Last week, I attended a Less Wrong meetup. For those who don’t know what Less Wrong is, they define themselves as a “community blog dedicated to refining the art of human rationality.”
According to the invitation, attendees were required to “Come prepared to reveal something you’re consistently irrational about.” Initially, I wasn’t hooked. However, like a song that you can’t get out of your head, my mind kept coming back to the topic.
I’d read the Less Wrong blog for a while, then stopped reading the blog. The blog didn’t seem to have a coherent story, and the posts were often not backed up by anything more than speculation and conversation. For example, at the time of this writing, the most recent post spends the first three paragraphs self-indulgently explaining how the blog community feels about a certain topic.
That being said, as a game theorist, I can’t in good faith ignore the types of posts that seek to come up with a solution to cognitive biases, by “actually having a training method that allows us to integrate that knowledge into our habits.”
As an economist, the concept of ‘rationality’ is intriguing to me. As I’ve stated elsewhere on the blog, understanding rationality is one of the fundamental building blocks of economics. So, I saw the announcement for the meetup, I couldn’t resist stopping by for a discussion about rationality and irrationality.
All of us see irrationality in other people. Every day, we watch the actions and decisions of others and see errors in logic (Why did that driver just try to merge? What were they thinking?). However, it’s not often that we turn the magnifying glass around. We rarely look at ourselves in the same critical light.
I had a hard time coming up with something I was irrational about. So, it seems, did other meeting attendees. We all like to think that, when we find something irrational about ourselves, we strive to fix it.
We split into small groups to discuss our irrationalities. One woman said she was irrational about a leadership position she held at a non-profit; she wants to leave the organization, but is afraid the organization will fall apart without her. One man was irrational about his job in the finance industry, saying he realizes he’s not legitimately contributing to the field, but continues to do it anyway.
We also talked about smaller irrationalities. If your leg hurts while you’re sitting in that position, why are you still sitting in that position?
The larger group discussion was haphazard and inconclusive, which was to be expected.
After listening to the thoughts of many of these students of rationality, it occurred to me that perhaps a little bit of irrationality in life is acceptable, and maybe encouraged. Generally, the best stories come from making irrational decisions. People bond over making irrational decisions, like staying out late drinking.
I’m not condoning complete irrationality. But, at the same time, our irrationality is what makes us human. Having a little bit of it can be exciting and fun. As much as we love Data from Star Trek, a world filled with people like him would not be a very engaging place to live.
What would accepting a modicum of irrationality mean for economists and the study of economics? How could we build irrationality into the current models, and how would that change them?
What are you irrational about? What’s something you do that doesn’t make sense? Do you want to change it?