Unreason's Seductive Charms [Chronicle.com]

by Limbic on November 13, 2003

“In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, ‘Is it good, friend?’
‘It is bitter — bitter,’ he answered;
‘But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.'”

Stephen Crane

An interesting look at irrationality and its appeal:

“Only part of us is sane,” wrote Rebecca West, “Only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our 90s and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves. … “

Imagine that you have decided to see a play where admission is $10 per ticket. As you enter the theater, you discover that you have lost a $10 bill. Would you still pay $10 for a ticket for the play? This time, a whopping 88 percent answered yes and only 12 percent answered no.

In other words, most people say that if they had lost their ticket, they would be unwilling to buy another, but if they had simply lost the value of the ticket ($10), an overwhelming majority have no qualms about making the purchase! Why such a huge difference? According to the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (the former a recent economics Nobelist), it is explicable — not by reason but by the way people organize their mental accounts.

Here is another one: Would you accept a gamble that offers a 10-percent chance to win $95 and a 90-percent chance to lose $5? The great majority of people in the study rejected this proposition as a loser. Yet, a bit later, the same individuals were asked this question: Would you pay $5 to participate in a lottery that offers a 10-percent chance to win $100 and a 90-percent chance to win nothing? A large proportion of those who refused the first option accepted the second. But the options offer identical outcomes. As Kahneman and Tversky see it: “Thinking of the $5 as a payment makes the venture more acceptable than thinking of the same amount as a loss.” It’s all a matter of how the situation is framedin this case, the extent to which people are “risk averse.”

Which brings us to yet another perspective on why Homo sapiens isn’t always strictly sapient. Let’s start by agreeing with Herbert Simon (who also won a Nobel Prize in economics) that the mind is simply incapable of solving many of the problems posed by the real world, just because the world is big and the mind is small. But add this: The human mind did not develop as a calculator designed to solve logical problems. Rather, it evolved for a very limited purpose, one not fundamentally different from that of the heart, lungs, or kidneys; that is, the job of the brain is simply to enhance the reproductive success of the body within which it resides.

This is the biological purpose of every mind, human as well as animal, and moreover, it is its only purpose. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood, of the lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, while the kidneys’ work is the elimination of toxic chemicals. The brain’s purpose is to direct our internal organs and our external behavior in a way that maximizes our evolutionary success. That’s it. Given this, it is remarkable that the human mind is good at solving any problems whatsoever, beyond “Who should I mate with?,” “What is that guy up to?,” “How can I help my kid?,” “Where are the antelopes hanging out at this time of year?” There is nothing in the biological specifications for brain-building that calls for a device capable of high-powered reasoning, or of solving abstract problems, or even providing an accurate picture of the “outside” world, beyond what is needed to enable its possessors to thrive and reproduce. Put these requirements together, on the other hand, and it appears that the result turns out to be a pretty good (that is, rational) calculating device.

In short, the evolutionary design features of the human brain may well hold the key to our penchant for logic as well as illogic.

…The human mind…is not adapted to solve rarified problems of logic, but is quite refined and powerful when it comes to dealing with matters of cheating and deception. In short, our rationality is bounded by what our brains were constructed — that is, evolved — to do. MORE

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