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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How rationality can make your life more awesome

by Julia Galef

Sheer intellectual curiosity was what first drew me to rationality (by which I mean, essentially, the study of how to view the world as accurately as possible). I still enjoy rationality as an end in itself, but it didn’t take me long to realize that it’s also a powerful tool for achieving pretty much anything else you care about. Below, a survey of some of the ways that rationality can make your life more awesome:

Rationality alerts you when you have a false belief that’s making you worse off.

You’ve undoubtedly got beliefs about yourself — about what kind of job would be fulfilling for you, for example, or about what kind of person would be a good match for you. You’ve also got beliefs about the world — say, about what it’s like to be rich, or about “what men want” or “what women want.” And you’ve probably internalized some fundamental maxims, such as: When it’s true love, you’ll know. You should always follow your dreams. Natural things are better. Promiscuity reduces your worth as a person.

Those beliefs shape your decisions about your career, what to do when you’re sick, what kind of people you decide to pursue romantically and how you pursue them, how much effort you should be putting into making yourself richer, or more attractive, or more skilled (and skilled in what?), more accommodating, more aggressive, and so on.

But where did these beliefs come from? The startling truth is that many of our beliefs became lodged in our psyches rather haphazardly. We’ve read them, or heard them, or picked them up from books or TV or movies, or perhaps we generalized from one or two real-life examples.

Rationality trains you to notice your beliefs, many of which you may not even be consciously aware of, and ask yourself: where did those beliefs come from, and do I have good reason to think they’re accurate? How would I know if  they’re false? Have I considered any other, alternative hypotheses?

Rationality helps you get the information you need.

Sometimes you need to figure out the answer to a question in order to make an important decision about, say, your health, or your career, or the causes that matter to you. Studying rationality reveals that some ways of investigating those questions are much more likely to yield the truth than others. Just a few examples:

How should I run my business?” If you’re looking to launch or manage a company, you’ll have a huge leg up over your competition if you’re able to rationally determine how well your product works, or whether it meets a need, or what marketing strategies are effective.

What career should I go into?” Before committing yourself to a career path, you’ll probably want to learn about the experiences of people working in that field. But a rationalist also knows to ask herself, “Is my sample biased?” If you’re focused on a few famous success stories from the field, that doesn’t tell you very much about what a typical job is like, or what your odds are of making it in that field.

It’s also an unfortunate truth that not every field uses reliable methods, and so not every field produces true or useful work. If that matters to you, you’ll need the tools of rationality to evaluate the fields you’re considering working in. Fields whose methods are controversial include psychotherapy, nutrition science, economics, sociology, consulting, string theory, and alternative medicine.

How can I help the world?” Many people invest huge amounts of money, time, and effort in causes they care about. But if you want to ensure that your investment makes a difference, you need to be able to evaluate the relevant evidence. How serious of a problem is, say, climate change, or animal welfare, or globalization? How effective is lobbying, or marching, or boycotting? How far do your contributions go at charity X versus charity Y?

Rationality shows you how to evaluate advice.

Learning about rationality, and how widespread irrationality is, sparks an important realization: you can’t assume other people have good reasons for the things they believe. And that means you need to know how to evaluate other people’s opinions, not just based on how plausible their opinions seem, but based on the reliability of the methods they used to form those opinions.

So when you get business advice, you need to ask yourself: What evidence does she have for that advice, and are her circumstances relevant enough to mine? The same is true when a friend swears by some particular remedy for acne, or migraines, or cancer. Is he repeating a recommendation made by multiple doctors? Or did he try it once and get better? What kind of evidence is reliable?

In many cases, people can’t articulate exactly how they’ve arrived at a particular belief; it’s just the product of various experiences they’ve had and things they’ve heard or read. But once you’ve studied rationality, you’ll recognize the signs of people who are more likely to have accurate beliefs: People who adjust their level of confidence to the evidence for a claim; people who actually change their minds when presented with new evidence; people who seem interested in getting the right answer rather than in defending their own egos.

Rationality saves you from bad decisions.

Knowing about the heuristics your brain uses and how they can go wrong means you can escape some very common, and often very serious, decision-making traps.

For example, people often stick with their original career path or business plan for years after the evidence has made clear that it was a mistake, because they don’t want their previous investment to be wasted. That’s thanks to the sunk cost fallacy. Relatedly, people often allow cognitive dissonance to convince them that things aren’t so bad, because the prospect of changing course is too upsetting.

