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Being Rational About Irrationality

People thinking together can achieve remarkable results. 2012 saw the discovery of the Higgs boson using the 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider; the successful lowering of  the NASA Curiosity Lander to the surface of Mars by its sky crane (verified 14 minutes later when its radio signals finally reached earth); and Apple reaching a market capitalization of $375B, placing it first among technology companies. Human rationality made all these things possible. 

Of course, humans aren't always rational. Sometimes it’s obvious, if not in the moment, then after a bit of reflection – like that stupid comment I made when I was angry! But what’s more remarkable is when irrationality is more subtle. Cognitive bias is a departure from rationality that extensive studies show to be part of human nature. This is not bias brought on by ignorance or poor up-bringing; it is about short cuts, strategies our powerful but limited brains use to keep up with our complex, ever-changing environment*. 

Scientists have identified an ever-expanding list of over 100 predictable human biases, including 

  • Social biases – favoring the in-group; herd instinct; overemphasis on personality-based explanations of other’s behavior; ….   
  • Memory biases –recalling the past in a self-serving manner; the “I knew it all along” effect; mistaking ideas suggested by a questioner for memory; …  
  • Decision-making biases – expectations affecting perception; interpretations confirming preconceptions; wishful thinking; …
  • Probability/belief biases – stereotyping; judging arguments based on believably of conclusions; expectations influencing experimental results; … 

Significantly, these biases can be unconscious, cropping up even when we are wary of them. 

One of the most important things an organization can do is to filter out the human biases that inevitably cloak good ideas. It’s easier to do this when an organization recognizes that bias is not a flaw to be eradicated, but a fundamental feature of human thinking. Organizations transcend biases by

  • Valuing open dialog and mutual learning over defending positions       
  • Honestly measuring performance against objective measures of success      
  • Encouraging productive collisions between diverse points of view.

 --Tom

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias

4 Comments to Being Rational About Irrationality:

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Bob Stone on Monday, January 14, 2013 8:00 PM
Yogi Berra said it best, "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." Do we put theories into practice? Or, do we create theories out of practice? The concept known as rational irrationality was popularized by economist Bryan Caplan in 2001 to reconcile the widespread existence of irrational behavior (particularly in the realms of religion and politics) with the assumption of rationality made by mainstream economics and game theory. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rational_irrationality#Competing_and_opposing_theories_of_democracy_and_politics What I question is the role that rational irrationality played in the history of science and engineering. My experience tells me that most scientific progress was made through trial and error. Innovation was messy, and know-how was passed down from master to apprentice. To foster innovation in today's fast paced world, I would suggest that organizations develop the skills and careers of its engineers through feedback, coaching, mentoring and challenging assignments within the organization and within the communities where they live and work. Thinking Teams is exactly the kind of resource that could quickly build organizational capability by managing risky R&D, getting business units to cooperate, building executive relationships, empowering group leaders, and harmonizing diverse experts. -Bob Stone
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Tom Robertson on Monday, January 14, 2013 9:50 PM
Thanks Bob, great comments! I think that's my favorite Yogi Berra quote. What a sage! I really appreciate the Rational Irrationality reference - I was unaware of that work. I love some of the framings - "Rational irrationality describes a situation where it is instrumentally rational to be epistemically irrational" and "when the cost of erroneous beliefs is low, people relax their intellectual standards and allow themselves to be more easily influenced by fallacious reasoning, cognitive biases, and emotional appeals". I think this framing of rational irrationality is consistent with the explanation of cognitive bias a "brain short cut". I would guess we evolved "instrumental rationality' (believing in something because it "feels" right) because it may be the best way to make a choice in complicated situations, where a more rational choice is not available because of personal or fundamental biological brain limitations. Your linking rational irrationality to the history of science and engineering is really interesting. I think one piece of that shows up in Thomas Kuhn's "paradigm shift" framework in his book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". He points out that in spite of science's built-in objectivity, throwing out a theory that has finally outlived its former usefulness often requires scientists dying off and being replaced by the next generation. I think this resistance to change might be explained as a form of rational irrationality. I think you are right on about the messiness of innovation and problem solving. The kind of logically framed ideas found in textbooks are really important and useful, but to pretend that's all there is just what Yogi is warning us about. Good organizations and leaders recognize their main role is to set up ways of being that resiliently solve problems in the face of all the curve balls thrown by the real world.


www.thinkingteams.net on Tuesday, January 22, 2013 7:13 PM
he sum of its parts (Hive Mind, Bendable Concrete, Being Rational About Irrationality )  Thriving Enterprise Led With Vision – when leaders embrace the sometimes contradictor
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bubble point calculator on Wednesday, December 25, 2013 11:11 PM
Great post! Thank for appreciate engineer’s highly-developed problem solving skills and their master knowledge...I am chemical engineer in water distillation plant your blog is really very help full to me….Thanks.
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