“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”
~Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
While logical fallacies and cognitive biases are the eternal thorn in the side of the self-loathing and unsuccessful, overcoming them isn’t just “some secret that you smart people have.” While usually framed as an eternal Manichaeistic debate between lightness and darknessi – between entirely genetic causes and entirely environmental causes – at least in my estimation there’s as much nurture as nature involved in determining who and what we are.
This is good news for you! (As it was for me!)ii
While it’s easy for me to pump my own tires with theories positively correlating high IQ and some sort of immunity from cognitive biases, my own personal journey to this lovely place is filled with a fair few tales of nurture : “You don’t have to finish your fries,” “If the movie stinks, leave the theatre even if you can’t get your money back,” “Time is precious, use it wisely,”iii “That [celebrity, sports star, acquaintance] isn’t talking about you, so why are you talking about them ?”, “Here’s an allowance, it’s all you’re getting this month,” “Who said life was fair?” and more lessons in sunk costs, comparative advantage, opportunity cost, envy/jealousy tendency, delayed gratification, and the fairness tendency were repeated to me over and over again by my parents.iv Awareness and subsequent allergy to other common cognitive biases and fallacies – everything from anchoring-and-adjusting to modus tollens – I picked up in my optional intro-to-psych classes in undergrad and logic/math classes in graduate studies.v But these were all learned! I certainly wasn’t born with a force field against any and all cognitive traps.vi
Not that everything is learned either! Cognitive bugs like the confirmation bias or the social-proof tendencyvii are probably ones that I’m inherently built to overcome given that I’m for whatever reason about as unagreeable a bastard as they come. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing (in the Old Country/Israeli sense, not the new world nonsense sense) but I find that people who always and everywhere agree with me are about as exciting as The Bachelorette. Even if working with like-minded (or shall we say “values-aligned”) people is perfectly enjoyable, even necessary, it’d be awfully dull and really rather pointless if we never challenged each other in a productive way. The endowment effectviii is also one that I seem to be (mostly) inherently immune to. While I fancy myself special enough in certain domains, I’ve never maintained any delusions about being Paul Newman and having the power to imbue inert objects with hereto unprecedented quantities of value, for example. When it comes to buying and selling commoditised wares, I know that I’m just as worthless as the next schmuck, and that my only edge, if anything, is my ability to ABC.ix Similarly, when it comes to parenting, my kids are perfectly wonderful, but I’m under no illusions of them being the next Pelé or Water Malonex or whatever. I also don’t have any delusions about living to 125-years-old in perfect health. I’ll be happy just to make it to 45, and I live my life accordingly.
Not that I still don’t have biases! We all do to greater or lesser degrees. But with practise and discipline, there’s always room for improvement.xi
So is man rational ? Far from it.xii But can he be reasonable ? Absolutely. Just be sure, as Swift rightly points out, to reason him in before you reason him out.
After all, men are made as much as born.
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- In popular science as popular culture, this is often the “debate.” But I guess that’s par for the course with popular things, y’know ? ↩
- Whether you’re a self-improving sort of bloke, a teacher, or just a humble parent, it should be reassuring to know that one of the most successful people you know who blogs (though far from the most successful blogger (there’s a huge difference) ) genuinely believes in a balanced proportion of genetics and education contributing to his success, and by logical extension to everyone else’s. Lack of success is another matter, granted, but you’d probably already figure that out. ↩
- This was reinforced in a variety of ways, some of them decidedly humorous, if unintentionally so. ↩
- It’s been said that you can’t pick your parents, but if your parents are that terrible, there’s no time like the present to find skilled mentors. If you’re the least bit bright and motivated, most people of power and authority will be honoured that you even asked. ↩
- A mostly decent list of 25 common cognitive biases can be found here, but there are scores of such lists out there. If you find a better one, feel free to drop a link in teh comments. ↩
- Spending time in TMSR also wasn’t a terrible way to get my logical head on straight for six-to-twelve months, even if, for all of its intellectual merits, it was too morosely misanthropic beyond that (which is why, in case you were wondering, the band-aid was finally ripped off). ↩
- To say nothing of the argumentum ad populum fallacy, Ethereum market cap fallacy, and so many other logical fallacies. ↩
- AKA Dunning-Kruger effect. ↩
- Always Be Closing. ↩
- Post Malone, for the blissfully unaware, is like an American trailer trash version of Rich Chigga, but waaaay more repetitive and waaaay more meme-able.
- This is why I’m as fond of personality tests as I am, it helps just being reminded that there are alternative ways of seeing the world as much as the categorisations themselves are useful. ↩
- Even in my precocious pre-teen years, I thought it odd that man would ever be considered “rational.” Rationalising ? Of course! But that’s ex post, not ex ante. Why was no one else talking about this difference, I wondered then. It was only many years later that I learned about “economists” and their perversely disproportionate influence on civil discourse. ↩