We are told that we are an irrational tangle of biases, to be nudged any which way. Does this claim stand to reason?
Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile, yet the news from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors. We prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.
The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time.
Other versions of the message are expressed in more strongly negative terms. You Are Not So Smart (2011) is a bestselling book by David McRaney on cognitive bias. According to the study ‘Why Do Humans Reason?’ (2011) by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, our supposedly rational faculties evolved not to find ‘truth’ but merely to win arguments. And in The Righteous Mind (2012), the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the idea that reason is ‘our most noble attribute’ a mere ‘delusion’. The worship of reason, he adds, ‘is an example of faith in something that does not exist’. Your brain, runs the now-prevailing wisdom, is mainly a tangled, damp and contingently cobbled-together knot of cognitive biases and fear.
This is a scientised version of original sin. More: http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/we-are-more-rational-than-those-who-nudge-us/?utm_source=Aeon+newsletter&utm_campaign=9c7bfbc00d-Weekly_Newsletter_26_Sept_20149_26_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-9c7bfbc00d-68643017
Too many words but there are also some useful thoughts:
Combining reasoning individuals ‘in the right way’ is important, so as to avoid the irrational effects introduced by phenomena such as group polarisation or informational cascades. Yet we are all familiar with various examples of the right way to combine individuals into public bodies capable of high-level reasoning: scientific societies, universities – even, sometimes, government debating chambers. Indeed, reasoning is the social institution whose reliability underwrites all the other civil and political institutions of civilised life.