Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Myth of Human Rationality

As Noam Chomsky recently observed in an interview with, one purpose of advertising is to affect public decisions.  He advises us to "take a look at the first ad you see and television...and ask yourself" (is the purpose of the ad to help you to make a rational choice)?  Is the purpose of advertising not simply to convince you to make a choice which you might not rationally decide on your own?  He links this in with the PR industry in general and how political choices are made.

I wrote on this topic fairly extensively last year, but I'd just like to break it down and summarize some of the main arguments for you without getting into an overall political statement.  I recognize that I am stepping on the turf of economics, and have done so many times under the guise of politics, but it's not like the economists don't do the same thing in political science, so I don't really see a problem in that.

Anyway, so much of our contemporary economic theories are based on the idea that rational consumers exist:  Rational people will make decision which will make objective sense.  Workers will shop around for a better job with higher pay, more benefits and better conditions.  Left to their own devices, without interference, they will create a "job market".  Employers will also, without interference "shop around" for decent employees.  Without regulation, they will hire and fire after weighing the costs of training.  The basic theory is referred to as "rational choice".

The theory also is used to explain the real market place.  Consumers will create demand for items they want.  Inferior items will disappear as the market makes them obsolete.  Producers will gradually become more efficient as weaker and more expensive products are simply not purchased by the market.

Further, this theory has been applied in the political as well.  Give people a choice between health care providers, schools, prisons or whatever and they will gradually do what no government can do.  They will weed out the weaker of the lot, and cause suppliers to offer a better, and better product.

Well, the fundamental problem with this theory is that it assumes rationality where there is none and now I will explain what I mean and back it up with some evidence from a variety of fields.

I believe it was Jean Chretien who stated that voters are not motivated by reason alone, rather they are guided by an instinct.  Well, let's take that as a starting point. (the link for the sources and data I'm using is mostly available through the "academic" link above)

What exactly is instinct?  Let's look at a study (J. Cohen 2005) that showed that "the brain can absorb about eleven million pieces of information a second but can only process forty consciously".  This neurological study would suggest that so much of the brains activity remains in the subconscious mind and never reaches the conscious mind.

Furthermore, research by Crawford (2000) and Damasio (1994) show that rationalist assumptions that people make rational decisions without using emotion are flawed.  According to their research, good decisions cannot be made with an absence of emotion.  One patient they studied had suffered severe brain damage which caused him to have very little obvious emotion.  He was almost entirely unable to make appropriate decisions which seemed rational to the observer.

Benjamin Libet, a well known physiologist once wrote "the brain signals associated with movement occurred half a second before the person was conscious of deciding to move", but the individual believed that he or she made that decision consciously and could explain the decision to the researcher.

So, from these studies we see that most of what is happening in our brain is not processed consciously, is driven or affected by emotion and the conscious mind believes itself to have been in control of decision making when the signal for movement was actually sent before the individual was aware that he or she decided to move.

When it comes to voter intention, many studies have shown that people are much more likely to vote for the first name on the ballot than any other ranking.  You can randomize the ballot, but it always holds true.  And, what's more: the people who made the decision will tell you clearly and eloquently all the rational reasons why they chose that name on the ballot.

One researcher went as far as to describe this as being something like a monkey riding a tiger.  The tiger goes where it wants, but the monkey thinks itself in control.  The unconscious mind is likely doing all sorts of things which would shock you.  That's one reason why our first impressions tend to be so accurate; why we can sum up a situation so easily but then not really be able to explain how it is that we know...we know that we know, but we can't really explain how we know...we just do.  Well, that's probably because your brain has figured it all out and only told you what you need to know in order to not get eaten.

Let's move along:

Research by child psychologists recently quoted on CBC (Hamlin, Akin and Dunne, 2012) observed that babies like to give their own candy away to others.  They like when we eat their candy.  Why would they do this?  Rationally, would they not want to get as much candy as possible, or would they not want to use their candy in some sort of trick?  Clearly, people can and do act as power maximizers, but they also do all kinds of other stuff.  Not all decisions are rational...perhaps none really are.

Think about this:  is it really a rational choice that causes you to prefer pepsi over grape juice, or over coke?  Is it a rationally calculated decision that makes you choose a Benz over a Toyota?  Is there not some sort of cultural issue at play regarding your political choice?  Do you vote Conservative because of their platform?  Are you a Democrat because you genuinely weighed all the party platforms...or even the platform of the Republican candidate?

Or is it that people "like you" vote Conservative?  Could you possibly drink Coke because everyone you know also drinks Coke?  Maybe you drink a craft ale because only rednecks drink Budweiser or whatever.  Maybe you read literature because only children read comic books.  Maybe you drive a sedan because you think you'd look silly in a sports car.  Are these really rational choices?

If they are so rational, than (returning to Chomsky) what the heck is the point of advertising campaigns using sex, family values, soft voices, exciting places or appeals to emotion?

This is the fundamental flaw with economics today and also the public choice brand of politics.  There is no such thing as human rationality.  We are not rational beings.  We have these strange things called emotions and we sometime behave intuitively, emotionally or for reasons we don't even understand.

This is the direction that modern science has taken us in.  Perhaps we should actually try to apply it to our political theories.  You're not a machine, stop pretending that you are.

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