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


Aristotle thought that human beings are the rational animal. Recent neurobiological research on split-brain patients hints at the possibility that we are much better at rationalizing, rather than rational thinking. Now comparative psychology suggests that we inherited our abilities to distort reality from our primate ancestors.

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.


  1. It is interesting to note that in our over consuming culture, marketing and advertising take advantage of our rationalizing to get us to buy what we don't need. They are skilled at manipulating our rationalizing and our sense of inadequacy to create wants and needs that weren't there before.

    Using the red sports car example, we are prompted to rationalize buying the car by thinking how cool we will be to others, that we'll attract the opposite sex, it will be fun to drive and we deserve it. Despite the fact our current car may be perfectly fine or a less expensive new car is just fine to buy. Thus we continue to mindlessly consume rationalizing our spending along the way.

    One more point. Regarding your closing paragraph, creationists, neocons, and other fundamentalists expressly never engage in such activity. They rigidly cling to their ideology no matter how much their ideas are exposed to the crossfire of other minds. They expressly ignore or avoid conversations with those who espouse different perspectives from their own. They never learn and grow and thus keep espousing the same ideas and making the same arguments no matter how many times they've been shown or proven wrong. They remain stunted and increasingly atavistic in a world that moves on to greater knowledge and enlightenment.

    Unfortunately the part of the world that is moving on seems to be shrinking. Perhaps to the point were we are entering a new age of increasing endarkenment.

  2. Ha, funny! I had just grabbed a few M&Ms and then saw your post as I ate them... Must be a sign! :-)
    Anyway, I don't even look at their colors.

    This post reminds me of that very interesting experiment done with people whose left and right hemispheres don't communicate. Here's an interesting case (from here if you want to read it all):

    This interpretive bent first appeared in tests of split-brain patients shown two pictures simultaneously, one to each hemisphere. Participants then perused an assortment of additional pictures and chose the item most closely related to each of the original pictures.

    For instance, one man had a picture of a chicken claw flashed to his left hemisphere and a picture of a snow scene presented to his right hemisphere. From the ensuing selection of pictures, he correctly chose a shovel with his left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) and a chicken with his right hand (controlled by the left hemisphere). When asked to explain his choices, he responded: "Oh, that's simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

    Gazzaniga concluded that the left brain observed the left hand's choice of a shovel - which stemmed from the right brain's nonverbal, inaccessible knowledge - and proffered an explanation based its own fowl information.

    So, the left hemisphere is "rationalizing" something it can't explain consciously. Pretty interesting stuff.

  3. Speak of the devil! Over at real climate (www.realclimate.org) under the post "BBC contrarian top 10" there is this at the end of the post:
    "So why do the contrarians still use arguments that are blatantly false? I think the most obvious reason is that they are simply not interested (as a whole) in providing a coherent counter story. If science has one overriding principle, it is that you should adjust your thinking in the light of new information and discoveries - the contrarians continued use of old, tired and discredited arguments demonstrates their divorce from the scientific process more clearly than any densely argued rebuttal."

    The contrarians promote their agenda by exploiting those who do not or will not grow intellectually and sharpen their critical thinking skills. Rather, they choose to filter out, and dismiss through rationalization, arguments that do not agree with their point of view and only listen to and repeat contrarian views to maintain their comfortable world of myth.

  4. Massimo,

    I'd be curious to hear your 'rationalization' for not being a vegetarian. Maybe I could convince you otherwise? I am actually a vegetarian primarily for environmental reasons, to which I imagine you are also sympathetic.

    -- Chris

  5. My "rationalization" for being a carnivore is that: I love meat, and I'm selfish. :-)

    And I'm also allergic to chlorophyll. Some people do fall for that one...

    By the way, I do know some of the environmental reasoning for being vegetarian, and I think it is at least sound -- although I haven't studied it very deeply. I won't give up meat either way...

  6. Chris,

    my "rationalization" for not being a vegetarian is that I do not accord to other animals the same ethical privileges that I accord to humans. Indeed, I seem to have adopted an intuitive ethical sliding scale, according to which other primates are off limits, and I have serious doubts about eating particularly intelligent animals (though I love squids and octopus...), I guess because they are more aware of what's going on.

    Regardless, I strongly prefer organically raised chicken and such, and I even more strongly object to the practices of big meat companies and meat processing plants.

  7. It depends on what you consider rational behaviors. The red sports car may not seem rational to those that are counting gas mileage and maintenance costs (is monetary cost an arbiter of rationality), but it is when one realizes that purchasing a car (or house, or clothing or countless other things) is a social evaluation not a monetary one.

    We are social animals, we evolved to maximize our genetic success (hence the young male who chooses a car to impress women is in the evolutionary mainstream). The payoff for these expenditures is not dollars, but is in terms of how the possessions can contribute to happiness (that is, achieve the instinctive social goals of prestige, sexual attractivness, comfort). If it does that, it is a better investment than some despised econo-car.

  8. Massimo,

    I actually agree that it is not clear what the proper level of ethical consideration we should afford to 'higher' animals. I think their well-being should count for something, and there is definitely a sliding scale that hardly anyone follows (how many people abhor beef, but gladly eat salmon and tuna?).

    Conversely, I think the evidence is quite good that being vegan, vegetarian, or simply reducing meat consumption is one the easiest and most productive ways to reduce one's ecological footprint. Which is why, without engaging in endless debate about how much pain an animal feels, any environmentalist should find vegetarianism (in some form) compelling. As an aside, I've found no compelling evidence that organic/local meat and produce have any net environmental benefit, though it's a complicated issue. I've addressed it a little bit in a book review I wrote here:

    -- Chris

  9. I assume the researchers used different colors than red green and blue M&Ms, and they were just an example used by the NY Times writer. New World monkeys except howlers have only one red/green opsin gene, it's polymorphic (red OR green) on the X chromosome, so all males and about half the females see either red or green but not both.

  10. From laneman:

    "creationists, neocons, and other fundamentalists expressly NEVER engage in such activity. THEY rigidly cling to their ideology no matter how much their ideas are exposed to the crossfire of other minds. THEY expressly ignore or avoid conversations...THEY NEVER learn and grow...THEY remain stunted..." (capital emphasis added)

    Given that this website claims to be a place where individuals argue and debate in a "rational" and "critical" thinking arena, I am surprised (not really) to see such pervasive sweeping generalizations in your language as you criticize those who are purportedly less rational than what you claim yourself to be. After all, isn't the avoidance of using sweeping generalizations one of the basics when engaging in rational thinking?

    Your points are easily disputed; because you made them, it only shows that you are not well exposed or familiar with the dynamics of the "other side." As with many who have a "faith" or a "rational" position, questioning or doubting one's own position is something that does occur, along with engaging in "conversations with those who espouse different perspectives from their own." This happens daily across the world in private quarters, educational venues, public forums, stadiums, television studios, written works, etc. If you are not familiar with any of these incidents occuring, then you have not at all exposed yourself to opposing views that are expressed in an interactive forum.

    It is ironic that your last two paragraphs have been, on numerous occassions, stated in similar terms about your views by those who fall into the opposing camps. So, merely stating it gets us nowhere; instead, it merely shows that your manner of thinking is all too similar to theirs, the one that you are criticizing.


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