Challenging irrationality may require an irrational approach.
Yesterday I read this excellent essay by Johnathan Haidt entitled What Makes People Vote Republican?. I also sent it to Marco, who wrote a blog post on it called Why the Democrats don’t get it …. I strongly recommend reading Haidt’s article, and Marco’s ongoing U.S. political commentary is good stuff too.
In the comments for Marco’s post I wrote:
One important thing to realize is that most people aren’t strictly rational much of the time; rather than change their beliefs they’ll instead rationalize them and reject any challenges to them. Thus, people frequently believe that the system they’re in is really in their best interests, even if it’s objectively not. This is how oppression of all magnitudes (from head scarves to police states) continues to exist; people accept and rationalize it to some degree and thus don’t work harder to throw off the shackles. Making a rational argument against this often won’t work — it’s not that people aren’t aware of the rational points, it’s that they ignore them.
Thinking that “people” are irrational but “we” are not is where the elitist label comes from. Check the polls to see how well that’s doin’.
I do believe there is right and wrong–and that some things are wrong–but I do not just assume I am “more rational” than those who disagree. I think that’s a dangerous preconception to have
My choice of the word “irrational” has a lot to do with the book I’m currently reading: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. It’s a great introduction into the field of behavioural economics: the science of decision making and the consequences thereof. The book deals extensively with how people tend to make decisions based on less-significant factors instead of more-significant ones. The classic example is that of the cost of a painkiller drug and its relationship on effectiveness. When patients receive painkillers, the amount of pain reduction they experience is proportional to the the cost they believe the drug posesses. A higher-cost painkiller provides more relief than a lower-cost one, even if the actual drug involved is the same in both cases. These sorts of effects and beliefs are called “irrational” because they exist solely within the human mind, and are often emotionally-based.
The point I was trying to make in my post was that irrationality will often trump rationality in the mind of a person. If that is the case, then attempting to change belief and behavior by making a strictly rational argument is doomed to fail. This is similar to what Haidt writes; he implores the U.S. Democrats to adjust their strategy (but not their principles) to trigger the value judgements of a wider range of voters (something that the U.S. Republicans have been more successful at over the past two decades). My belief is that any position must take into account (and probably leverage) the irrationality that exists within people in order to be successful. Where Haidt and I overlap is concerning held values that happen to be irrational. We both agree that these cannot be ignored — which how they are treated by significant portion of the Americal liberal population. Because this same population also tends to be more educated than the rest, they also receive the label “elitist”, which further alientates them and hurts their cause.
As Marco correctly points out, there is plenty of risk surrounding the question of rationality. We all act irrationally at least some of the time, and we all (irrationally) misjudge how much our beliefs are rational. Any truly rational action will have to take this into account by imposing objective checks upon itself. Assuming that disagreement equals irrationality (as Marco puts it) is certainly counterproductive.