real world. Must this mean sacrificing the well-being that religion confers, as described above?

Certainly not.

For all those mentioned studies, you have to be careful what effects are really being measured. As Brill elucidated, a key problem is that these tend largely to be studies of Americans. And when it comes to matters religious, American exceptionalism is very real. Brill showed stunning results from a survey asking, “Are you sure God exists?” About 60% of Americans said yes. But in other advanced countries, the yes percentages were so tiny that that belief could be considered eccentric.

 (An aside: Why America is so religious is much debated. One thesis (beloved of the Left; click here) is that European social welfare systems are so protective that people feel no more need for divine help, in contrast to “harsh” America. I think that’s nonsense. While religion does thrive in poor benighted environments, Americans don’t have materially harsher existences than cosseted Europeans. The real difference is the First Amendment which, unlike in Europe, keeps government’s stultifying hands off religion, and forces churches to compete with one another. That free market in religion has (as free markets are wont to do) made a far more vibrant, dynamic, and user-friendly religious scene in the U.S.)

Anyhow, America’s unique religiosity has a big effect on the happiness studies. People want to fit in; to belong; to meet societal expectations. In America, that means religion. A key element of well-being is social connectedness; we are deeply social animals (again the evolutionary result of living in groups that had to hang together). What the studies really show is that it’s the social and fellowship aspects of religious participation that confer the benefits – not so much the private, inner belief. Socially isolated believers don’t get those benefits.

So, in America, it’s hardly surprising that the religious believer far more easily taps into all the well-being benefits of fitting in with other like-minded people, than does the nonbeliever, who more often feels like a pariah. No wonder religious folks tend to be happier; but, again, it’s not religious belief per se that causes this, it’s the social penumbra of religious participation.

That’s harder for nonbelievers to replicate, but by no means impossible. You just have to work a little more at it. Humanist groups are scarcer than churches, but they exist. And understanding that our life on Earth is the only one we get makes improving that life, both for oneself and others, the central humanist value. That is all the purpose and meaning anyone needs.

 And the rewards of the humanist path are actually greater. One can thereby live authentically, without that annoying tension between belief and reality. For human beings, bio-engineered to care about truth, living in the real world is better than religion’s fantasyland.