Wednesday 05 January 2005

Something I also believe

At the end of each year John Brockman, literary agent and publisher of the science-related Edge website, poses a question to a range of “scientists, futurists and other creative thinkers.” The 2005 Edge Annual Question, suggested by Nicholas Humphrey, is:

“What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

This morning I followed a link from Arts & Letters Daily to a New York Times story which lists excerpts from some of the responses. The first, by Roger Schank, “Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Author, Designing World-Class E-Learning,” articulated something that once I would never have accepted but now believe is absolutely true. Roger Schank’s complete response is worth quoting in full:

Irrational choices.

I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives. People believe they are behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are made?who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to attend, people’s minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for them.

As an example of what I mean consider a friend of mine who was told to select a boat as a wedding present by his father in law. He chose a very peculiar boat which caused a real rift between him and his bride. She had expected a luxury cruiser, which is what his father in law had intended. Instead he selected a very rough boat that he could fashion as he chose. As he was an engineer his primary concern was how it would handle open ocean and he made sure the engines were special ones that could be easily gotten at and that the boat rode very low in the water. When he was finished he created a very functional but very ugly and uncomfortable boat.

Now I have ridden with him on his boat many times. Always he tells me about its wonderful features that make it a rugged and very useful boat. But, the other day, as we were about to start a trip, he started talking about how pretty he thought his boat was, how he liked the wood, the general placement of things, and the way the rooms fit together. I asked him if he was describing a boat that he had been familiar with as a child and suggested that maybe this boat was really a copy of some boat he knew as a kid. He said, after some thought, that that was exactly the case, there had been a boat like in his childhood and he had liked it a great deal.

While he was arguing with his father in law, his wife, and nearly everyone he knew about his boat, defending his decision with all the logic he could muster, destroying the very conceptions of boats they had in mind, the simple truth was his unconscious mind was ruling the decision making process. It wanted what it knew and loved, too bad for the conscious which had to figure how to explain this to everybody else.

Of course, psychoanalysts have made a living on trying to figure out why people make the decisions they do. The problem with psychoanalysis is that it purports to be able to cure people. This possibility I doubt very much. Freud was a doctor so I guess he got paid to fix things and got carried away. But his view of the unconscious basis of decision making was essentially correct. We do not know how we decide things, and in a sense we don’t really care. Decisions are made for us by our unconscious, the conscious is in charge of making up reasons for those decisions which sound rational. We can, on the other hand, think rationally about the choices that other people make. We can do this because we do not know and are not trying to satisfy unconscious needs and childhood fantasies. As for making good decisions in our lives, when we do it is mostly random. We are always operating with too little information consciously and way too much unconsciously.

Observation of my own behavior and the behavior of those around me (in both “real” and virtual worlds) suggests that what Roger Schank says is true, that people are rarely (if ever) “capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives.”

I suspect that Schank’s view is neither widely held nor popular, even though it explains so much about us.


As I’ve been thinking about this, on and off throughout the day, one of the things that occurred to me is that Schank’s view might be “neither widely held nor popular” because it leads inevitably to what many might regard as a deterministic view of our inability to alter habitual behavior—a kind of bleak variation on the Jesuit boast: “Give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.”

I realized that, by the time I was seven (or perhaps eight), I’d concluded—as a consequence of my Catholic upbringing—that hardly any assertion can be taken at face value since (not always but frequently enough) there’s either a subtext or a hidden agenda.

In both cases there’s a gap between the assertion (what someone says is happening) and the action (what I observe them to be actually doing). If there’s a hidden agenda, then X might be consciously trying to manipulate me. If there’s a subtext, then X’s actions are probably outside his or her own awareness (in Schank’s terms, the decision was made by X’s unconscious while X’s conscious concocted plausible reasons for that decision).

Also that Schank’s belief in “irrational choices” restates a conviction that—closer to home—Dave Rogers has been writing about for a long time. A couple of posts ago, in the context of my decision to return to the Macintosh, I wrote: “I’m only too aware of the extent to which my decisions are based on emotional, not rational, criteria—an awareness that has increased as I’ve followed (and absorbed) Dave Rogers’ meditations on the subject” and went on to quote an entry Dave posted in October:

Most of the “choices” we make in the course of our daily lives, are really little more than habituated responses selected for by some interior emotional state.

