Tuesday, June 14, 2011

6 reasons why you fail as a rational being

There is no sin except stupidity
Oscar Wilde

You probably think you made pretty good decisions in your life, based on critical thinking and logic. You also know that you are smarter than the average person and your reasoning skills are very good. You probably failed, but don’t worry, we all fail – it’s in our brain.  

1 Optimism bias – this is a systematic tendency for people to be optimistic about their outcome. If you are a smoker, your probably think that smoke related diseases don’t apply to you (but they do). According to these studies, people have an unrealistic optimism about their live. In this study, college students rated their own chances to be above average from positive events and below average for negative events. Dalziel and Job (1997) found that professional drivers, such as metropolitan taxi drivers from Sydney,
underestimate their risk of automobile accident. Hoch found that MBA students actually overestimate the number of job offers they will receive and their salary. 
Next time you think you drive much better than a professional driver and your running like crazy or there’s no way something can happen to you (sounds familiar?), think about optimism bias. While we’re on the subject we should also talk about wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is a common error people make when they expect and make decisions based on what they want to happen. This is also a logical fallacy in the form of: I wish X is true, therefore X is true. It can also be linked to the logical fallacy called argument from ignorance where a person will state that if x hasn’t been proved to be false, then it must be true.

Rosy retrospection – remember your first boyfriend/girlfriend? Ah, such great times you had together, you don’t even know why you guys split up in the first place. Stop that, that’s rosy retrospection, when you rate past events more positively than you actually rated them when they happened.  Now think about all those decisions you made that involved this cognitive bias.

Illusion of control – people like to believe that they have the ability to control events and outcomes even when they are demonstrated that they cannot influence them. For example, when rolling the dice people throw harder for a higher number and softer for a lower number although they know that couldn’t influence their chances. Those of you with a passion for critical thinking and logical argumentation probably know about the Gambler’s fallacy. The gambler thinks that because they lost many times, their chances of winning increase. For example if we toss a coin 4 times and it shows heads all those times, one would think that the chances of it showing heads the 5th time decreased; however, the chance is always 50%. If a lot of bad things happened to you in a long time it is false to assume that something good must happen because your chances of something bad happening haven’t decreased at all.

4 Illusory superiority and Dunning Kruger effect  – is another cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive traits and underestimate their negative ones. In the Dunning – Kruger effect, unskilled people make poor decisions and make erroneous conclusions while their incompetence keeps them from appreciating their mistakes. This can also happen in reverse for competent people as they might believe that other people have an equivalent understanding. Also, the highly skilled might underestimate their abilities. So it seems that the unskilled and stupid are arrogant about their knowledge while those who actually know what they are talking about are doubtful. Also, according to the Pollyanna principle (yes, it’s that annoying positive girl from the children’s books) people tend to agree with positive statements about themselves. As you can see, we are seriously deluded.

Self-serving bias – You have to be honest, we all have this (I have poor grades because the teacher hates me). The self-serving bias is when people attribute success to themselves and failure to events or circumstances. Also, it seems to work even with ambiguous information which is used by people in their favor, although that information is not necessary related to them. But hey, it sounds great and you will delude yourself fantastically with it. While we’re on the subject, I will also mention the fundamental attribution error,  when a person judges the behaviour of others but when they find themselves in the same situation, they take situational factors into consideration.

Bias blind spot – after reading this article you are probably thinking “Hmm, I don’t have those, I’m a logical person” while thinking about situations when you acted all rational and logical. That’s called bias blind spot and you see yourself better than average and less likely to have the biases described to you. Well, the good thing is that we will always deny our stupidity.


  1. I don't fully agree, let me explain.

    1. If there's a choice between being an optimist or a pessimist, the rational decision is to be optimist.

    You talked about diseases. You know that an optimistic attitude can cure some diseases even better than medicine?

    There is also the term 'realist' which is just an euphemism for pessimist really.

    Conclusion:I think a rational person should be optimistic. Not an extreme optimist, just an optimist.

    2. Well what happens when the past event is really better than the present event? This doesn't make sense. If my last girlfriend was better than my actual one, it's lack of reason if i agree?

    Conclusion: It's a irrelevant notion to judge a person as rational based on it.

    3. Well, depends on the situation. In casino games, card counting and statistics are a real thing and you can make rational decisions based on them. But if you think you can control the outcome of a dice roll with the power of your mind, you are most likely irrational.

