About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, November 16, 2007
An article by John Tierney in the New York Times relates recent experiments conducted by a group of researchers at Yale university on capuchin monkeys (as well as four-year old humans). The monkeys were given a choice of three differently colored M&M candies, say red, blue and green. If they didn't show any preference, they were then given only two choices (red and green). If they picked one (red), they suddenly showed much less regard for the other one (green), even when the latter was newly paired up with the third type (blue). Four year old humans behave in a similar way when given choices of stickers to play with.
The interpretation is that the capuchin monkeys are engaging in a phenomenon commonly observed in adult humans: rationalization. We've all done it. We know, at some level, that we really should buy the fuel efficient car with side air bag. But that red little sports car looks soooo cool. Never mind that it is a death trap and that it will break our bank account at the pump, we will find plenty of “reasons” to buy it, and once the choice is made, those reasons become even more entrenched, to diminish what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,” the uncomfortable feeling generated when we realize that there is a disconnect between what we believe and what the evidence tells us, or between two different kinds of beliefs. I am not a vegetarian, and yet I believe that animals should be treated ethically. We can have a long conversation about all my reasons for this hard to reconcile position; of course, I think they are good reasons, and use them to tell myself that it's ok for me to keep eating meat.
Sometimes we suffer from the opposite problem: we second-guess our choices, a condition referred to – tellingly enough – as “buyer's remorse.” It's a debilitating attitude, because we waste a lot of time and energy going back and forth on our decisions. Rationalization may ironically be an efficient way to proceed, because once we make a decision we stick with it and move on to the next problem. Of course, a truly rational person, Aristotle would say, should strive for a reasonable middle ground: after all, some decisions may deserve reconsideration (should we stay in Iraq?), while other choices have only minor consequences that we can live with (it doesn't matter which color M&M's you choose: they are all equally bad and delicious).
The problem is that we are not particularly good judges of our own thinking processes. That is why exposing our ideas to the crossfire of other minds is the only way to learn. Conversations with others, especially if they espouse different perspectives from our own, are the food for thought that we constantly need to grow intellectually and sharpen our critical thinking skills. It may still turn out that I am in fact justified in rejecting vegetarianism, but I am now much more cognizant of the arguments on either side, and of why I made that choice.