Monday, September 26, 2016

The Power of Rational Thinking

Long have I railed about the dangers of following your gut. Better to work through a problem, especially a difficult and intractable one, before making a decision. Call it the power of rational thinking.

One understands, only too well, the appeal of emotion. One understands that certain people, who barely know how to think rationally, tell us that we are all slaves to our irrational emotions. Then again, why do they think that the call of emotion is irrational?

Obviously, these champions of irrational emotion want to undo the Enlightenment. Their fellow travelers want to repeal the Industrial Revolution because they want to save the planet. How better to save the planet than producing mass starvation.

If they are behavioral economists they also believe that we do not have free will and that our decisions are never arrived at freely.

Here’s a warning: beware of people who try to convince you that you are not a rational being and do not have free will. It’s easier to take away your freedom—the better to allow the behavioral economists to run your life—when they convince you that you do not have any.

Now, Olga Khazan reports on research conducted by Harvard professor, Jennifer Lerner. Khazan begins by presenting the conventional wisdom about following your gut. She adds a dash of irony, for effect:

Let’s say you’re making a hard choice, one that could impact your life significantly. Every time you think you've settled on something, the other option tugs you back to its side. You end up where you started: It's a draw.

Should you make ever-more-detailed lists of pros and cons and seek advice from even more trusted sources? Or should you go with your gut?

Many people would suggest the latter: Listen to your gut, or your heart, or some other part of your body that couldn’t possibly know what those stock options will be worth in five years. For the advice-giver, “Just do what feels right!” is safe guidance to offer, since if you nudged the decision-maker toward a huge mistake, at least they’d feel good making it.

Khazan is entirely correct. Unless some corner of your soul always tells you the right thing to do with those stock options.

One feels constrained to add that many of those-- like Warren Buffett-- who tell you to follow your gut are making a conceptual mistake. Since they have been studying and reading about the stock market for decades, they can see an opportunity or a danger more quickly than the rest of us. They must think that they are being cool when they say that their accumulated wisdom resides in their guts. It does not.

Enter Jennifer Lerner. Khazan explains Lerner’s research:

In a series of studies she recently published with Christine Ma-Kellams at the University of La Verne in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, she found that, in a task where managers were trying to detect an interviewee’s emotions, they assessed the situation more accurately when they  thought systematically, than when they just relied on intuition.

In fact, much of Lerner’s research focuses on how emotions can influence decision-making—and not always for the better. Your gut, to the extent that it reflects your feelings, might be steering you wrong.

People like to be told to go with their gut. It’s easier than having to think something through, to seek advice, to evaluate the evidence and to draw a conclusion. Going with your gut makes you lazy. It relieves you of the dire necessity of doing some work.

As Lerner puts it:

Anger gets you in the game, but once you’re in the game, you need to think.

With any luck you will have thought through your game plan before you get in the game, but that’s a quibble.

But, what about happiness? You may recall that I posted about the happiness industry two days ago. I was highly skeptical of the current psycho and corporate tendency to try to improve worker performance by engineering happiness… by whatever means.

Lerner has also debunked the happiness mongers:

Surprisingly, though, happiness isn’t much better at inspiring good decisions. Several studies have shown that people who were in a positive mood put more faith in the length of a message, rather than its quality, or in the attractiveness or likability of the source. Given that it’s typically the amicable job interview that results in an offer, this might explain some of the economic advantages that flow to tall men or attractive people.

Allow me to explain. If you are interviewing a job candidate and are in a good mood, if your mind is awash in positive thinking, if you are following your bliss, you are more likely to choose a candidate who is more attractive, even if the person is less qualified or less capable of doing the job.

Happiness can deceive. It can cloud judgment.

But, what about sadness? Lerner suggests that some degree of sadness can make you more thoughtful, but that too much sadness can shut down your mind:

Under certain circumstances, sadness can be good, since it fosters systematic thought. The slightly melancholy, to whom no option appeals very much, will dutifully think, “on the one hand, x, but on the other hand y,” Lerner said. And that’s good! But too much sadness can set off rumination— “you keep thinking x, x, x, x,” she said—which is not going to get you any closer to signing on the dotted line (or not!) with satisfaction and relief.

What’s more, sadness might make you more impatient. A 2013 study by Lerner and others found that people who felt sad accepted up to 34 percent less money in order to get paid now, rather than three months from now. But at least it might make you more generous toward others: She’s also found that sad people allocate more to welfare recipients than angry people would, since the angry would likely blame poor people for their own misfortune.

Lerner concludes that we should not think that the right emotional state will naturally or automatically cause you to make a good decision. The point deserves emphasis.

You should not act precipitously when you are overcome by emotion. Especially when sending out emails. Deliberation, even systematic deliberation, will often yield a better decision. Of course, you will not even think to engage the process if you do not believe that you are a rational being and that you can exercise free will.


Trigger Warning said...

I've often wondered why anyone bothers reading or listening to individuals claiming that there is no free will. Attending to their definitionally reflexive spasms is no more interesting or useful than reading stories written by a computational algorithm or listening to a box of flatware rolling down a staircase.

Ares Olympus said...

I'd never speak against rational thinking, but we have to accept that it is more of an ideal than something real. That is when people ask "What is real?" we could say "Facts that we all agree upon." and science can try to gather objective information that can make everyone agree, and then we can say anyone who disagrees is being irrational, and dismiss them. But really the consensus itself might be using subjective information hiding inside of objective ones anyway.