    Conclusion:Perhaps, but some events you may influence.

    4.Totally agree. It's almost impossible for a person to judge him/herself rationally. But this applies to every person so we can draw the conclusion that everyone is irrational so no need to search any further :).

    Conclusion : A person cannot judge him/herself rationally, not in every aspect anyway.

    5.Totally agree again. But it's just a derivation of point 4. If someone does a stupid thing, he/she is a stupid person. If you do a stupid thing, it was just a mistake. This is also due to the superficiality that we tend to judge other people with.

    Conclusion : Any person who doesn't avoid the double standard in his/her judgement, can't be called a rational individual.

    6. I am really the only rational person in the world :). But joking aside, it's yet another derivation of point 4. If a person can't judge him/herself rationally, they can't apply these principles correctly in their self assessment.

    Conclusion: That's a common thing when reading a critical article, or seeing a critical movie or hearing a critical song. The person agrees with the criticism but doesn't include him/herself in it.

    Final conclusion : There are no rational people in the world (except for me). There are people that sometimes act rationally but first of all, we are emotional beings.

  2. 1. I think you misunderstood me somewhere, perhaps it’s my fault, I should have been clearer. It’s true that the rational decision would have to be an optimistic one. I believe the stress involved in negative thinking is quite harmful. However, I’ve presented cases in which positive thinking would be harmful (such as thinking that a disease could never harm you although is related to your smoking habit, thinking that you would have a bigger salary when you finish college, or believing that your driving skills are much better than they really are). I believe that these cases show that positive thinking is not rational in all situations. Let me give you an example: myself. I’m quite pessimistic about things and I know that’s bad for me and it harms me in a direct manner. So, I never stated that being optimistic is wrong, I just think extreme optimism is wrong (and unrealistic).
    But I have to disagree with you on something. I don’t believe that optimism cures diseases more than medicine does. It may be a “contributing factor” to recovery. If a person dies of an illness they don’t die because they were pessimistic about their condition, they die because of the illness. If a person survives cancer for example, positive thinking may have helped, but it wasn’t the only thing that helped.

    Conclusion: same as yours.

    2. If the past event is really better than the present event, I guess it’s good. But that’s not what I meant. Rosy retrospection is based on studies that show people evaluating past events better than they evaluated them in the moment they actually happened. There’s a tendency in people to forget negative things and concentrate on more positive things. Of course, your argument is correct as the reality that your former girlfriend was better is compatible with the fact that you believe that she was better. Let’s say that your former girlfriend was a 10.

    Your ex gf was rated 10 at the moment you were together.
    Your actual girlfriend is a 7. => your ex girlfriend is better than your actual girlfriend. This was your argument and it’s true.

    But my argument was
    Your ex girlfriend (vacation, event, etc) was a 7. But you remember her as being a 10. Therefore, your belief that your ex girlfriend was a 10 is not true according to the rating you did in the past. So, the two opinions are not compatible. The study compared two opinions at both moments and they were different. That’s what I meant. So, unless you keep a diary with all the information about everything in your past and you rate them the same as you would have rated them when they were happening(without looking in your diary, just doing it with the help of your memory), you cannot be sure that they were the same as you remembered them to be.

    Conclusion: it is irrelevant to believe that a person’s recollections show how the event was truly perceived when it happened.

    3. Again, it is a misunderstanding here. What you say is right, statistics and card counting can influence the game if used correctly. But my example was a study when people tried to control their outcome through irrational means, by throwing the dice harder (when they wanted a higher number) and vice versa. I believe that you agree with me when I say this doesn’t work. Also, the gambler’s fallacy has no relation with statistics and card counting.

    4. I’m happy you agree. But if you want to disagree in any way, I’m opened for further discussion.

    5. Same as 4.

    6. Now I’m feeling that you wanted my article to be really short. ;) I agree with the fact that some are derivations of others but there are differences and that’s why it is a big list.

    I should put a disclaimer: I wasn’t trying to minimize the impact our emotions have in decision making, this was merely a list of cognitive biases. Of course, there are many aspects to be discussed and emotion is an important one.

    Rational people don’t exist.
    You are a rational person.
    Therefore, you don’t exist.
    (but if you do exist, will you tell me the secret behind being truly rational?)