And in many major life decisions, such as choosing a career, people envision one way things could play out (“I’m going to run my own lab, and live in a big city…”) — but they don’t spend much time thinking about how probable that outcome is, or what the other probable outcomes are. The narrative fallacy is that situations imagined in high detail seem more plausible, regardless of how probable they actually are.  

Rationality trains you to step back from your emotions so that they don’t cloud your judgment.

Depression, anxiety, anger, envy, and other unpleasant and self-destructive emotions tend to be fueled by what cognitive therapy calls “cognitive distortions,” irrationalities in your thinking such as jumping to conclusions based on limited evidence; focusing selectively on negatives; all-or-nothing thinking; and blaming yourself, or someone else, without reason.

Rationality breaks your habit of automatically trusting your instinctive, emotional judgments, encouraging you instead to notice the beliefs underlying your emotions and ask yourself whether those beliefs are justified.

It also trains you to notice when your beliefs about the world are being colored by what you want, or don’t want, to be true. Beliefs about your own abilities, about the motives of other people, about the likely consequences of your behavior, about what happens after you die, can be emotionally fraught. But a solid training in rationality keeps you from flinching away from the truth — about your situation, or yourself — when learning the truth can help you change it.


  1. Well, here is a somewhat different take:

    "We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." - David Hume

  2. Hume and I don't disagree about this. He discussed how reason can amend one's emotional reactions, just as I describe:

    "The moment we perceive the falshood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our reason without any opposition. I may desire any fruit as of an excellent relish; but whenever you convince me of my mistake, my longing ceases."

    Of course, at the beginning of this whole chain of reason amending emotion and emotion dictating the use of reason, you'll find emotions. Perhaps better called desires, in this case; they're the fundamental things you care about, like being happy, and being respected, and avoiding pain, and wanting other people to be happy, and so on. Here's my rough model of the relationship between emotion and reason which I used in my Skepticon IV talk:


    But again, on this point Hume and I agree. He refers to those initial desires as "calm passions" and notes that they often get confused for reason because they're calm:

    "Now it is certain, there are certain calm desires and tendencies, which, though they be real passions, produce little emotion in the mind, and are more known by their effects than by the immediate feeling or sensation. These desires are of two kinds; either certain instincts originally implanted in our natures, such as benevolence and resentment, the love of life, and kindness to children; or the general appetite to good, and aversion to evil, considered merely as such."

  3. So,Julia: depression is an "unpleasant emotion" and not a disease? Maybe we can tell our depressed friends to be rational about it to get well? I wonder if this applies to bipolars too?

  4. Artikat, severe depression should probably be treated medically. But cognitive behavioral therapy has achieved consistently good results in treating mild to moderate depression, and a large part of that treatment consists in getting people to think more rationally.

  5. Julia, I agree to some extent that rationality does generally result in better decisions and a better life than being irrational does, but it can't always make your life more awesome or solve problems. Sometimes being unhappy is entirely rational and there's no way to use logic to get out of it.

    For example, a couple of months ago, a friend of my family whom I had always been very fond of died, rather unexpectedly. Of course, he is very much missed and his family is now very sad as well. He left two relatively young daughters and a wife who is very young to be a widow and has had a hard time dealing with it.

    That just sucks. That's very sad. It made me feel very unhappy and I'm still sad about it.

    There's no way that you can use logic to avoid that or try to somehow make a more rational decision to make the sadness go away. It is rationally a bad thing to happen and it's appropriate to be sad.

    For economic reasons my job is facing cutbacks and I'm not making as much money as I'd like to and that's caused problems. What is the rational thing to do to solve this? Find a new job? Negotiate better pay? Try to aid my company in improving things so they have more money?

    Okay, all these are good rational options, but they're also not going to be 100% reliable and all contain a lot of extra work and potential for failure. So, regardless of the steps I take to try to solve this problem, it is a problem and it sucks that I'm facing it.

    I think feeling some level of anxiety about this is entirely rational, because it's a stressful situation that just sucks.

    I don't think we have full control over our emotions nor do I think it's always inappropriate to feel negative ones. Losing someone is sad. Job difficulties are stressful. Relationships can fail and cause stress.

    Rational people are not immune from pain.

