The Biology of Irrationality

In my previous post, I discussed my introduction to the science behind the rationality problems all humans suffer from. I later found another book, this one called Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, that introduced me to the biology behind our emotional – and sometimes irrational — thinking.

This time, I’m going to mostly just go with quotes from the book, as they say it all:

The Limbic System’s Role in “Emotional Thinking”

The role of emotion in shaping “rational” thinking is tremendously underrated. Strong evidence shows that human behavior is the product of both the rational deliberation that takes place in the front areas of the cerebral cortex and the “emote control” — emotional reasoning – that originates in the limbic system. …As Princeton sociologist Douglass Massey writes: ‘Emotionality clearly preceded rationality in evolutionary sequence, and as rationality developed it did not replace emotionality as a basis for human interaction. Rather, rational abilities were gradually added to preexisting and simultaneously developing emotional capacities….’

Human behavior…is not under the sole control of either affect or deliberation but results from the interaction of these two qualitatively different processes… Emote control is fast but is largely limited to operating according to evolved patterns. Deliberation is far more flexible… but is comparatively slow and laborious.  (p. 187)

Our Lack of Rational Thinking When We Have a Vested Interest

Just prior to the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential elections, two group of subjects were recruited – fifteen ardent Democrats and fifteen ardent Republicans. Each was presented with conflicting and seemingly damaging statements about their candidate, as well as about more neutral targets such as actor Tome Hanks…

…when the participants were asked to draw a logical conclusion about a candidate from the other — “wrong” — political party, the participants found a way to arrive at a conclusion that made the candidate look bad, even though logic should have mitigated the particular circumstances and allowed them to reach a different conclusion. Here is where it gets interesting. When this “emote control” began to occur, parts of the brain normally involved in reasoning were not activated. Instead, a constellation of activations occurred in the same areas of the brain where punishment, pain, and negative emotions are experienced.

Once a way was found to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted, the neural punishment areas turned off, and the participant received a blast of activation in the circuits involving rewards – akin to the high an addict receives when getting his fix. In essence, the participants were not about to let facts get in the way of their hot-button decision making and quick buzz of reward. ‘None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,’ says Westen. ‘Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones. (p. 189)

It Affects Everyone

“motivated reasoning” — that is, political bias (in this case, at least) – appears to be qualitatively different from reasoning when a person has no strong emotional stake in the conclusions to be reached.

‘Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts,’ according to Westen. (p. 190)

The Need for Tolerance — Why You Can’t Trust Your Own “Rational” Thoughts

This next quote struck home to me due to all the pro and con views of Prop 8 flying around. I ask both sides of the issue to read the next quote humbly and with an open mind:

Similar reasoning has led kindhearted individuals to support “feel-good” programs such as busing, which seemed, on the face of it, to be an outstanding method to integrate school systems. Opponents of this program – whatever their reasons – were seen as racists, which meant that rational concerns about the program were discounted. The results was that cities such as Detroit were devastated as the well-to-do moved to the suburbs, out of range of the managed busing system. This worsened the segregation the busing had been designed to remedy. (p. 191)

But simply looking at the research results, one must conclude that people’s first emotional responses about what’s wrong, who is to blame, or how to proceed, particularly in relation to complex issues, must always -– always -– be considered suspect. There is no simple algorithm for teasing rationality from emotion. An ardent Democrat or Republican, a dyed-in-the wool community union organizer, a young devotee of Scientology, a Palestinian suicide bomber, or a KKK grand kleagle could each reason the above paragraphs and think. I’m not irrational –- it’s those other idiots who can’t see the obvious. But we all have pockets of irrationality, some large, some small, no matter if we are mathematicians who make our living doing proofs, wealthy philanthropists, or stay-at-homewives.  If there is one thing that is important for us to know, it is that emote control allows our best traits – love, caring, loyalty, and trust – to be used as manipulative levers. (p. 192)

5 thoughts on “The Biology of Irrationality

  1. Which is why the worship of science—essentially the worship of reason—is so dangerous. When we discount and denote a source of information, namely emotion, we ignore its importance. We create a blind spot.

    If, on the other hand, we acknowledge and accept emotion as a valid source of information, we are better able to recognize its effects.

  2. Thanks for posting all this. I lived with an 80 year old former minister for awhile, and he used to say something that has always stuck with me: “I have to always remind myself that I’m likely just kidding myself.” He was always humble enough to recognize that his opinions, however ardent, were suspect. It’s sometimes hard medicine to swallow.

    I wonder however, if bias also has it’s own advantages. If we were all open minded enough to see the validity of others opinions, and the drawbacks of our own, would this not have some unintended negative consequences? Strong opinions can create great mobility, which can be used to build great things. (It can also be used to motivate destruction as well). Would the Mormons, for example, have crossed the plains and built up Zion in the West, if they had been more “sensitive” to the political and religious prejudices of their enemies? If they had been able to “get along,” would the church have been able to truly be set apart?

    Similarly, without impassioned political debate, and the strong, but sometimes misguided beliefs of the voters behind those debates, would we as a people, perhaps become to relaxed, to content with the status quo, to patient with leaders who were in actuality, taking advantage of us?

  3. “I wonder however, if bias also has it’s own advantages. If we were all open minded enough to see the validity of others opinions, and the drawbacks of our own, would this not have some unintended negative consequences?”



  4. Do you think that the biology behind emotion explains the emotion? It may be a chicken-or-the-egg question, but while I believe that biology can provide a window into what we are thinking, it doesn’t really explain why we think the way we do.

    And it certainly doesn’t mean that we HAVE to think or choose a certain way.

  5. Our Lack of Rational Thinking When We Have a Vested Interest

    Love love love this.

    With deference to Nate’s comment (and I agree strongly with Bruce that, yes, there would be some negative consequences… but the value judgment may be questionable as well).

    So, is the path to rational thinking seeking moderation in all things? Detachment from outcome?

    There are so many areas where we are hugely invested in the outcome. But the outcome frustrates us repeatedly. When we finally get frustrated enough with inconsistencies in our experience vs. our preferred narrative, perhaps we can decide to let go of the personal investment (even when there are tremendous costs), and just let the universe be whatever it is.

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