Response to How has Rationality Helped You?
At an Overcoming Bias meetup group I went to a couple weeks ago, several people claimed that learning how to think rationally has helped them get ahead in life. My instinct is that this is probably true, but it doesn’t seem to me that rationality enthusiasts are statistically better off than irrational folk.
First: we all make rational and irrational decisions on a daily basis. That is, although we often so not always behave ideally to maximize expected utility, a lot of what we do is good enough. Second, I would call rationality enthusiasts only “aspiring rationalists”—there’s no guarantee that they’ve actually achieved what they claim to value, though I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.
I can see how Zach might have seen the people at the meetup as overemphasizing the benefits of studying rationality. But they wouldn’t be too different from fitness enthusiasts who go on about how running, swimming, or weightlifting have improved their lives.
Overstated benefits? Likely.
But there are areas where understanding and counteracting failures of rationality don’t experience diminishing returns as sharply. On a larger scale almost anything with high payoff and sufficient complexity qualifies. War, politics, global catastrophic risks are all examples.
On an individual basis, I have an easy example: clinical depression.
Cognitive therapy, which has since been incorporated into more comprehensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is centered around the idea that depression always manifests as dysfunctional thought. The approach is to stop depressive thought. This is regardless of the etiology: effectively counteract the manifestation of dysfunctional thought, and you are effectively treating the symptoms of depression. Hinder the occurrence of the dysfunctional thoughts, and you limit the onset of depression.
A key part to this is the idea that depressive thoughts are the result of errors of thinking. Sound familiar? For a sad or frustrating occurrence to form become a depression instead of temporary grief or anger, depression-prone people must succumb to a false piece of reasoning about whatever is bothering them.David Burns, M.D., a prominent proponent of cognitive therapy, and lists categories of errors which he calls “cognitive distortions”:
Many cognitive distortions are also logical fallacies; related links are suggested in parentheses.
- All-or-nothing thinking – Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every” or “never”. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. (See false dilemma.)
- Overgeneralization – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations. (See hasty generalization.)
- Mental filter – Focusing exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of something while ignoring the rest. For example, focusing on a tiny imperfection in a piece of otherwise useful clothing. (See misleading vividness.)
- Disqualifying the positive – Continually “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons. (See special pleading.)
- Jumping to conclusions – Assuming something negative where there is no evidence to support it. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
- Mind reading – Assuming the intentions of others.
- Fortune telling – Predicting how things will turn before they happen. (See slippery slope.)
- Magnification and minimization – Inappropriately understating or exaggerating the way people or situations truly are. Often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
- Catastrophizing – Focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable.
- Emotional reasoning – Making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality. (See appeal to consequences.)
- Making should statements – Concentrating on what you think “should” or ought to be rather than the actual situation you are faced with, or having rigid rules which you think should always apply no matter what the circumstances are. Albert Ellis termed this “Musturbation”. (See wishful thinking.)
- Labeling and mislabeling – Explaining behaviors or events, merely by naming them; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, you assign a label to someone or yourself that puts them in absolute and unalterable terms. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
Personalization (or attribution) – Assuming you or others directly caused things when that may not have been the case. (See illusion of control.) When applied to others, blame is an example.
Another form of therapy based on careful examination of cognitive processes is (incidentally named) Rational emotive behavior therapy.
As a formerly severely depressed person, learning successful strategies for dealing with my own thoughts has been the primary vehicle to recovery.
But, in the end, I agree with Zach’s general perspective: learning about rationality (and its failures) does not greatly or immediately make us capable of making better decisions. It’s general knowledge, after all. Applying rationality to the complex situations we face still remains the more important undertaking.