Other times, a decision may be outside the bounds of our ordinary experience, yet we do have a significant emotional commitment to the subject of the decision. In those cases, our choices are usually based on how we “feel” about the issue, and our reasoning is constructed to support the “feeling.” In other words, we reason backward from our feelings.

It’s always amazed me that Dave’s posts on this issue—and on authority, on suffering, on group dynamics (to name just a few other subjects he wrote about in October)—don’t attract more attention. But really, it’s not surprising at all, because Dave’s observations cut a little too close to the bone:

You want to change the world? You’ve got to change yourself. Stop listening to every would-be “authority” out there, and carve a couple hours out of every day and pay attention to yourself and what you think you believe and why you believe it. I’d be willing to bet that reading the phrase “pay attention to yourself” evoked a negative emotional response, if only fleeting. We’re conditioned not to pay attention to ourselves. That’s selfish, or worse. Besides, what good would you be to authorities if you weren’t devoting all of your finite time and attention resources to them?

It’s not fun. You won’t meet any hot chicks. You won’t get millions of hits on your weblog, from links from all the “A-Listers.” You won’t acquire the illusion of authority. But you might begin to exercise authority over yourself. And your life might open up for you in a way that it probably hasn’t for a long time, if ever.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m an authority on nothing, and I make all this shit up.

Rather, many of us—and I’m hardly immune—are frantic to acquire those millions of hits, the links from the “A-Listers,” that illusion of authority. Despite our assertions to the contrary.

This is also why I regard so much Blogarian “self-revelation” with more than a little skepticism: either the the blogger is playing hard and fast with the truth in an attempt to boost his or her authority or, as I suspect more frequently happens, the events they write about have occurred or the opinions they express have been formed outside their conscious awareness. They, like all the rest of us, “are always operating with too little information consciously and way too much unconsciously.”

What’s the answer? Some form of spiritual practice, I guess. A practice that, in Dave Rogers’ words, takes me out of myself for a couple of hours every day so that I can pay attention to myself, and what I think I believe, and why I believe it. Easier said than done. Yet how else might I begin to break the shackles that were already firmly in place when I was eight years old?

But don’t take my word for any of this. Like Dave, I’m an authority on nothing. I make all this shit up.

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Jonathon Delacour: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?’"...

Posted by quicklinks on 22 January 2005


I agree completely. There's really no explaining the vast majority of choices people make in their lives. I'm sure you're right too when you say "Schrank’s view is neither widely held nor popular," We like to have the illusion that we are in control of our lives, but it really is an illusion in more ways than one.

Posted by Doug Alder on 5 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Don't suppose this post is related to your decision to buy a Mac is it?


I have given up trying to respond to PC users who demand rational reasons for my choice to use a Mac. These days I just say "'cos it's nice"

Posted by Euan Semple on 5 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Could be related, Euan, could be. (I've added some more to the post along those lines since you left your comment.)

Posted by Jonathon on 5 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, you're really making it tough for me to extinguish my ego. But thanks, anyway.

One caution I wish to inject here is that, in the main, our emotional decision-making process is "good enough." We know this from studying people with brain injuries to those same emotion centers who become seriously compromised in their ability to make sound, rational choices. They're still cable of rational thought in some limited sense, like math, but decision-making becomes an ordeal for them, like what color socks to wear. Or how best to get from point a to point b.

The problem, or the opportunity, depending on your point of view I suppose, is when we are unconscious of this process and of the "feelings" that were formed as a result of misunderstood events in our lives. One example might be the impression that is formed early in life that we have some "power" over others' feelings, and they over ours. We may have "made" our parents angry. Or they were delighted when we brought home good report cards. We intuitively understand, in some limited way, a relationship with between power and responsibility, and so we begin to behave in ways that may be counter-productive to our own happiness as this "power" and "responsibility" are, in reality, far less than our emotional upbringing may have instilled in us. Yet we blame others for our feelings, try to make others feel as we might wish them to feel, and experience feelings as a result of those efforts that are probably inappropriate (i.e. "guilt"). (Parenthetically, this "power" and "responsibility" misunderstanding probably has some utility value in social settings where we don't have the time and attention resources to devote to things like our relationships; and instead focus much of our attention on meeting daily survival necessities. It's when we become very successful at meeting those immediate needs that this kind of structure begins to bump up against its limitations.)

