Why you're probably not as rational as you think you are — and what you can do about it

When it comes to self-improvement, few people consider their reasoning skills. Most of us simply assume - and take for granted - that under most circumstances, we formulate perfectly rational opinions. But according to an emerging subculture of rationality gurus, there's still plenty of room for improvement. They believe there are ways we can train ourselves to make better decisions, as well as increase personal control over our lives, health, and happiness. Here are a few of their ideas about how you can become more rational.

To better understand rationality and how we can improve upon it, we spoke to Julia Galef, co-host of the Rationally Speaking Podcast, and the president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, a nonprofit think tank that teaches math- and cognitive science-based techniques for effective decision-making.

After speaking to Julia, it became clear that rationality is coming to be seen as a kind of cognitive enhancement - a likely explanation as to why so many lifehackers and futurists have started to take interest. And as we also learned, becoming more rational is not as difficult as it may sound. When it comes to clearer thinking, all we often need to do is make a minor adjustment.

What is your own personal definition of rationality?

You may have noticed that when people say "That's not rational" they usually just mean, "I disagree with you."

Why you're probably not as rational as you think you are — and what you can do about it

But to cognitive scientists, "rationality" means something specific. It's a set of techniques from math and decision theory for forming your beliefs about the world as accurately as possible, and for making decisions that are most likely to achieve your goals.

What would it be like if people were perfectly rational? Well, our confidence in a claim would match the amount of evidence backing it up. We'd change our minds in response to good arguments. We wouldn't stay stuck in jobs or relationships we hate, or make the same mistakes again and again.

We'd reflect on what we most care about - like our happiness, our friends and families' happiness, or improving the world - and on the best way to work towards those goals. And then we'd actually do it, rather than remain in our old ruts.

Of course, none of us are ever going to be 100% rational all the time. We're only human! We've got limited time, and focus, and energy.

But we can make some powerful improvements. Cognitive scientists like Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking Fast and Slow) have amassed a treasure trove of research on ways that human brains could be more rational. So far, no one's been using that research to actually improve people's lives - that's why we founded the Center for Applied Rationality.

Given that virtually no one would admit to being irrational, how can a person know they're not thinking rationally?

It's often easier to notice your own irrationality after the fact. I think we've all had that experience of wondering, "Why did I stay up all night when I knew I had to be on-the-ball this morning?" or "Why didn't I leave this awful job months ago?"

Catching irrationality in the moment is harder. Once I started paying attention, I was surprised at how frequently I noticed myself dismissing an argument because I didn't want it to be true, or because I felt defensive, or because it's being made by a pundit I dislike.

So one simple trick that I use all the time now is a thought experiment. I'll ask myself, for example: "If it was my favorite blogger making this argument, rather than the pundit I dislike, would I still think it's a bad argument?" It's a handy way to check whether you're evaluating an argument rationally or whether you're biased against it for some reason.

At CFAR we teach lots of tricks, many of them as simple as the thought experiment, to help people notice their own irrationality when it counts.

It's interesting that you bring up biases. Some of these are learned, but most are an ingrained part of our psychologies. What are some common biases that get in the way of rationality, and how can people best address these glitches in their thinking?

Brief background: cognitive scientists have discovered that the human brain has roughly two different ways of forming judgments: intuition and reflection. (They're also called "System 1" and "System 2.") Our intuition uses shortcuts and emotional cues, while reflection is what allows us to plan ahead and to reason abstractly about things like math, logic, and hypotheticals.

And it's a common misconception that being unbiased means only using reflection. But in fact, your intuition is invaluable! Without its shortcuts, we'd go crazy trying to reflect carefully on every single little decision. And without its emotional cues, we'd be rudderless – we wouldn't know what we cared about.

So it's more accurate to think of "biases" as cases of imperfectly coordinating your intuition and reflection. For example: Are you unhappy in your career, but reluctant to switch? It's worth it to check if you're being unduly influenced by the sunk cost fallacy, which makes us attached to things we've already sunk a lot of time or money into, even if we know we'd be better off quitting.

Are you afraid of your kids being kidnapped if you let them play outside? That's understandable. But check and see if you're being influenced by the availability bias, which makes us overemphasize risks that are vivid, even if they are far rarer than "mundane" risks like car accidents.

Are you feeling moved to donate some money to save lives? That's great. But you might be able to do far more good, with the same amount of money, if you're aware of the fact that your intuition is quantity insensitive. That is, our intuitive judgment feels roughly as happy about saving 1000 lives as 100, so we don't automatically pay much attention to the quantity of good we're doing. In fact, studies have shown that people are less inclined to help a large group of children than a single child.

So rationality doesn't mean ignoring our feelings – it means understanding what's influencing those feelings, and having reflective tools to complement them. That gives us more control over the outcomes of our decisions for our own happiness, our families' happiness, and the good we can do for the world.

If I could get a bit epistemological for a moment, and setting aside our psychological and emotional tendencies, how can we meaningfully talk about being rational knowing that we're always making decisions with insufficient information? Aren't we just fooling ourselves that we're being rational, when in reality we're no more or less rational than someone working off different knowledge?

Rationality is only defined with respect to the information you have. So if you and I have different information, we could both reason rationally and still end up at different conclusions. But given the information you have, there are more and less rational ways to use it.

And we'll always be making decisions with insufficient information, but there are different degrees of "insufficient information," right? A randomized experiment with a sample size of 100,000 is better evidence than a few anecdotes, which is in turn better evidence than just making something up. They're all imperfect but to different degrees.

Isaac Asimov had a typically punchy way of putting it: "When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The futurist community, including mindhackers, transhumanists and Singularity types, has been an early adopter of improving rational thinking. Why do you suppose this is?

Partly it's just because futurists tend to be early adopters, period.

But I do think it goes deeper than that. Futurists are especially interested in what's possible, and they're excited by the powerful new capacities technology affords us – capacities to relieve suffering, make people happier, and make new discoveries.

That's what rationality is. It's a mental technology, a way of affording ourselves more control over the outcomes of our decisions, so that we can better pursue our happiness. Personally, I find that just as inspiring as the physical technologies that afford us more control over our environment.

Why do futurists have such a fascination with Bayesian rationality in particular?

When people refer to "Bayesian rationality" that's just a more precise way of describing rationality, as it's officially defined in cognitive science. "Bayesian" refers to Bayes' Rule, which is a theorem in probability theory that answers the question, "When you encounter new information, how much should it change your confidence in a theory?"

And why is it more popular among futurists? The connection there, if I had to guess, is that Bayes' Rule is used a lot in machine intelligence. So a lot of futurists who are familiar with computer science have developed a respect for it.

Earlier you mentioned the Center for Applied Rationality. What's your mission statement, and how can your organization help people become more rational?

CFAR is an evidence-based nonprofit, founded to give people more understanding and control of their own decision-making. We take research from probability theory and cognitive science and turn it into learnable skills, such as making accurate predictions, reshaping our motivations, and avoiding self-deception.

It's easier to learn new habits in a group, rather than alone reading articles online, so we've been holding immersive 3-day rationality training workshops. Our next is November 16-18, in the Bay Area, with a special focus on how rationality is useful for entrepreneurs.

It's CFAR's view that this is the most valuable thing we can do for our future: training ourselves to think rationally about high-stakes decisions.

That's because the challenges facing us in the modern world, such as weighing the risks and benefits of new technologies, or figuring out how to stave off epidemics or climate change, are far more complex than anything the human brain evolved to solve. And they're decisions we can't afford to approach with wishful thinking, blind ideology, or any other kind of irrationality.

Top Image: Lyao/Shutterstock. Inset image via Julia Galef.