And I agree we should distrust "from the gut" thinking if we have sufficient time to do more, but in life or death moments, fast thinking is what allowed our ancestors to stay alive, even if it meant killing someone who wasn't a real threat, but was merely threatening.

Yes, I'd say for me "from the gut" means more about saying no than saying yes, when I think something is wrong, so a reason to slow things down, to retreat from irreversible consequences.

In subjective decisions like "Who should I marry?" no one seriously thinks pure reason is sufficient. And in general, anything that can change in the future, and we ourselves are changing too, so how could any decision be called rational if we acknowledge ignorance? We're left with probabilities at best, like the sorry state of biological sciences trying to separate real data from noise.

One approach I take on indecision is to accept there is no simple rational choice, but multiple subjective perspectives competing for attention, and so the minimum you need to do is sort out each one, and see what narrative is behind them.

So if "rationalization" is the real enemy of knowledge, you can test this. Try to "explain" a choice you want to make, and then pretend that's not true, and find another explanation, and keep going until you're stumped. At least you have some idea then what you're dealing with.

So like when regretful women in their 40s give advice to younger women to choose faster, and don't waste your prime birthing years, that's one important but "irrational" voice that arises from subjective feelings, and yet not all women will feel remorse at neglecting that voice. So its foolish to deny the voice as merely irrational, and its foolish to simply listen to that voice and marry someone merely because they're the only viable candidate at the moment.

And this also brings up the question of "free will" which I think is overhyped on both sides. Sure the old determinists say we're just machines, or selfish-genes, and we can't help but follow our predetermined programs. And any evidence that this is false can easily be ignored since you can't falsify determinism, but instead you just bury it under complexity and chaos theory.

The middle ground I prescribe is to say behavior is "largely deterministic", but not completely, and overall it seems better to try to override some of our biological imperative, and override some of our cultural imperatives as well, but acknowledging every step we take off the beaten track of a million years of history means we're on our own, and have to take responsibility for the consequences, again, that are harder to predict.

And I suppose this is where the call for "meaning" comes in, which is about a narrative, just like culture is a narrative, but you can choose what is subjectively meaningful for you, and then accept the consequences of that choice, and that's one sort of "free will." But following your culture's predefined narratives can work too, and perhaps even has better odds, if you know what its promising and trust the story still works.

Finally flipping a coin might not be a bad approach, especially between "two evils". But we can also go with the gut and say none of the above. Even if Hillary or Trump will soon be president, doesn't mean either needs your vote.

JPL17 said...

"[M]any of those -- like Warren Buffett -- who tell you to follow your gut … must think that they are being cool when they say that their accumulated wisdom resides in their guts. It does not."

Stuart, it sounds like you're describing intuition here, are you not? If so, I'd be very interested in hearing your further thoughts on that subject, particularly whether you see it as an exercise in reason, emotion, a combination of both, etc.?

My own understanding is that intuition is the outcome of a person's accumulated experience (or "accumulated wisdom", as you put it), in that it arises when a person fairly quickly perceives strong similarities between a current situation and similar but non-identical situations experienced in the past, and the person then concludes that the likely cause or outcome of the current situation is or will be the same as it was in most of the earlier situations. As such, intuition would seem to be more an exercise in reason, since it is based on experience and perceiving similarities; but since the reasoning process happens so quickly (due to the vastness of the person's accumulated wisdom or experience), intuition often appears to be and can be mistaken for a feeling, hunch or emotion.

Anyway, that's my completely untrained working theory on intuition. Is yours at all similar? If you could share your thoughts on the subject here or in some future post, that would be very enlightening and appreciated.

Trigger Warning said...

I agree that glib superficiality makes some folks sound more like parrots than others.

David Foster said...

There are many cases where you HAVE to respond intuitively because of time pressures. If you are pilot facing an aerodynamic stall at low altitude, you need to quickly do the correct thing (which is counterintuitive to the untrained individual). If you are in an important meeting and need to respond quickly to a challenge, you aren't going to have time to put together a list of pros and cons.

So, intuition must be regarded as trainable.

Ares Olympus said...

David Foster said... So, intuition must be regarded as trainable.

We are definitely moving outside of viable rational thought here, and training for handling fatal dangers is essential.

Those thought makes me wish those neighborhood squirrels would improve their instinct or intuition that says to go 80% of the way across the road, and then reverse again back into oncoming traffic.

Evolution is clearly too slow for such new stimuli. Maybe mama or papa squirrels could use food rewards on their young in nonfatal road tests to train their intuition to commit to a single direction for more than 3 seconds.

On the other hand, when you're a squirrel up a tree who just missed a branch jumping 40 feet off the ground, those acrobatic reversals to the next branch option probably come in handy.

Survival is a wonder.

p.s. Here's a 10 minute video reviewing THINKING, FAST AND SLOW BY DANIEL KAHNEMAN

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I haven't thought through all of the implications of JPL 17's idea about intuition, but I believe he is largely correct. Certainly, Buffett's gut is attuned to certain information and he can make a decision without feeling that he has given the matter very much thought. A less educated gut will be swayed by other emotional factors and will not make as good a decision.

JPL17 said...

Thank you for your great follow-up comment, Stuart. I agree completely that a less educated gut makes one's intuition far less reliable. I expect that's why intuition often improves as one ages and acquires a broader base of professional and personal experience. (And if it doesn't improve, that's probably a sign that something's been interfering with one's ability to perceive reality accurately, e.g., ideology or wishful thinking.)