Far more difficult questions are issues like choosing political leaders, or public policies where there are numerous conflicting variables and very emotionally-laden issues, not the least of which is the "feeling" that we are "good" and we wish to do "good" ("save the world"), when even the definition of "the good" becomes blurred in conflicting views of the problems. (See: All the defensiveness by Americans in weblogs about charges of American "stinginess" in response to the tsunami. The charges may be inaccurate in some sense, but the defensiveness is inappropriate and unhelpful as well.)

All that being said, I believe there is much to be gained, both in terms of people achieving greater individual happiness and, almost as a side-effect, making the world a better place, by understanding this process and examining our feelings, which often helps to illuminate certain beliefs that we can examine critically. Naturally, that effort itself is constrained by the same limitations it hopes to overcome, but I believe one can achieve worthwhile incremental improvements. In many cases, it may be necessary to have some help in the form of a trained individual because it is difficult for us to "see" ourselves.

Thales, among others, had it right: "Know thyself."

Posted by Dave Rogers on 5 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

I too believe it is absolutely true, and far too little understood or accepted. It's very strange (once you become aware of this) making important life decisions (which I've been doing a lot of lately), trying to be rational and do what "makes sense" while knowing that what's driving your decisions is something else entirely.

> See: All the defensiveness by Americans in weblogs about charges of American "stinginess" in response to the tsunami.

Christ, do we have to drag politics into everything? (Yeah, I'm being defensive, right? If it makes you happy to think so.)

Posted by language hat on 6 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

This is something that I found out for myself about 5 years ago. Basically if you can suspend subjectivity and analyse yourself it becomes really obvious.
The issue is to 1) Accept it as part of the human decision process and not beat yourself up about it 2) find out your own individual biases and try and be aware when you are re-verting to type.
I am now known as Spock! Go figure!
My only disagreement with most analysts, who are aware that we are rationalising rather than rational beings, is that these same analysts believe that they can pinpoint specific reasons as to their preferences. This is irrelevant and I believe part of the rationalising that they condemn. Some things just are - don't worry why just try to change it or accept it!
I do not care or believe why, just tell me how!

Posted by macavity on 6 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Excellent post. As someone who has been spending a lot of time reflecting on my self and the differences between what I think, what I say, and what I do, what you wrote resonated strongly with me.

Posted by Ed Bilodeau on 6 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Despite the fact that I empasized logical arguments in the writing courses I taught for thirty years and despaired of ever teaching a large number of students how to think logically, let me suggest that logic may not always provide the best answer to a problem.

Here's a link to some interesting research done on the relationship between emotions and decision making:

Posted by loren on 6 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Dave, thanks for the clarification. On reading your comment, I realized that I may have given the impression that I think "irrational choices" are in some way "bad" (especially when compared to "rational choices"). That's not actually the case, since I'm more inclined to accept that this is just the way things are.

What does worry me is the widely-held assumption that we can and do make rational choices. The reason I was so taken with Schank's argument is that I think it does such a good job of explaining my own choices and the choices I see others making all around me.

Consequently, I agree with macivity's suggestions that the best one can do is to accept the emotional underpinnings of the decision-making process and to attempt to be aware of one's own biases.

Loren, thanks for pointing to the article at -- I guess I'm quite relaxed about the fact that (as they said) "the subconscious is in charge of the bus." Nor do I mind that I am "living an illusion of conscious choice" -- I just wish that at least some of the people around me were aware of that fact too.

Posted by Jonathon on 6 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

I agree with your thoughts but was disturbed by your reference to "spiritual practice" as a possibly remedy. But why spiritual?

A "mind practice" seems to be more in order, possibly some form of deep relaxation that allows the slower moving unconscious to work its way fully into consciousness. Maybe the problem is that we often respond to only a part (usually inadequate) of the machinery that is grinding away in our unconscious. This mind/brain/body practice has worked well for me on several occasions of big decision time possibly by putting the problem out of mind and surrendering the electrical energy to the neurons that configure my unconscious so it can do its own thing more fully- but time or lack thereof is the problem!