  6. Steve: I'm sorry about those hardships that you mentioned. They definitely sound sucky.

    That said, I think common sense tells us that there are some ways of coping with sad situations that are - on average - better or worse than others, when measured against certain long-term goals or ideals (be they health, longevity, or less mundane notions of well-being). If I understand Julia correctly, "rationality" is the category of cognitive/behavioral instruments that leads us to discover and practice those better (if not best) responses.

    Mind you: Even the best responses will not likely make the sadness go away entirely (i.e. rationality is no panacea), but then adjusting our expectations to probabilities like these also seems characteristically "rational."

  7. julia: The issue of "rationality" in "un-choosing" "solid" mental states is hard to see. I doubt very much that anyone that is severely mentally ill, can choose anything at all. Given the case that depression and bipolar disease(s) are "spectrum disorders" the people at the "weak ends" of the spectra may well benefit from "cognitive therapy", which is something like "talking about it"?. Gestalttherapie and pschycoanalytic techniques come to mind (ala Kandel, kind of).

  8. @ Julia,

    “For example, people often stick with their original career path or business plan for years after the evidence has made clear that it was a mistake, because they don’t want their previous investment to be wasted.”

    People also stick with their original career path or business plan for years after the evidence has made clear that it was a mistake because they simply have no other options. That is, it would be irrational to quit their current job because there are no other (desirable) jobs out there, and unemployment – even if it allowed them to pursue meaningful hobbies – would leave them or their family struggling to pay for essentials like food, heat, water, etc. I wonder if this is an example of situations where rationality simply has no power to improve one’s life.

  9. Michael: People also stick with their original career path or business plan...because they simply have no other options...I wonder if this is an example of situations where rationality simply has no power to improve one’s life.

    In such cases, I think rationality's power lies in its ability to identify and avoid probably worse scenarios (e.g. like the one you described, which leaves "them or their family struggling to pay for essentials like food, heat, water, etc").

    Think of this as the Rationality is Risk Management metaphor.

  10. Everybody wants to "do the right thing." Tell us how that is or isn't rational, then tell us why it's so hard to rationally do it.

  11. Fine essay, and I agree entirely, as far as it goes. I see it as a partial restatement of the values of the examined life as developed by Socrates in the Apology and elsewhere. There are two additions that I think would enhance this platform of rational-life advocacy:

    1) A further value of rationality. Valuing rationality also leads to the development of the self and a more authentic life. An uncritical person, who passively accepts whatever is in the air, leaves their critical self, i.e., their authentic self, undeveloped. Such a life, Socrates thought, is hardly worth living because Knowing Thyself is a precondition of the greatest values in life. E.g. being loved is more meaningful when one is a distinct person who represents something, as opposed to a no one in particular.

    2) It is a bit simplistic simply to say: be rational. The reason is that what is rational, and what rationality means, is clear only so far. In my view, logic, epistemology, ethics, and core philosophy generally, represent the frontiers of our rationality--where questions of valid inference, knowledge, and right and wrong, and hence what is rational, become hazy. Philosophical questions arise precisely where the schematic of our rationality turns to haze. In this way, an earnest and sophisticated commitment to the rational life requires also a commitment to serious philosophical reflection.

  12. It's impossible to avoid emotions, because they are inherent part of us. It is because of this that we should not search for them, because they will eventually come to us. In the other hand, rationality is not an inherent part of us, we do right looking for it.

    Or at least that's what I think now.

  13. mufi: Sorry if I sounded like I was looking for sympathy. My life is fine, but not perfect.

    I'm just making the point that I have problems that being rational won't make go away. I think we all do.

  14. Robert Gardiner, the ex-CEO of ex-Dean Witter, likes to recount the tale of the engineers, for whom his corporation provided relocation services.

    "The engineers go to great lengths to compare the various houses they are shown. First, they calculate the square footage vs the price, to arrive at the cost per square foot. Then they investigate heating and cooling costs, and break those down into costs per square foot. They painstakingly inspect the houses for defects, visible and invisible. Then they walk through the rooms with a light meter, to see how much sun shines in. They feed all this data into spreadsheets and run the numbers. Then they buy the house they have a good feeling about."

    According to the broker, emotion trumped rationality every time, no matter how each purchase decision was spun, or the spreadsheet data was factored in or ignored.

  15. Re: 'Fields whose methods are controversial include psychotherapy, nutrition science, economics, sociology, consulting, string theory, and alternative medicine.'

