Friday, October 5, 2012

How to Wrangle Your Irrational Thinking

From the Department of Stating the Obvious comes this revelation from Julia Galef, President of the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR): Society would look radically different if rational thinking and decision making were widespread. 

Well now, that is a dream, isn’t it?  And coming from a card-carrying member of the New York City Skeptics too. 

But I kind of love what this bright young woman and CFAR have to offer:  training in rational thinking and strategies for employing such thinking in everyday life.   

Realistically though, who’s going to do that?  Think rationally I mean.  After all, things are going pretty darn well as they are.  No need to repair this topsy-turvy apple cart.  We’re bumping along quite nicely, thank you very much. 

Galef senses such resistance to the reasonable.  So, to warm us up to the concept of thinking and even acting rationally, she recounts a situation we can all relate to:  In 1985, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, the co-founders of Intel, were reviewing the years of losses their mega corporation had sustained as a result of its repeated investments in the manufacturing of memory chips.  They put their substantial noggins together to try to figure out what to do with the grim data that showed them and their stakeholders losing money yet again in a long-term trend. 

Andy turned to Gordon, as the story goes, and asked, “What if the Board of Directors fired us and brought in a brand new CEO?  What would she do?”  

Gordon replied without hesitation, “She’d get out of the business of making memory chips!” 

(OK.  I’ll admit, Andy didn't made the new CEO a woman, did.  So, I put in the quotation marks, but that’s not an actual, direct quote.  It just makes sense though, don’t you think?) 

Once these two whiz kids agreed there was nothing to prevent them from taking that same hypothesized action, they took it.  They shut down the memory chip-manufacturing segment of Intel and staunched the flow of good money after bad.   

Huge success.  Genius.  Rock and roll.   

Who wouldn’t want to do that?  Be rational and all.  

But you can just hear the masses, their shoulders rounded, heads hanging low, groaning like so many Eeyores, “Oh great.  We’ve gotta be rational now.  On top of everything else.   

“It’s not as if we have a lot of empty slots on the dance card, you know.  We’re busy, what with all the repetitive, non-productive behaviors that fill our days.”   

We do love our routines, don’t we? 

Galef calls the syndrome the Intel brainiacs and the rest of us are mired in the “commitment effect,” wherein perfectly clever people stick with a business plan, a career, a relationship, or a pair of cruel shoes in spite of the evidence that they’re counterproductive or even destructive. 

It’s also been called, less diplomatically, insanity.  You know, when you keep limping around in those pointy stilettos in spite of the painful corns. 

The big question is why we cling to our self-defeating commitments.  Let’s see…Could it be that by nature, humans are illogical?  Why yes!  We maintain senseless commitments to the futile things we do.   

And those shoes are so darn cute. 

But rationality is good for you.  It can ease your pain.  So let’s all do what Grove and Moore did.  Let’s look at those shoes like a brand new CEO would.  Fresh eyes.  You get the idea.  

Why, she’d come in like my mother, take one look and say, “What?!  Are you crazy?  You’re ruining your posture.  You don’t want to wind up with a hammertoe, do you?  Here.  Take my orthopedic clogs.  Like buttah.” 

OK.  My mom was from Oklahoma.  She didn’t really talk like that.  Or wear clogs.  But to make a point.  You understand.   

Now I don’t want to dismiss Ms. Galef, CFAR or its mission, but I think I can handle the commitment effect.  No training needed.  Just call in mom. 

Yet Galef persists, warning against another common form of irrational thinking:  “confirmation bias.”  In this one a person first adopts a point of view and then goes about amassing evidence to support it, while ignoring any evidence to the contrary. 

That’s just bizarre.  Imagine if voters did that before elections!