Should I lie down and relax before I decide to send this ... whatever, I don't see any spirit coming to the rescue.

Posted by Colin on 7 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Colin, I guess I used the word "spiritual" because I wanted to point to a practice that didn't involve either "thinking" or "feeling"; in other words, something separate from the rational/emotional polarities that Schank discussed. Although "spiritual" does not carry, for me, any substantial religious baggage, I can understand your objection. I'd point to Zen meditation as an example of the kind of spiritual practice I had in mind.

As it happens, I've used the deep relaxation technique you mention for more than 25 years -- though, interestingly (and perhaps mistakenly), I've regarded it more as a way of relieving stress than of facilitating decision-making. Even so, I'd still regard the process as one of allowing the "spirit" to reveal itself.

Perhaps this is a residue of my Catholic upbringing although I'd probably see it as more a consequence of how I've always regarded art practice -- that if one works hard enough on perfecting one's technical skills and on learning to be present in the moment, "spirit" occasionally manifests itself in the work you are lucky enough to "create."

Perhaps this "clarification" will disturb you even more. In that case, all I can do is admit to a transcendental way of looking at the world.

Posted by Jonathon on 7 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Just to muddy the water a bit more... Most practitioners maintain a distinction between a meditative state and a relaxation response. I'm not certain how significant it is, but meditation does involve a great deal of effort (at least at first), which seems somewhat contrary to relaxation (like guided imagery - which also requires effort, but of a somewhat different kind). And both of these are supposedly different from a hypnotic state.

I've got a book called The Breakthrough Principle that outlines how people achieve performance improvements or solve difficult problems after significant effort by means of some altered consciousness exercise. These may include meditation, knitting or needlework of any kind, a hot shower, a bath ("Eureka!"), a hike, etc.

But for day to day maximal performance, a more disciplined approach is probably essential. The practice of "mindfulness," in part, is one of paying attention to one's attention, and trying to maintain its focus in the here and now, some significant fraction of that awareness must go to one's interior state in order to avoid the pitfalls of undesirable habituated behavior. Meditation supports the development of mindfulness, although mindfulness does not require a meditative state. In my limited experience, this is very hard, but very worthwhile. The effort does yield a different sort of experience of the world, one which is probably best described as "spiritual," without assigning any significant meta or extra-physical reality to that term.

But I am persuaded there is more here than meets the eye, and that's probably more than enough about that.

Posted by Dave Rogers on 8 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathan isn't making the right decision a superb way of removing stress!

There is a lot lot more to this subject but what a subject!

Whatever practices or principles you bring to bear on the very human and very necessary process of honestclearconcisepreciseaffectiveconscious ... (add any good quality word) decision making, I think a paraphrase of the Buddha's last words are appropriate:

"Make your own decisions with diligence."

Posted by Colin on 11 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

Regarding the boat choice, the specific problem I see is not lack of rationality. It's just that he chose the boat that he wanted himself, rather than the one he and his wife both wanted. From what you said, his choice was quite rational in most respects, but insensitive to the human, social context of other people.

I don't really think the "rationality" is an adequate standard for good choices, and that Schank is clueless about the real problem in the case he mentioned.

I am responding entirely to Schank, and not really to the discussion thread.

Posted by John Emerson on 12 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

John, admittedly he chose the boat he wanted himself, rather than the one his wife and father-in-law both wanted and, in doing so, acted insensitively. But I think that Schank's argument is that he didn't really choose the boat at all -- rather the boat from his childhood "chose him". For reasons I don't understand, I draw comfort from the notion that many (if not all) of our most important decisions are made outside our conscious awareness.

Posted by Jonathon on 13 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

I haven't been able to find an online copy, but you might want to look up the classic social psych paper:

Nisbett, RE, & Wilson, TD (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

We seem to have introspective access to our reasons for doing things. The N-W paper presents evidence that even in its simplest and most quotidian form, this sense of introspective reliability is complete illusion. It's a far more radical claim about the unreliability of self-analysis than previous ones like psychoanalytic repression.

Posted by T. V. on 14 January 2005 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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