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


Branding and the Apocalypse

POSTCRIPT: Branding and the Apocalypse


Howard Adelman

Sanjay Khanna, a Visiting Scholar at Massey College, wrote a very intellectually stimulating position paper with James McKee, a PhD student in Political Science. The paper, “A Force of Nature: Emerging Conditions of Social Protest” ( was written for the 2013 Trudeau Summer Institute. I initially responded by suggesting a reservation to my enthusiastic initial reception – that the apocalyptic message seemed in total contradiction with the academic style of the writing and the reformist benign message. Upon reflection, I think the problems is far more serious.

While the Khanna/McKee piece was written in cool academic language, its message was anything but. The authors see the future in terms of VUCA – volatile, unstable, complex and chaotic, as well as ambiguous. Externally, climate change is the prime source of volatility, but it extends to economics, politics and the character of future societies. Increasing complexity and chaos are matched on the subjective side by ambiguous responses and resultant instability in the political and economic realm. Yet, in spite of the horrendous message, the report weakly suggests that they can help people navigate through this apocalyptic vision and transition to a more resilient future for Canadians.

For example, politically the confidence in democracy is seen to be on a declining trend with a response, especially among youth, characterized by apathy and a general transition from a civil to a courser political environment. Given the increasing costs of health costs well above general increases in GDP, given the increasing rates of unemployment among youth (17% youth unemployment in Ontario according to very recently released figures) and the declining youth political participation rates and the shift to confidence in non-political processes or single issue politics, the authors predict a continuing shift to micro-targeted politics and continuing to ignore young people’s priorities thereby enhancing the democratic deficit and the risk of following more and more irrational courses of action. Less listening, more manipulation, rougher politics and greater risk for non-rational political processes leads to “the central presumption that politics will be an increasingly emotion-laden process, the shift away from policy and into the political ‘tribalism’ of a polarized electorate” …and “the transformation of political policymaking into something resembling a continuous appeal to a political ‘lifestyle’ or ‘brand’ that treats the citizen primarily as a passive consumer limited to selecting options rather than driving policy change.”

In the discussion of brands, the authors went on to argue that people in societies under stress do not behave deliberatively but become driven by immediate fears, prejudices and tribal affiliations, but they can be encouraged “to hold onto their core values of tolerance, dialogue, mutual respect, and respect for diversity.” They argue that efforts should be undertaken “among coalitions of corporate partners to meet social aims through brands, using brands as an element of trust-building within and between generations.”

Since the paper at several points brings in a discussion of contemporary branding so, to make my points in the discussion of the prognostication and formulation of a rescue plan, I will make reference to Ira Basen’s one hour long radio feature documentary on branding cleverly entitled, “A Brand New World” that was broadcast a week ago on CBC’s Sunday Morning Magazine show. ( Ira argued that we are entering an era where, “People behave like brands and brands behave like people.” What he meant by this catchy phrase was that consumers were no longer simply passive recipients of brand messages focused on the selling the name and quality of a specific product. Rather, businesses were transforming brands into associations with lifestyles in order to connect with consumers on a personal level and connect to their value biases. Business wants to become your friend and show the brand shares your vision of the world. As he said in his special, “Brand used to talk to you but now brand has to listen and has to link to what people think and feel. Brand is now controlled by the people who use it.” In the process, companies become communities as they seek new connections to brands and efforts of brands to articulate the values of the consumer to develop an active dialogue between the brand and the consumer. So instead of expecting less from businesses and government, consumers and citizens expect more.

So we get two very different pictures of the future through the perspective of trends in branding. Instead of just enhanced volatility leading to greater ambiguity as the whole economic, political, social and natural environment becomes both more complex and more chaotic, the apparent instability reveals a pattern that is varied and diverse and decentralized. The ambiguity is then whether those businesses are in control and merely manipulating consumers or whether businesses are entering into a partnership with consumers. Is Coca Cola teaching the world to sing and to save polar bears and to fight obesity simply as a ruse? But consumers are too sceptical and Coca Cola had to prove its sincerity and integrity by developing Coca Cola plastic bottles made from plants. Companies can only do well by doing good. 

Is that true of politicians? Unfortunately, not! On closer examination, the tale Khanna and McKee (KM) tell of increasingly dirty and manipulative politics that use branding to identify political parties that touch the ideology of constituents suspicious of government and gain voters by appealing to irrational fears is not inconsistent with Ira Basen’s alternative tale of business allied with an increasing savvy youthful generation to market their products by lining up with an identification with the lifestyle of youth and their predominant values that celebrate diversity, tolerance and freedom. These two tales are not inconsistent even if they appear contradictory on the surface. For KM are telling the story of how more conservative approaches in terms of both method and content will work on an increasingly aging population increasingly fearful about the size of their pensions and whether the benefits accrued will see them comfortably through their old age. Ira Basen was writing about the innovations of business trying to take advantage of the new technology as well as the very different attitudes of youth towards business, politics and youth. Taken together, both are describing the landscape of a new generational war radically different than the battle fought in the sixties.

Let me play out that battle on three fronts: 1) health services; 2) medically assisted suicide; and 3) post-secondary education. The first is the easiest. With an aging population, with advances in technology, there is simply no way to keep the costs of health care from going up at rates significantly faster than the growth of the economy. The rate of growth of the latter has shown, as KM illustrated, a propensity to increasingly lower rates of growth in developed countries. The rate of growth of health costs, in contrast, has shown an increasing propensity to higher rates of growth. Governments may answer this squeeze by the federal government downloading costs onto the provinces and by increasing the age of retirement to increase productivity, but the downloading method combined with increasing revenues from elsewhere and decreasing costs of pensions only shifts the mode of payment, not the amount. And the latter may increase revenues but not nearly sufficiently to offload costs. The baby boom generation is not going to tolerate their addiction to good health care and the values of reduced suffering and enhanced enjoyment of this life while also being told they have to work longer and further postpone the satisfactions they anticipated in their retirement years.