    Essentially, Julia equivocates here: Equating the 'controversial' methods employed in economics, string theoretic accounts of particle physics, and (the more scientifically-inclined areas of) sociology with the 'controversial' methods employed in so-called alternative medicine and psychotherapy -- particularly neo-Jungian and neo-Freudian psychotherapy -- is to gloss over too much pertinent detail. The former are 'controversial' in much different ways than the latter.

    (P.S. Much of modern economics is not controversial, e.g., the laws of supply & demand, utility of media of exchange.)

  16. @Artikat: Cognitive behavioral therapy is practically a primer on rationalism. Without going into too much detail, in practice it boils down to taking the edge off of "sharp" emotions. In other words, if I were to see people laughing near me, and I feel self-conscious, the goal of CBT is to reframe the triggering stimulae. In this case, you look at the assumptions: they're laughing, but why would it be about me?
    It's not about saying, I'm bad and now I'm better.
    "Unchoosing a solid state" is a common, but completely misguided notion that many people with mental illness start with. Therapy will give you the tools to fix your life, and a large chunk of them are in the post. But, there's only so much you can do with a diseased mind, and medicine handles them, but CBT can even reduce the medication needed for them. Dramatic results are the results of patients taking their tools into the real world and using them.
    The more you use the tools, the more natural it becomes to use the tools, and you can begin building your own tools before long. The problem is that these are individual, personal skills that no one can make you learn. As ever, how many psychotherapists to change a light bulb? 1, but it has to want to change.

  17. @DaveS: "According to the broker, emotion trumped rationality every time, no matter how each purchase decision was spun, or the spreadsheet data was factored in or ignored."

    The "good feeling" he speaks of likely comes from an implicit weighting of all the factors these engineers considered, including those in the spreadsheets. They may be able to measure light levels, but they may not be able to easily assign a number to the factor by which the utility of good lighting trumps the utility of being close to work.

    "Emotion" is neither here nor there, it sounds like a story of System 1 intuitive reasoning making choices based on data obtained by System 2 analytic reasoning, and informed by desires. I see no irrationality here.

  18. @Paul
    Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. But is it not Socrates subjective feeling? A person who lives an unexamined life will be equally satisfied with his life because he doesn’t understands the joys of an examined life. So in the eyes of Socrates his life is unworthy but in the eyes of that person his life is just as worthy as Socrates. Such a person may not understand philosophy and epistemology but he can derive his fair share of intellectual pleasures from ordinary social interactions, conventional wisdom and common sense-based folklore?

    Philosophical haziness (speculation) does has some mystical / intellectual appeal but when ethical principles become hazy, that’s the first step towards unethical behavior. Values should be clear and settled because it requires a lot of commitment to live a virtuous life in the midst of different kind of enticements and absence of any system of accountability. I’ve discussed this topic in my blogpost which you may like to read:


  19. @Michael

    "I wonder if this is an example of situations where rationality simply has no power to improve one’s life."

    No, but irrationality (as you suggested) can make it worse.

    And I don't think that is Julia's claim. Think of your life/happiness (or whatever you care to measure) as a three dimensional landscape.

    Rationality as Julia described (which does value emotion since it is rational to acknowledge we are emotional beings) is merely a tool to help us avoid local minima and to trend to local maxima.

    It should be expected that in many places on this landscape of life we are already on some sort of local maxima.

    In the case you described, rationality cannot "improve" the situation, but surely irrationality can make it worse.


  20. @Ian - Its anyone's guess what was going on in their heads. My point was that the broker felt the choices were not as rational as what one would expect to see given the fact-finding processes undertaken. I wasn't there. But I think we all have enough anecdotal experience to understand rationality as an ideal, like cleanliness - a good idea in practice, lots of tangible benefits will accrue. But within the psyche, it is at all times a passenger, not a driver.

  21. Seeing myself as a rational person, I try to base my decisions upon rational thoughts, as Julia described. However, this might not work for everyone.

    Hasn't it been shown that religious people can be as happy or even more so than non-religious ones?

    And some (very few) individuals are taking risks against all odds, living through periods of hardship, keeping on working on their dreams even if the situaion looks hopeless, and still are successful at the end. Be it against-the-mainstream artists, entrepreneurs with crazy ideas, inventors, even scientists.
    Maybe only very few succeed, but where would society be without those (seemlingly?) innovators?


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