Posts Tagged ‘Rationality’

Shrinkwrapped discusses the psychological basis for “counterknowledge,” the absurd conspiracy theories that seem to be enjoying more credence these days.

We are living in dangerous times. Anxiety over the future and the pace of change (change ushered in by magical technologies that no one can fully understand) naturally produces powerful regressive forces in a culture. Our rationality can be so subtly and easily subverted that we usually don’t recognize it until far too late. Worse, those whose grasp of reason is weakest, either through limited native intellectual abilities or poor pedagogy, are most susceptible to adopt the easy solutions of irrationality.

Just beneath the surface of even the most stable and reasoned mind exists a cauldron of irrationality.

I’ve often been struck by the fear of change and the reactionary nostalgia evident in certain streams of leftist thought. Marx and Engels:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

In short, the chief problem with capitalism, for Marx and Engels, is what Schumpeter called creative destruction.

I heard something similar in the Democratic debate a few days ago, in which Clinton, Obama, and Edwards competed to see who could denounce trade agreements more fervently. They each made their case on the basis of preventing change. Increasingly, the left is the voice of the status quo, or even of reactionary longing for some imagined golden age.

Indeed, an increasing number of leftists seem to be Luddites. Environmentalism is partly a rebellion against modern technology. The conspiracy theories surrounding voting machines are another example. Here’s someone involved in the New Hampshire primary recount on the conspiracy theorists:

They are absolutely down-right horrid…. Check [Blackboxvoting.org] out sometime if you want to see some terrible, biased reporting. Another commentator has been a man who is involved in the citizen’s militia – really nasty man. He is quoted as saying the Oklahoma City bombing was orchestrated by the CIA. People like this frighten me.

Fear of change, hostility to technology, irrational refusal to consider evidence—all seem to be becoming more common. They are not restricted to the political left, but they do appear to be especially evident there. If Shrinkwrapped’s analysis is right, furthermore, we can expect more of the same. The pace of change is accelerating; the world’s danger level is high and shows no sign of receding significantly anytime soon. That portends more fear, more displacement and denial, and more irrationality.


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A few days ago I talked about flaccid strategies for iterated prisoners’ dilemmas, noting that strategies without retaliation cannot win. I remarked:

Many Western leaders seem committed not only to avoiding retaliation but to responding to defection on an opponent’s part with forgiveness and even more extensive cooperation. [Emphasis added.]

That inspires a further thought. Robert Alexrod and others have investigated strategies for iterated prisoners’ dilemmas. In the real world, however, and especially in politics, people and nations interact along many different fronts, cooperating or defecting on many different issues. Cooperation can be limited or extensive. That suggests that we might do better to model interactions as sets of iterated prisoners’ dilemmas. Ideally, certain kinds of interactions can not only affect what happens within a set but generate or foreclose new sets. (Think of businesses entering into a joint project, for example, or countries agreeing to join transnational organizations such as NATO.)

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Going for It

David Romer has studied football coaches’ decisions on whether to punt or go for it on fourth down. He has written a paper arguing that, generally, going for it makes much more sense than punting. Yet NFL coaches go for it on fourth down only in very circumscribed situations. This leads Romer to conclude that people often fail to choose the most rational option to achieve their goals.

Interestingly, since Romer’s findings have become known, NFL coaches have become more conservative in their play calling in fourth down situations. So, pointing out this case of irrationality has actually made coaches less rational! (Hat tip: Greg Mankiw.)

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