This takes us into the second issue – medically assisted death with dignity. This is NOT euthanasia. This is not a public body deciding upon who should live and who should die based on their medical condition. Medical assisted death with dignity places the value of choice over death in the hands of each individual. This “freedom to choose” appeals to both the baby boom generation as they age and the new generation of youth. It is an issue on which they can – and will – unite to change existing laws. It is, therefore, a wedge issue that can generate coalitions, address directly the issue of fast rising health costs and the issue of a possible generational war of conflicting values.

This is also true of the next issue – post-secondary education. This is the other area of government costs increasing at greater speed that the rise in productivity. These costs are already being carried primarily by the provinces. As those governments face the burden of carrying increased health costs downloaded by the federal government, they will desperately look for ways to save money and not continually increase the level of indebtedness of this level of government. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is an obvious place to save that money that fits in with the values of the new emerging consumer culture insistent on being in control and new developments in both the technology of delivering higher education and branding. This is the development of MOOGs, those courses delivered via the new technology directly to youth and others all over the world by the universities with the best brands in higher education. When those universities learn that a much greater investment in the preparation of the product is needed to fit in with the new media, and that the costs of doing so will be minimal relative to the overall costs of the whole product and the radically reduced costs to consumers of education, it is very easy to realize how enormous savings can be made in this area to deliver both high level education in the humanities, social sciences and sciences and realize huge savings.

What will happen to the huge investments in capital in the plethora of colleges and universities? They will be used to foster innovation and co-research projects as businesses partner up with people of all ages to rent the facilities as campuses of innovation and development of ideas replace the primary model of passive learning inherited from the past. What will happen to the old order of professors and teachers employed by these institutions? They have increasingly been replaced by adjuncts, recent under-employed PhD graduates and researchers following an independent path who will now continue in more tutorial rolls as adjuncts to the MOOGs. 

In other words, here are three areas in which interests coalesce with both the old politics of manipulation and irrational appeals (what I have called populism) and the new politics of co-partnerships through issue specific priorities coalesce. But how does that deal with the huge issues of climate change over which there is an almost unanimous consensus among environmental scientists that these changes are real, that they are relatively dramatic and that they are fuelled by human intervention in the environment, and that challenge the environmental change deniers of the older generation? They do not. In this area, the politics of brand manipulation versus the politics of business-youth partnerships are at odds. What we are witnessing is a new political alignment. Big business in the areas of the media, communications, (travel and electronic) is siding with youth and environmentalism. The old politics has shifted in an effort to appeal to consumers over control of media companies, airlines and cell phone companies and trying to brand themselves as state run consumer protectors. It may work to some degree in appealing to the older generation susceptible to this type of older style brand manipulation. But it will not work for youth.

So, ironically, we are witnessing a realignment of politics, not with business on one side and workers on the other, but with some types of businesses on one side – old fossil fuel based industries, as an example – versus communication, transportation and media businesses on the other side and a necessary realignment of political allegiances and parties.   

Lauren Zinn in Michigan sent me a note saying how she was moved by my memorial to Sam Ajzenstat, but asked, “Does the moral project of taking responsibility for one’s life necessarily lead to Zion-ism or any other -ism?  Is there no other option between naive idealism and Zionism/other nationalisms?”  I argue that there is not. If the old politics of manipulation, populism and appeals to irrational fears is to be dealt with, if the politics of defining a nation in terms of a political leader and branding a political leader in terms of a polity to substitute the Harper nation and the Ford nation or the sovereigntist PQ nation for the Canadian nation, then the only uniting social appeal is to appeal to the nation as it has been developed through the years of experience of all voters, young or old. There has to be an emotional connect. The natural connect is the nation – whether American in its melting pot vision or Canada in its multi-national development and vision, but that nationalism must be articulated with greater clarity, with more resonance with how it has actually developed and emerged and with a greater connect with citizens of all ages.

The war between the troglodytes of manipulation, of shouting less government and lower taxes in easy slogans of appeals to fears and trepidations and the new politics of partnerships and facing the environmental crisis head on, of new realities in education and health services – as well as conflicts abroad and new forms of refugee flows – are coming into place and will require a shake up in the make-up and character of the opposition parties that will make the shake up on the other side look like child’s play. For the transition of uniting populism with personalism, of uniting anti-centralized politics with fiscal conservativism, fit a slash and burn method of dealing with excessive costs but does not fit the challenges facing politicians or the people currently at the forefront of concern. Politicians using the new forms of branding will require new partnerships, new alignments, new ways of communicating and new ways of rallying coalitions that will have to rely on nationalism – not as a simplified reactionary appeal – but as a deeper understanding of the developments of the values of this nation that will throw off the knee-jerk anti-nationalism of people such as Pierre Elliot Trudeau who preceded Stephen Harper in successfully introducing cognitive populism and personalized political branding to Canada but at a tremendous cost of a disconnect with this nation as it emerged and developed.

The new democracy requires more listening and less manipulation, more partnerships and less posturing, more inter-personal civility and less crassness in either gesture or methodology, more facing real risks than allowing risks to multiply and accumulate without facing them, more genuinely emotional politics and less reliance on fear, a new appeal to what unites us to balance the new individualized politics to counteract a widely differentiated electorate that is trying to be manipulated in terms of the old polarized ‘isms’ and politics of manipulation.  In this process, business can be no substitute for politics, but politics will have to make common cause with business in celebration of this nation.