You Are Never Irrational
You’re just not always honest with yourself
Rationality is a tool
We think of rationality as an inherently good thing but it is just a tool not a trait nor even a state of mind. It is not an attribute of a person, it is a technique we use to come up with a plan for achieving a goal. That plan may be effective or ineffective due to our experience and knowledge but it is still a logical (to us) series of steps.
But people do some crazy things that make no sense, no? Aren’t they being irrational?
Not quite. The question is not is someone rational or not, it’s are they using rationality or not. The distinction may seem academic but it’s crucial to understanding ourselves.
This is because we are constantly using our rationality. We are constantly coming up with the steps for achieving a goal. We can’t avoid it.
It’s an automatic unconscious process because we are so used to using rationality that we don’t think of it as a tool, we think of it as thinking.
The steps we come up with could be wrong but the mere process of going through a step 1, step 2, step 3 approach is what being rational is all about.
Irrational is not the same as Ineffective
When we call someone irrational, what we think we are saying is what they are doing is not actually going to result in the goal they want to achieve.
But what we are actually saying is that we disagree with what we perceive to be the goal that they are aiming for. We look at the steps they are taking, extrapolate that out to the end goal we think those steps will result in and determine that person’s “rationality” based on whether or not that goal is what we think they should be doing.
We think we are criticizing their process but we are really criticizing their goal. If we agreed with the goal, then we would have no problem with the steps that lead up to it. We would consider those steps to be rational and as a result consider that person to be rational
Goals are not Rational or Irrational
Rationality has nothing to do with the quality or appropriateness of a goal. It is not a goal discovering tool, it is a goal achieving tool. It doesn’t tells what to want, it tells us what to do to get what we want.
In terms of our own lives, we seemingly don’t behave rationally because often times the goal we think we are aiming for isn’t actually the goal we are actually working towards.
We look at the steps we are taking, recognize that they are not going to reach the goal we think we want, and conclude that there must be something wrong with us, that we must be “irrational”.
However the problem is not that our steps are irrational, but that we are not being honest with ourselves as to what our real goal is.
We intellectually think we are aiming for a particular goal but our unconscious fears and desires actually are pushing us to a different goal that we lack the self-awareness to realize.
And it’s that unconsciously derived goal that we actually use rationality to plan for. It’s that unconsciously derived goal that our steps are leading us towards.
Our rationality is put in service of goals that we really don’t want and may actually be bad for us.
Rationality in Service of an Ignoble Goal
There are things that we think we should want, there are things that we actually want, and there are the things we end up being driven towards.
Most of the time, it’s those latter survival oriented drives that set the goals we then use rationality to achieve. These tend be the deep motivations that we are not willing to admit are driving us.
This sounds like an ego thing, that we don’t like to think of ourselves as being motivated by something like the fear of failure. But in reality it is about preserving a sense of control.
Because we think of rationality as a trait, if we do something that doesn’t make sense in terms of achieving our stated goal that opens up the possibility that we are irrational.
And if we are irrational then we can’t depend on our judgement, we become unmoored. If we can’t trust ourselves, then we become paralyzed.
In fact the reality is that we often have a core driver push us towards an ignoble goal, start making rational steps towards that, and then invent a more palatable goal that we convince ourselves is what we are working towards just so we can feel better about ourselves.
We come up with our stated goal AFTER the steps we are supposedly taking to reach it. But we don’t check to see if the logical end of the steps we are taking is that noble goal.
If are not making progress, we assume our steps are wrong, not that our actual goal is different than what we think it is.
For example, we may say we want to be successful in our career but our actual goal is most likely closer to “I want to be avoid being scared”. So when we procrastinate in writing our resume, that is not because we are doing something irrational it is because that is the most rational way to feel comfortable, our actual goal.
Drives vs Wants
Rationality is a highly effective tool to get what we want. We just need to be very honest with ourselves as to what is truly driving us vs what we actually want.
The distinction between drives and wants is really nothing more than the distinction between the animalistic drive for survival/procreation and the higher level want for meaning and satisfaction.
Our drives come from our history and bias and genetics as humans. They are rooted in the survival mechanisms that allowed our ancestors to be our ancestors.
Our wants come from the second-order need for living our authentic intelligent self. They are the difference between the intelligence of an ant colony and the intelligence of a fully sentient human being.
Assume You are Rational to Discover Your True Goal
So when you see yourself doing something crazy, take a step back and start with the assumption that you are rational but your goal is “crazy”.
Look at the steps you are taking and plot those out to what goal those steps are logically going to end with. That is your what your actual goal truly is.
Even if that goal is embarrassing or otherwise makes you look bad, at least if you know what you’re unconsciously driving towards you can correct for it.
That awareness of these drives is your key to overcoming their effect.
For example, you may want to get a new job, but you are afraid of failing and you will purposefully but unconsciously do things that will help you feel less afraid rather than get you closer to the new career.
If you take a look at those steps, it will be obvious that you are not headed towards that new job and by assuming that you are rational and that those steps have a different goal in mind you will be able to identify that core driver, perhaps fear of looking bad, that is undermining your higher level desire, get a new job.
You will still feel the fear but by identifying it you can correct for it’s effect on your decisions. You can focus on engaging with your life instead of being along for the ride.