The Irrationality of Humans

The Irrationality of Humans


Howard Adelman

In this series of blogs I began a week ago, I tried to sketch the deep philosophical assumptions underlying a variety of approaches to comprehending and managing the polis. How do we organize our political lives and to what end? The blog on last week’s Torah portion offered a moral approach, as set out in the Book of Leviticus, essentially setting up rules for redistributing wealth in the economy. The presumption was that religious laws could be imposed on the polity and used to counteract the built-in propensities encouraging economic inequality.

A variation of this approach is currently being applied in Iran which just witnessed the landslide re-election of an ostensible reformer, President Hassan Rouhani, against his challenger, the hardliner, Judge Ebrahim Raisi. I call Rouhani an ostensible reformer because his program differs markedly from the puritans who want to close off Iran to Western influences versus the Rouhani position of greater flexibility and interaction with the rest of the world. Rouhani has a more tolerant perspective on the role of domestic individual behaviour and external foreign interests in dealing with the policies of the polis. But both the reform and the conservative leadership remain committed to the precepts of Islam framing the polity. The conservatives want to control it as well.

The previous two blogs analyzed a book that won the Donner Prize last week (Alex Marland’s Brand Command) which documented the Stephen Harper government’s method of centralized control and the use of branding to manage the polity. My critique insisted that the book had inverted the roles of framing and branding, and that the key issue was framing. Branding was simply a method of covering up the contradictions within the Tory base between free enterprise conservatives, who oppose any moral frame for the polity, and community conservatives who believe the polity should conform to historically predominant Christian norms.

The analysis also implied that, as long as Liberals (or Democrats in the U.S.) covered up the divisions on their own side between economic liberals who believe, on the one hand, that a light touch of liberal tolerance and justice can be used to manage the polity, its inequalities and injustices, versus a more radical wing that sees the need for a greater role of the state in managing competing interests to ensure greater equality, then a well-disciplined opposition with a clear brand can disguise and, indeed, repress those fundamental differences, and then win. The brand can be the disciplined command and control that Stephen Harper employed or the anarchic populist appeal used by Donald Trump. Branding is a tool used to manage contradictions and manipulate constituents either by means of control and command or by populist appeal.

Framing, however, has priority, for if we fail to understand the warfare over principles, in despair a divided polis can easily turn democratic representative and responsible government into a populist system run by a demagogue. The warfare is not simply over principles, but over the role those principles are permitted to play in the polis. To understand the tension between various sets of moral principles wanting to provide the frame, and the behaviour of humans within the polis, it is necessary to acquire a better grasp on that behaviour and the nature of the tension and tribulations between the frame of the polity and the behaviour of its members. In this blog, I concentrate on the latter. In the next blog, I will analyze the civic religion in Canada that provides Canadians with a generally dominant overarching frame.

Conservatives are divided between free enterprise and community conservatives. For free enterprisers, humans are rational actors who make choices to maximize their own individual interests, but their interests are determined by a deeper human nature driven by a need to survive at a minimum, and by greed and acquisitive drives that build on and enhance the survival mode. Humans may be driven by greed, where the principles of survival play a commanding role, but they also may be driven by passions that have an inherent propensity to undermine interests. The predominant Christian ethos was based on the need to control passions that could wreak havoc in our individual and collective lives. Is life or desire fundamental? Neither is rational.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israelis who worked in the United States for years, won the 2002 Nobel prise in economics for documenting and explaining individual economic behaviour and demonstrating that it was fundamentally irrational. Their proofs also undermined the rational choice assumptions of the high priests of monetary policy whose behaviour Juliet Johnson described in Priests of Prosperity, a nominee for the Donner Prize. The sacred religion of rational choice was upended in the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Imprinting and unconscious embodiment explain to some degree why survival and desire dictate choices more than any rational deliberation over alternatives to determine which one will best satisfy our individual interests.

The work of both men in behavioural psychology and their articulation of prospect theory undermined totally the Kantian assumption that judgement was simply the process of rational reconciliation between our moral values and our understanding of the world in accordance with the laws of nature, between practical and pure reason, between morality and nature. In 2011, Kahneman published a volume with great popular appeal, Thinking Fast and Slow, which contrasted our predominant predisposition for fast thinking, for thinking that I have described in my writing as searches for congruencies between one’s own inscribed views of the world and priorities in dealing with it, and rational deliberative decision-making.

