Re: Books on rationality

From: Gordon Worley (
Date: Wed Jun 05 2002 - 00:18:16 MDT

On Wednesday, June 5, 2002, at 01:26 AM, Lee Corbin wrote:

> Would you, Gordon, or someone who agrees with you and understands
> what you are trying to do, provide a large number of examples of
> people who often fail to think rationally? If I understand correctly,

That's what the books for. ;-)

Most of this has been covered before, but since there has never been an
"Examples of Irrational Thought" e-mail, I guess it's okay.

So, broadly speaking, irrational thought is when you fail to think
logically about a situation and make decisions based purely on what you
feel or based on some rationalization because you want some conclusion x
to be true (keeping in mind that there is the exception Ben discussed
that you use when it's not really clear what to do so you just decide
something and go with it, keeping in mind that you just decided it for
not a particularly good reason).

Here are some specific examples:

You are in college and need to take a class in general relativity. You
notice, though, that there are lots of members of the opposite sex in
that oral communication class. In fact, there's one person in there you
like a lot and would like to get to know better. Taking that class will
set you back in your academic career. Assuming that you are in college
to learn and get some kind of degree, choosing to take the oral
communication class because it might let you get to know someone better
is an irrational decision.

You have a job providing tech support. After many days working and
thinking about how bad your job is when you get home, you realize that
Grand Theory X would justify you being rude to the customers and you'd
be a lot happier. The first trap of irrationality is acting on Grad
Theory X without having proven it. If you get past that, there are
others. So, you are sitting around trying to prove Grand Theory X and
start to come up with reasons that it must be true. After a while you
have a whole bunch of reasons that, while they sound a bit implausible
at times, justify Grand Theory X in your eyes. That's rationalization,
another form of irrational thought. Telling the difference between
rationalization and a logical progression of ideas is easy if you know
for what to look. If you are rationalizing, you start with a conclusion
and seek out evidence to support that conclusion. Unless you have a
well trained mind, you'll ignore the counter evidence and conclude that
your conclusion is in fact true. Logical thought occurs when you have
some evidence and you get a conclusion from that. Or, possibly, you
have a conclusion and you have some evidence and after sitting around
from a long time and thinking hard and trying to come up with counter
examples and failing, you find that the evidence really does support
some conclusion (more likely a slightly different conclusion than what
you started with).

When you are trying to find a reason why your conclusion is true, you
being to feel like you are straining to come up with support. Stop
right there. If you don't know, you don't know, so don't make something
up, because whatever you make up is not helpful and will confuse
matters, an irrational choice. If you have been rationalizing, you'll
hopefully get this strained feeling when your reasons turn out to be

You have a big test tomorrow and need to study for it. Right in the
middle of studying, your girlfriend shows up and wants your attention
(ahem!). The rational choice is to keep studying, because in the long
run doing well on a test and learning material are more important than
making out.

You are playing a gambling game. You have $500 dollars. First you are
given a choice: you can either be given another $100 or you can try to
win $500 more, but if you don't win, you get nothing. It doesn't matter
what the odds are, $100 is almost always the more rational choice
because it guaranteed and most people will pick that one. Then you are
given a second choice: you can either lose $100 or play a game where
you might not lose any money, but if you loose you'll lose $500. Most
people will pick the latter in this case, which is an irrational
choice. The situation is the same as the first time, the only thing
that changed was the sign on the numbers. (example paraphrased from one
in CFAI)

There are plenty of others. They all stem from the same issue: letting
your upgraded ape brain make all the decisions for your mind which is
capable of rational thought.

Keep in mind that my examples assume a certain goal system. That is, a
goal system that wants to accomplish something meaningful in the world
and contribute to it. If you're goal in life is to just have fun, it is
completely possible for you to be a rational person and make all your
decisions with the objective of having fun. If you starting thinking
about ideas and doing things that were not fun, you would be acting

I'm sorry if I haven't articulated as clearly as I'd like to. I'm sure
with time I can think up some really good examples that will make people
say "ahh, so that's what irrational thought is!".

Gordon Worley                     `When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty            said, `it means just what I choose                it to mean--neither more nor less.'
PGP:  0xBBD3B003                                  --Lewis Carroll

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