You’re not as rational as you think

I’m officially a cliche.

Driving to the train station this morning, I was admiring the early sunrise and singing St Elmo’s Fire at close to the top of my voice (with the windows up, because my fellow commuters don’t deserve to be aurally assaulted).

I tell Dad jokes (and love it). I know there are some Kardashians, but I couldn’t tell you how many. And I’ve seen only 3 minutes of My Kitchen Rules this year.

I get it. I’m not painting a particularly appealing picture here. Thankfully, my wife thinks I have other redeeming qualities, and I’m too selfish (and lucky) to disabuse her of that mistaken notion.

Cliches. Stereotypes. Pigeon holes. Rules of thumb.

They’re all, in their own way, very clever evolutionary responses to our need to quickly and reliably receive, evaluate, and act on the firehose of information that comes our way.

Our brain helps us by searching for similar events or circumstances in our past, and responds accordingly. It’s basic pattern recognition, and we’re pretty good at it.

The good thing is that it’s almost automatic. The bad news is that, well, it’s almost automatic. It takes such little time and effort to respond to preconceptions, that we — almost literally — do it without thinking.

There’s lots of other things we do without thinking. Or, more specifically, without actively thinking.

The field of behavioural psychology has boomed over the past 40 or so years, and what it has to tell us is truly scary.

The concept of the ‘Rational Human’ is little more that ego-driven conceit. Descartes told us that “I think, therefore I am”, and for centuries, we told ourselves that we have an ability to think rationally and clearly. Oh, some of us looked down on the emotional and the easily-led, but we… We… we know better. We’re the rational ones.

But that new field of science showed us there are two types of people: those who are tricked, repeatedly, by the automatic processes of our brains, and those who don’t know they are repeatedly tricked.

Loss aversion. Confirmation bias. Overconfidence. Anchoring. Attribution error. Each is worthy of an article — or book — of its own, but it’s enough to know that these things can be demonstrated, unequivocally, by science. What’s more, in some experiments, students have been shown to succumb to these things, even after their lecturers just explained the bias to them!

We cannot banish these biases. At best, we can acknowledge and correct for them, as often as possible. And if you’re thinking “Well, other people might have them, but I don’t”, you’re in the worst trouble of all. Pride cometh before a bias-induced fall.

So what can we do? First, understand that you have biases. Embrace them and understand them. The enemy truly is us. Next, look for examples in your own life. Do you value something you own more highly than something you don’t, just because you own it? The evidence says almost certainly. Do you look for views that agree with yours, and weight those more highly than disagreement? Welcome to confirmation bias. And, when thinking about buying or selling shares, do you tend to consider your decision in the context of some arbitrary past or future price? Welcome to anchoring.

Foolish takeaway

The quest for perfection can be a noble one, but the acknowledgement of fallibility is much more useful. The former leads to pride, and to arrogant mistakes. The latter forgives your mistakes, helps you learn from them, and gives you a much better starting point for the next set of decisions you make.

But singing St Elmo’s Fire isn’t really a mistake, is it?

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