How to Harness Humans’ Inherent Tendency Towards Irrationality

A quick glance at world news these days confirms it: as a species, we’re inherently irrational. We routinely act against our best interests, trading short-term satisfaction for long-term stability.

The consequences of irrationality, as we’re seeing today, can be devastating. But they don’t have to be. What if, instead of accepting irrationality as the status quo, we learned to leverage our innate wiring and harness it to some positive effect?

Let’s explore the biological basis for irrationality in humans, as well as the possibilities that exist to hack our brains for the better.

The Biological Basis for Irrationality

Research into human irrationality goes back to at least the 1970s. In 1975, U.S. scientist Albert Ellis presented a paper appropriately titled “The Biological Basis of Human Irrationality” to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, which stated:

“If we define irrationality as thought, emotion, or behavior that leads to self-defeating consequences or that significantly interferes with the survival and happiness of the organism, we find that literally hundreds of major irrationalities exist in all societies and in virtually all humans in those societies.”

In particular, Ellis calls out “human fallibility, overgeneralization, wishful thinking, gullibility, prejudice, and short-range hedonism,” which he claims “appear at least in part tied up with physiological, hereditary, and constitutional processes.” Ellis goes on to detail 259 specific “happiness-sabotaging tendencies,” for which he claims a biological basis because they manifest in all humans, across virtually all cultural and social groups studied at the time.

The breadth and scope of Ellis’s tendencies illustrates an important challenge to understanding irrationality: simply defining it isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like to believe. Irrationality isn’t just acting against one’s best interest. Quartz writer Olivia Goldhill gives the example of heavy drug use as a rational behavior, given that the user is, effectively, making a conscious choice to maximise their pleasure.

Instead, she shares a definition from Hugo Mercier, a researcher at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives-Marc Jeannerod in France and the co-author of The Enigma of Reason, which suggests that:

“Rationality has to be defined according to how well you accomplish some goals. You can’t be rational in a vacuum, it doesn’t mean anything. The problem is there’s so much flexibility in defining what you want.”

The Manifestation of Irrationality

Perhaps a better way of understanding these irrationalities is to identify them by the way they manifest in our lives. Though they may be undefinable, they’re certainly enduring. As Ellis notes:

“These irrationalities persist despite people’s conscious determination to change; many of them oppose almost all the teachings of the individuals who follow them; they persist among highly intelligent, educated, and relatively undisturbed individuals; when people give them up, they usually replace them with other, sometimes just as extreme, irrationalities.”

That we are so committed to our irrational thoughts and behaviours should come as no surprise to readers of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. BigThink contributor Sam McNerney notes, drawing from Kahneman’s work that, “it only takes a small amount of information to confidently form new world views that are seemingly objective and accurate but almost entirely subjective and inaccurate. That is, the human brain tends to jump to conclusions based on limited information.”

Do you recognise yourself in any of the following examples of this behaviour?

The Planning Fallacy

As humans, we routinely underestimate how long it’ll take us to complete tasks. This is known as the “planning fallacy,” and it manifests in procrastination, repeatedly postponing tasks over time or regularly arriving late, despite believing you’ve allowed adequate preparation time.

The Overconfidence Fallacy

Francesca Gino, writing for the Harvard Business Review, shares that “We also tend to overestimate the accuracy of our own thoughts and the odds of our success – that is, we tend to be overconfident.” In practice, this means that we routinely fail to account for all variables when making decisions on how to execute tasks while working alone and in teams.

The Incomplete Evidence Fallacy

In 1996, Stanford University researchers Lyle Brenner, Derek Koehler and Amos Tversky conducted an experiment structured around a mock legal dispute. In the study, one group of subjects heard arguments from one side of the dispute; the second group of subjects were presented with evidence from both sides. Participants were then asked to estimate how many jurors would find in favour of the plaintiff.

Although the participants who heard only one side were aware that a separate survey group heard evidence from both sides, researchers found:

  • They were more likely to make predictions biased in favour of the side they heard.
  • They were more confident, but generally less accurate than participants who heard both sides.