If you are a free enterprise conservative, you are steeped deeply in the frame set out by both John Hobbes and John Locke that humans are interest maximizers and possessive individualists determined to secure their futures by seeking to acquire and own goods ad infinitum. Humans were inherently possessive individualists driven by the natural laws of survival. Kahneman, using his original work on complex correlational structures and studies of how attention, more than the actual observed world, was correlated with actual behaviour. Influenced by Richard Thaler’s pioneering work on consumer choice and hedonic psychology, in 1982 Kahneman published with Amos Tversky Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

Both men were Israelis. Kahneman in particular had served in the intelligence service. The IDF, the politicians and Mossad in 1973 had all ruled out the possibility of a massive assault by the Arab forces. After all, Syria and Egypt had both suffered enormous psychological and physical defeats in the 1967 war. Any rational assessment would have indicated that initiating a war with Israel would be self-defeating. The failure of the intelligence operation to anticipate the possibility of an attack, the failure to look at worst possible scenarios, ignoring or misinterpreting data the IDF itself had collected of an imminent attack – that Russia advisors had withdrawn – failing to recognize that Egypt was currently driven by a sense of shame and a need to recover some honour, even at the risk of another great defeat, had, together with other forms of mindblindness, produced a situation in which the fate of Israel had been risked and almost sacrificed to this immersion in preconceptions that made both the state and much of society blind to the motives and actions of others. Even at its most fateful level of survival, irrationality had framed and limited rational deliberation. And Kahneman and Tversky went on to demonstrate how this mindblindness and irrational choice revealed itself in the most mundane of subjects, consumer choice.

Thus, began the tectonic shift undermining rational choice theory based on interests. Choice was seen to be rooted, not in survival and life, but desire and the assessment of whether an experience will be pleasurable rather than painful. While life emphasizes the needs necessary for the body to survive, desire is something else. It is the effort to see ourselves projected into the world and recognized by another, usually another seen as superior in some respect, for who we have become and what we have accomplished. The individual suffers discomforts and even pain when that recognition does not come. Desire is not material, even as it is manifested in material things. God is portrayed in the Torah as motivated to create the world in the first place to become manifest and to be recognized through projections into the world. Humans were created with the ability to provide that recognition. In contrast to God, humans had the benefit of being embodied.

Humans are not so much possessive individualists as troubled personalities making mistake after mistake about what satisfied their interests, mistakes made precisely because they are governed in their judgments and decisions by a commanding illusion that develops mindblindness, an incapacity to take into account a variety of other factors as they focus on a specific one perceived as crucial to realizing who they are. Humans are not so much possessive as obsessive individualists.

If not for obsessive individualism, how else can you explain why Israelis living in an environment in which neighbours threaten your very existence and when personal allies argue endlessly over every triviality, they nevertheless perceive themselves as extremely happy? They do so certainly in comparison to members of Nordic countries who have created polities that do far more than any other on earth to ensure both that needs are satisfied and that long-term security is achieved. Israelis were indoctrinated to believe in Jerusalem of Gold, that Israel was the Promised Land, even though the external evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. On the other hand, in one study by Kahneman and Gilbert, Midwesterners in the U.S. experienced themselves as deficient in comparison to Californians because they suffered from a much harsher climate; they became convinced that good weather would solve their discontent. Any study of the experience of Californians would show it would not.

Cain and Abel were not driven by possessive individualism. They clearly demonstrated this by their willingness to sacrifice the best products of their labour so that God would recognize them as the best. When one received the recognition and the other did not, the latter was driven, not just to distraction, but to murder the other, not because of the superiority of the other’s nomadic life, nor because of all the herds the other had collected that he as a farmer had not, but because this nostalgic way of life seemed to be recognized as superior by the same God of judgement. There would always be a bias to the status quo called nostalgia or, in modern economic and political theory, status quo bias.

Kahneman and Tversky pioneered in developing an understanding of base rate fallacies and cognitive, optimist and conjunction biases, in attribution substitution and the economic conception of loss aversion that undergraduates find so entrancing in undermining rational choice theory. Together they built the structure of prospect theory and established the primacy of framing, but have thus far had only a marginal impact on the economic religion of rational choice. Their own work could be used to predict how difficult it would be for the status quo of economic rational choice theory to absorb the lessons that emerged from their research.

They provided a solid empirical basis for undermining rational choice theory that has been reinforced by the research of neuroscientists on imprinting and on more contemporary versions of the theory of the unconscious than Freud offered. We are, to a great extent, our genes and the environmental imprinting in our lives.


In the contest between genetic determinants and environmental cues, we learn independently of the consequences, not only because of the genes we have inherited, but because we can only really learn some things when we reach different stages of life. Learning is phase-sensitive. It works through genomic imprinting: DNA methylation and post-translational modification of DNA-associated histone proteins. The 1,000+ transcripts in our brain – particularly in the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus – is where memory is imprinted and learning takes place in a process of neurogenesis. Thus, it is not only our organ development, the development of our muscular-skeletal system and organs as imprinted in the subventricular zones and lateral ventricle of the brain that stage our physical development, but our mental development is, to a large degree, also determined by imprinting.

Alongside these developments, in the actual field of politics, efforts were initiated to select politicians who could perform. Hillary supposedly lost because she was so stiff. It was only after she had lost and gave her first interview that she seemed to relax. The goal became to groom politicians to match biases in the populace and to appeal to those biases through controlling the brand or, more demonstrably in the U.S. in the last election, deal with the incongruence of the candidate and both the needs of the populace and the needs of the nation with a more fundamental emotional appeal, even if originating in the chaotic mind of a populist candidate versus the chaos in the beliefs of the populace.

Thus far, Canada has avoided that fate because it has a strong civic religion. But dangers are evident concerning the fragility of the faith.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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