Thursday, May 03, 2012

Rationality is Overrated

When I was about 20 years old, I worked as a janitor at a home for elderly people. I had no skills that a janitor was supposed to have. In fact I didn't even know that a janitor needed skills :)

One day I was asked to fix a clogged sink, I thought, "Sure, how hard can it be?", then I went to work. This is how I did it.

  • I examined the sink and quickly established that the problem was a clogged water trap (vattenlås).
  • I carefully removed the water trap, it was filled with filthy stinking brown water.
  • Very carefully I lifted the trap, to avoid spilling the filthy water on the floor.
  • Then, I poured the water into the sink...

I realized that I was not as smart as I thought I was. How could I do this? I was so very careful not to spill a drop and yet my stupid brain failed me big time. What was wrong with me?

After many years, and a lot of books, I think I have understood what the problem is. It is not me, it is my brain. I am a pattern matching robot, who reacts to incoming patterns in predefined ways. If there is not a pattern that matches, it chooses the closest matching pattern and that is not necessarily good.


My intention with this text is to show that we are more like machines than any of us are willing to admit. We react to patterns that we pick up through our senses. Our ability to work in a rational way is extremely limited since our rational part of the mind is extremely limited. To demonstrate this, I'll start with several examples.


What I mean with irrationality is, something we do without paying attention. It is something we can do without involving our conscious part of the brain.

Irrational = Unconscious = Without paying attention

Facts are useful; they give the conscious mind something to do while the emotions decide what’s true! --Dale Dauten

Most of what we do, we do without paying attention

Earphone Study

In an earphone study researchers wanted to find out how much we are affected by actions that are seemingly unrelated to our brains.

In the study a number of people were asked to test out earphones, to tell if they were comfortable.

  • The first group were told to sit without moving and listen to what was being said in the earphones.
  • The second group were told to nod their heads while listening.
  • The third group were told to shake their heads while listening.

After the test was completed the subjects were asked about what the person had been talking about in the earphones. The result was statistically significant: The group that were nodding were more positive than the group who sat without moving and, they were more positive than the group who had been shaking their head. The opinion of the people were affected by how they were moving their head while they were listening!

How rational is that?


How do you ride a bicycle? You grab a hold on the handlebars, push off with your foot to get some initial speed, keep you balance by moving the front wheel in the direction in which the bike is falling. When the bike is falling the other way you turn the wheel that way instead, and so on.

Needless to say this way of teaching someone to ride a bike will not work. We can ride bikes, but we don't know how we do it. And even if we could do it the way I described it, our conscious minds are too slow to be of any use. Try riding a bike with a wheel that turns the opposite way, when you turn the handlebars. It is very, very difficult.


Imagine that you are standing on a trampoline, preparing to jump into the pool. Half a second before you jump, your unconscious mind has started its activity that will eventually make you jump. Half a second! Conscious decisions are initiated unconsiously!

Cocktail Party

Imagine you are at a cocktail party, having a conversation with some friends. Then, suddenly, you hear someone mention your name somewhere around you. Your conscious attention is moved to the other conversation. You may not even hear what your friends are talking about anymore, because your unconscious mind has scanned the environment around you and now you want to know what they are saying about you.

Is this a rational way to act?


Our unconscious mind is exceptional at making snap decisions. It does it all the time. If we meet a person in the street we, unconsciously, scan them to see if they are a threat, if they look good, etc. If there is something that is not "normal" about them we are immediately aware of it.


When we are sleeping, our brains repeat the thoughts we have thought during the day. In a study two groups of people were tasked with first learning some new skills, then solve creative problems based on what they had learned. The first group learned the skills and started applying them right away. The second group learned the skills, had a nights sleep, and then applied their skills to the problems. The group that was allowed to "sleep on it", were 70% more effective than the first group.


You may have heard the song by Skunk Anansie, called "Just because you feel good", some of the lyrics go like this.

Just because you look good, doesn't make it right! -- Skunk Anansie

It is a good song, but unfortunately the conclusion is wrong. We are, naturally, affected by beauty. We cannot do anything about it. A good example of this is the justice system, who ought to be immune to this. Beautiful people get, significantly, lower sentences than ugly people.

Our irrational mind, doesn't have any problem discriminating people.


This is a story about a man who started to like child pornography. After he had made a pass at his wife's sisters daughter, his life went to pieces. He was divorced. But he went through a medical examination that showed that he had a tumour in his brain... When they removed the tumour his mind returned to normal. Of course, it was too late to do anything about his broken marriage, but still, good for him. But there is an epilogue to this story. The man started to feel the urge for child pornography again, and went to see his doctor. The tumour had returned and once removed, the behavior of the man returned to his "normal" behavior.

Dreyfuss Model of Skills Acquisition

In the Dreyfuss Model of Skills Acquisition an expert is defined as someone who has "intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding". Intuitive! In order to become experts we have to let go of our need to be rational and trust our intuition. Being rational is too slow.


Einstein was an extremely intuitive scientist. He had trouble communicating his ideas to other scientists since he was not thinking in a language that he was able to easily communicate to others.

