We are not rational creatures

planet rational

Even though we have spent the past few hundred years pulling things and ourselves apart trying to figure out how they (and we) work, we are not much closer to understanding how complex systems work.

The basic premise that underlies much of our collective investigation is that we are rational, logical beings and we can figure out complex systems by locating and identifying all their components. Like other complex systems where we can see the components but not all the relationship, societies, and our brain are emergent systems. If we want to understand how we make decisions, and how people influence each other, we have to focus on the relationship between the specific components rather than the components themselves.

We don’t really use our rational brain that much at all. Instead, we rely on our emotional brains for most decisions  When we weigh up between multiple choices, we don’t carefully weigh up the options and then come to a conclusions, no matter how appealing that sounds as an explanation. Instead, we tend to use mental shortcuts – many of which are inaccurate and can mislead us. For any given decision (of which we make many on a moment-to-moment basis), or nonconscious brain does a staggering amount of invisible analysis which then generates a feeling to our conscious brain. Our poor, overloaded conscious brain meanwhile is struggling with all the information it has to process, and gratefully receives this coded feeling information from the emotional brain to make a decision. So, no matter how coldly rational we think we are, decisions are to a large extent dependent upon emotion – how we feel about a particular situation.

Once we begin to understand this, it starts to alter how we think about changing behaviour. What we used to think of as a rational decision-making process of following a series of if / then processes simply isn’t how people make choices. We tend to overestimate the power and importance of the conscious brain. This also explains why we are sometimes bewildered by the behaviour of other people, and sometimes our own actions. We assume that we can predict their behaviour (and even our own) by applying logical rules. However, most behaviour is driven by nonconscious processes in the brain that we cannot access.

Ever since I was an undergraduate, I have maintained that most of what we do to explain our behaviour is a post-hoc rationalisation. Most of us cannot explain why we do what we do, why we decide what we decide, or how we will behave in the future. We explain what we do to maintain (or change) story of our selves, and in order to maintain a coherent self in our eyes, and in the eyes and minds of others.

As we travel through life, we use our unique experiences to build up a pattern of how the world works, and how we work in that world – of objects and other selves. We store these patterns as neural networks, and because all our experiences are unique – even if we are twins – our patterns are different. These patterns have a massive influence over our behaviour, and what we attend to when making decisions. Our brain have evolved to scan our environments for threat. Because of this, new or unexpected things – things that don’t fit into our patterns of expectation of how the world should be – capture our attention very effectively. In fact, not only do our brains scan for the unexpected, they positively thirst for it. The reason for this constant search for patterns, and our attention being grabbed by things that did fit our patterns is that our brains find it difficult to deal with random occurrences  When we see clouds, we see objects in them – a dolphin, a monkey, etc. When we see a set of lights blinking (randomly) when music is playing, we think they are beating in time to that music. Our brains look for patterns and check to see if we can find a match with patterns that we already hold in memory. When we don’t find a match, the brain re-calibrates and stores new patterns. Or it tries to integrate the new observation into already existing patterns. That way, it takes less work, and we can easily accommodate new information without the threat of disrupting old patterns and ways of seeing the world.

I’ll continue this in the next post in a few days to talk more about the how most of our behaviour is driven by the non-conscious parts of our brains.

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