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Are humans irrational? If so, how can we build stronger institutions to compensate for human shortcomings in rationality?

David Ropeik argues that "The brain is only the organ for which we think we think. It's job is not to win noble prizes. And to pass math tests. It's job is to get us tomorrow. Its a survival mechanism.. and it plays a lot of tricks in order to get us to tomorrow. That worked pretty well when the risks were lions and tigers and bears… Its not as good when we need to rationalize and reason and use the facts more with the complicated risks we face in a modern age: climate change, genetically modified food, and unsustainable living on the planet.. That takes a lot more thinking. More cognitive, slow,more effortful thinking. That we are not instinctively built that way must be recognized if we are going to get beyond the risk of not being built that way."


Dan Ariely provides further evidence that humans have irrational cognitive thought in his TedTalk and offers the following, "If we have these predictable, repeatable mistakes in vision, some thing that we are good at, what's the chance that we don't make more mistakes at something we're not as good at? For example financial decision making. Something we don't have an evolutionary reason to do, we don't have a specialized part of the brain, and we don't do that many parts of the day. The argument is that in those cases we make many more mistakes.."

In another TedTalk Dan Ariely provides the following food for thought, "Are we superman or are we Homer Simpson? When it comes to building the physical world we understand our limitations and we build around it. But for some reason when it comes to the mental world when we design things like healthcare, retirement, and the stock market we somehow forget the idea that we are limited. And i think if we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way that we understand our physical limitations we could design a better world."

Do you agree with them? How do we better structure institutions that can compensate for our shortcoming?


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  • Nov 14 2012: I fully agree with Dan Ariely's conclusion, that we should test our intuitions. Much of the rest is trivial or irrelevant. Experiments where college students decide on "cheating" when no significant harm is done to anyone is not relevant to the morality of cheating where very significant harm is involved. Experiments with people over the age of 60 might get very different results; they might consider the whole scenario laughable.

    More importantly, I find fault with the whole notion of considering "rational" as always good and "less than rational" as bad. Most human motivations are non-rational. Most of our motivations have evolved as secondary, indirect means to support the primary functions of survival and reproduction. Common behaviors such as children playing are still largely a mystery. The fact that much of our behavior is not rational is not necessarily bad. I suspect that we evolved this way because it was necessary.

    The important lesson is that we must be aware of our irrational tendencies, and take action WHEN APPROPRIATE.

    This has some obvious applications to some of our institutions. If the stories from our prisons contain any truth, we routinely condone crimes committed against criminals, including rape. The medical establishment continues with practices that scientific studies, as well as common sense, indicate are dangerous. Police departments still have difficulty excluding the power hungry. We vote for people who help us feel good.
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      Nov 18 2012: As always Barry thanks much for the great thoughts. I'd agree there could be fallacy in notion the that "rational" is always good and "less than rational" is bad. It wouldn't surprise me at all if some seemingly irrational behavior was still essential to our survival an beneficial for our progression. For the sake of argument let's say we are only focused on irrational behavior that's clearly detrimental to society.

      I think you bring up a second great point. You delineate a higher dimension of what seems like social or institutional irrational behavior that's in many ways much more concerning than our personal irrational actions. These seem to be accepted yet illogical constructions in society. Why do we not take action to correct irrational behavior in institutions? Are we too lazy to handle the complexity of these problems? Does the cost/benefit of addressing the issues not make sense? Or do we just not have the answers? Obviously answers to these would be case by case but wondering if there is an underlying consistent theme here.

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