I only need symbols to communicate. -- Albert Einstein

Optical Illusions

What square is lighter? "A" or "B". The obvious answer is of course incorrect. They both have the same color as can be seen in the second picture. Just as easily as we are fooled by this optical illusion our rational mind is fooled all the time when our unconscious filters remove facts from our every sensation of "reality".

This is a good thing. Our rational mind couldn't cope with the overflow of information it would otherwise experience.

Reflective Robots

So as you can see, we are pattern matching robots, who react to patterns in predefined ways. But that is not the whole truth. The cool part is that we are reflective robots and this is where our rationality comes into play.


My definition of rationality is, of course, similar, but opposite, to my definition of irrationality. Rational is something we do consciously, something we pay attention to. But, rationality is extremely limited.


Our rationality is able to deal with time. While our unconscious lives in the present our conscious is able to move back and forth through time at our whim.


Being able to deal with time is essential for planning. What is the use of planning if there is no tomorrow? How can we plan for the future if we cannot rely on experience from the past?


The conscious mind can focus, to concentrate the entire conscious mind and some parts of the unconscious mind.


Related to focus is discipline. This is also something that the conscious mind excels at. While our irrational mind, simply reacts to incoming patterns, our rational mind is able to keep the mind in check in order to force our rigid, irrational mind to learn new patterns.


The conscious mind can make choices. And, every time we make a choice our mind changes and we become more likely to make that choice again. We make choices all the time, even when we don't.

Every Read is a Write

Andy Hunt put it very well in his book, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. He said that when it comes to the brain "Every read is a write". What this means is that every time we think a thought, that thought becomes easier to think. The patterns gets even more established. It is a thought worth thinking more than once. Every time we think something, that thought becomes easier to think!

What do you want to think?

11 000 000 Bits

Our senses take in around 11 million bits every second. Most of it, around 10 million, comes through our vision. Our hearing picks up almost 1 million bits and the rest comes through our other senses.

Less than 50 bits

At the same time our rational mind is able to process less then 50 bits, some say less than 16... The rest of the information is filtered out by our unconscious mind in order to protect our poor, limited, slow conscious mind from overflowing.

Unconscious vs. Conscious

Unconscious Conscious
Parallel Sequential
Automatic Controllable
Fast Slow
Rigid Flexible
Now Time aware
Near infinite Very limited

So What?

So, I have established, we are robots, and we can affect our behaviors in very limited ways. So what? What can we do with this information.

Alfred Whitehead

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them. --Alfred Whitehead

This is not only true for civilizations it is true for humans too.

We can become whatever we want.

Even though our consciousness is extremely limited we can become whatever we want. We do this through automation. We create habits.

Habits or routines are often taken to be boring. You have probably heard the saying, "It is just routine, anyone can do it!" You have probably said it yourself. But this is hogwash! Routines are vital to our behavior. Without our automatic behavior we, as a species, would be extinct long ago. Another way to think of habits is:

Outsourcing to our unconscious!

The more we can outsource the behavior we want, the more we will be able to focus our attention on other things. But creating habits take time, psychologists say that it takes 21 days.

Talent is Overrated

The Spanish violinist, Pablo Sarasate, was declared a genius by the press, this is how he responded:

“A genius! For 37 years I’ve practiced fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius!” –- Pablo Sarasate

He took it as an insult. Becoming who we want to be takes time and effort and practice.


Our conscious mind is able to see the benefits of learning something well. It is able to discipline us to practice boring repetitions, over and over, until they can be done unconsciously.

Tiger Woods started playing golf when he was two years old, and has probably practiced more than any other golf player on the tour.


Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist who had a stroke. She had the unique competence to be able to study the stroke while it happened. When she was recovering she had to re-learn habits such as walking, reading and talking. She said:

Try! When we try to do something, we tell the brain that we value this connection. The more we try, the stronger the connection becomes. The stronger it becomes, the easier it gets. -- Jill Bolte Taylor

Learning Curve

The normal learning curve, consists of plateaus of knowledge where we seem to learn nothing new. Then after a long time of practice a small bump in knowledge occurs, and then we are stuck on a new plateau. The small bumps are signs that the knowledge has become second nature to us. Automatic!

Deliberate Practice

What separates most experts from the not-so-greats is something that is called deliberate practice. A deliberate practice task has four parts.


The task to practice should be specifically designed for you and your skill level. And it should be set up with a goal to improve in one specific area.


The task should be small and specific enough for you to complete it and receive feedback in a short time frame.


The task should be hard. If it is not hard it will not give as much as it will if it is designed to be just over your current abilities.

It is only human nature to want to practice what we already know, since it is a hell of a lot less work, and a hell of a lot more fun! --Sam Snead


It is important to observe yourself while practicing. This should be done before, during and after the task.


Sometimes we need help in observing ourselves. It is easy to lose focus and start falling back into old habits, even during practice. Having a mentor or coach that can help observe and correct you can be very helpful. This does not have to be an expert as long as you can describe what you want them to do.