Essentially, the researchers concluded, “People do not compensate sufficiently for missing information even when it is painfully obvious that the information available to them is incomplete.”

Compensating for Irrationality

The aspects of Stanford University’s study described above are disheartening in their conclusions. They certainly don’t speak highly of humans’ ability to behave rationally and to correct for potential bias, even when we’re fully aware we aren’t acting off complete information.

But there is a silver lining. The researchers conducted a follow-up experiment in which they implemented a simple exercise which encouraged participants to evaluate the merits of each side’s arguments. Encouragingly, they found that “A simple manipulation that required subjects to evaluate the relative strength of the opponent’s side greatly reduced the tendency to underweight missing evidence.”

The researchers’ work, in combination with research conducted by many others, suggests that combatting irrationality is possible. It just isn’t easy.

One academic fighting to empower humans to do just that is Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the best-selling book, Predictably Irrational. In an interview with Scientific American, Ariely describes the goal of his work around the concept of irrationality:

“My hope for the kind of work I do, and for behavioral economics in general, is that by augmenting standard economics it could help design better policies that actually work with what people can compute and the ways they reason. In particular, I think that this approach in behavioral economics can have a substantial impact on savings, health care and a tendency to engage in risky behaviors.”

As an example of the practical impact of his work, Ariely discusses retirement savings in the U.S., where the median savings for all working-age families in the U.S. is just $5,000 (despite predictions that even $1 million may not be enough to sustain a retirement longer than 12 years in the country).

Not preparing for retirement is inherently an irrational activity; one that sets U.S. retirees up for significant financial challenges in their later years. Knowing this, Ariely suggests taking deliberate action to compensate for our innate tendency to act against our best interests:

“Maybe it is time to take action and force ourselves to behave better. One way to do this is by having money automatically transferred from our checking account into a retirement savings account at the beginning of each month—essentially taking the decision outside of our consideration so that we don’t even give ourselves the opportunity to think about spending money that we know we should save.”

This model – combined with learnings from the Stanford University researchers cited above – can be applied to any situation where irrational behaviour manifests:

  1. Make yourself aware of your potential for irrational behaviour. Reviewing Ellis’s list in full can be informative (if slightly disheartening).
  2. Evaluate the strength of your beliefs. The simple question posed by Stanford University researchers to participants in their follow-up experiment was this: “Would you expect to be more or less confident in your estimate if you had seen the arguments for both sides?” Ask yourself the same thing – modified to suit your particular situation – to reveal blind spots that could drive you towards irrational behaviour.
  3. Proactively compensate. Once you’ve identified irrational tendencies, take deliberate, proactive actions to minimise their potential impact.

This isn’t an easy process to complete, especially considering the scope of instances where it may be required. But the more thoughtful you can be about your own potential towards irrationality, the better you’ll be able to leverage this inherent tendency to produce positive outcomes in your life.

Combatting Irrationality: An Enduring Effort

Even with the process described above, there is no perfect outcome; no end stage where irrationality is eliminated. Even in the presence of perfect data, future situations could arise to which our mental models do not apply.

Paul Bloom, contributor to The Atlantic, cites the example of the 2008 global financial crisis, which all projections at the time suggested was statistically impossible. Yet, it happened, leading Bloom to conclude:

“We live in a world of deep uncertainty, in which neat logic simply isn’t a good guide. It’s well-established that data-based decisions don’t inoculate against irrationality or prejudice. But even if it was possible to create a perfectly rational decision-making system based on all past experience, this wouldn’t be a foolproof guide to the future.”

If we can’t eliminate irrationality, we can at least remain aware of both its presence and the strategies available to us to combat it. It’s an incomplete solution, but it’s the best one we have for achieving positive outcomes in the face of our innate tendencies.

Which irrational thoughts or behaviours can you identify in your life? What steps can you take to combat their impact to produce positive change? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts:


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