Loosing Bad Habits

The good thing about good habits is that they are automatic and can be performed without conscious thought.

The bad thing about bad habits is that they are automatic and performed without conscious thought.

Since we are not aware of our bad habits, it is very difficult to lose them. Thus, if someone criticizes us for something, we should take this as a kind gesture. They are helping us to notice our bad habits. And, once they are noticed we can do something about them, such as replacing them with something else. It is easier to replace a bad habit with a good one, than to just stop doing the bad habit.


Some bad habits are supported by our hormones. When we get angry at someone, adrenaline is pumped out into our body. This will make us more hostile and make it more difficult for us to act the way we would like to.


If we react while our hormones are keeping us on edge, we may react more strongly than we would wish to act. This can lead us into a downward spiral where our anger feeds our behavior, which in turn makes us more angry...


The solution to this is simple. Wait! This is taught to our children in kindergarten. They are told to count to ten before retaliating when something has annoyed them. We should do this too. Jill Bolte Taylor writes in her book, that it takes our body 90 seconds to wash out the hormones. If we can just wait for a minute and a half, we may respond in a more thoughtful way.

What Habits Do You Want?

When deciding on what habits you want to cultivate, keep the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in mind.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just because we have done something in the past does not mean that we have to do it in the future. Just because people expect us to do something doesn't mean that we have to do it at all!


So, what habits do I cultivate. I cultivate habits that make me happy! Not only because it feels good to be happy, although that is a large part of it.

Authentic Happiness

In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman studies what happiness does with people, especially creative people. Here are some of his conclusions.

Happy people perform better!

People that are in a good mood produces much better results.

Increasing happiness increases the likelihood of insight!

And insight is the key to creativity.


Flow is the feeling you get when you do something that you are good at. When you are performing on the limit of your ability. You lose the concept of time and you are living in the moment. The conscious and unconscious are one. We are whole!

Flow is my favorite state to be in and I believe that it can be achieved not only when we are performing complex tasks, but also when we are doing much more mundane tasks.

As long as we want to do what we are doing, we can immerse ourselves in the task and in the moment and find flow in anything. I think this is the key to living a happy life, finding flow in anything.


When writing about flow, I also want to write about stress. Stress is the opposite of flow. Instead of doing what we want, right here, right now, we want to be somewhere else. We want to be done. We don't want to do! This is fatal. It is the end of creativity.

In a stress study with clerical students, who were to become priests, the following happened.

Clerical Students

The students were at a lecture, where they were discussing what was the most important trait of a priest. They all agreed that compassion, and helping those in need, was the most important trait of a Christian priest. Towards the end of the lecture, the teacher interrupted and said. "Oh! I forgot, you are supposed to meet the bishop at his office in five minutes. You must hurry!"

The students hurried out of the classroom and started walking, at fast pace, towards the bishops' office.

Along the road a homeless man who looked to be suffering was planted by the researchers. What do you think happened? Right! Most of the students, who had been told and all agreed on, that helping people in need is the most important trait of a Christian priest, ignored the man in need.

The stress produced by being late to the meeting made them forget or ignore their most important trait!

This is what stress can do to us, and it is not pretty!

Be kind

Back on the happiness track. One simple way to become happier is to be kind to others. Studies show that when you are nice to someone.

  • You feel happy.
  • The person being helped feels happy.
  • And, everyone who witnesses the act of kindness, feel happy too.

A special form of kindness is being polite! If you thank someone who helps you they will feel good about helping you and be more likely to help you again. So do what your mother told you. Say "Thank You"! Say "Please"!


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as we all have different tastes. Surrounding yourself with beautiful things, that you care about will make you happier. If the code you are working with is beautiful, it will be much more enjoyable for everyone who has to touch it.

(define y-combinator
  (lambda (f)
    ((lambda (x) 
       (f (lambda (arg) ((x x) arg))))
     (lambda (x) 
       (f (lambda (arg) ((x x) arg)))))))
The Y-Combinator, one of the most beautiful functions in the world!


Another tip for finding out what habits you should create is to think about death. Death has a way of forcing you to think clearly. What would you do if you died tomorrow?

And, remember it is about people.

No one ever said on their deathbed, "Gee I wish I spent more time in front of the computer".

We are social animals, and we thrive in the company of people we like.


Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm! -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why waste time doing something you are not enthusiastic about. Either do something else or, become enthusiastic about it. If I only take the time to dig into something, I find that almost everything is interesting.


What is the difference between fantasy and reality? Belief! -- David Hume

In our brain, the only difference between what we know and what we hope is belief. If we are sure that something is in a certain way, it is that way. No matter if it is true or not. Believe in yourself!

Do It!

Starting something is half the battle.

Once you get going it is easy to keep going.

We Are What We Repeatedly Do

We are what we repeatedly do. -- Aristotle

We can talk all we want, but at the end of the day, we are our habits. Good habits makes us happy and when we are happy everything becomes easier.


If you found this interesting here are some books that will go much deeper into the topic (affiliate links):


windruffle said...

Liked this :)

Anders Janmyr said...

@windruffle I'm glad :)