Addiction to Irrationality

Drunkard’s cloak — Source: Wikimedia.

[updated 5-13-2013]

The typical alcoholic (outside of treatment or AA) often says “I don’t have a drinking problem. I can stop whenever I want.”

In a way, we are all like this about our innate irrationality. We tend to think we can be rational whenever we want. We refuse to admit, to ourselves and others, that we have a problem with spontaneous, compulsive, and unconscious irrationality. This includes, but is not limited to, the matters discussed by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, in which he challenges assumptions about making decisions based on rational thought. Many of the problems listed below have clinical diagnoses as pathological states, but they are also prevalent (if not ubiquitous) in “normal”, “healthy” people at sub-clinical levels.

Our struggle with irrationality includes (but is not limited to):

In evolutionary terms, reason is only an emerging property of the brain. Irrationality is still more the rule than the exception.  It is innate in every one of us–even in the best and brightest of our scientists, philosophers, educators, and leaders. Although scientists and scholars take great pains to eliminate irrationality from their work products, it is insidious, and it often still intrudes in subtle ways. Even in our most rational-seeming people, irrationality often runs rampant in areas outside their core competence and in their private lives. Irrationality and bias often arise from a cognitive dissonance between individualism and cooperation (or selfishness and altruism).

It is always popular to minimize and/or look on the bight side of irrationality. This reminds me too much of the rationalization tricks of alcoholics. Even Dr. Ariely has joined this trend with his newest book, destined to be a smash-hit bestseller, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. This will be popular in may quarters, but especially among all the boneheads of the world for the ammunition it will give them against their more rational friends, coworkers, and family members.

It is undeniable that evolution has given the brain powerful heuristic tools for making snap judgments. These may serve us well (or not) when circumstances don’t permit more conscious, deliberate, and scientific methods of decision making. It is also undeniable that “facts” are often incomplete or presented in a biased way, that appearances (even “scientific” and “empirical” appearances) may deceive, and that sometimes our contra-factual  intuitions turn out  right. But no amount of benefit we may derive from irrational thinking  and behavior (which can often only be judged in hindsight) in any way changes, diminishes, nor even remotely compensates for the harm it does. Of course we wish to keep the cute, irrational baby– but that’s no excuse for not throwing out the  toxic bath water. The only rational thing is to do both.

Recognizing and saving the baby (the upside of irrationality) is all well and good. Nevertheless, the downsides of irrationality are accelerating humanity towards a cliff. If we all go over the cliff, what happens to the effing baby? As Richard Dawkins  points out in the The Selfish Gene (1989 p.8), things that give selective advantage can, if carried to an extreme, lead to annihilation of species.

It is no doubt precisely because irrationality seems so often to bear gifts, especially in the short term, that it is so seductive. It may also have to do with our inclination to be “cognitive misers“.

The problem with irrationality is that it is easy, it is pleasant, and it is reassuring; but it is also an unconscious compulsion or addiction, and we continue to pursue it and defend it way past the point of diminishing returns.

Why? Because irrational behaviors, emotions, and mental states are reinforced by the same neurochemicals that cause other forms of addiction. In An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry, and Social Psychology, the astrophysicist and author David Brin writes:

Consider studies of gambling. Researchers led by Dr. Hans Breiter of Massachusetts General Hospital examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which brain regions activate when volunteers won games of chance — regions that overlapped with those responding to cocaine!

“Gambling produces a similar pattern of activity to cocaine in an addict,” according to Breiter.

Moving along the spectrum toward activity that we consider more “normal” — neuroscientists at Harvard have found a striking similarity between the brain-states of people trying to predict financial rewards (e.g., via the stock market) and the brains of cocaine and morphine users.

Along similar lines, researchers at Emory University monitored brain activity while asking staunch party members, from both left and right, to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, Emory’s director of clinical psychology. “Instead, a network of emotion circuits lit up… reaching biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted. Significantly, activity spiked in circuits involved in reward, similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix,” Westen explained.

How far can this spectrum be extended? All the way into realms of behavior — and mental states — that we label as wholesome? Rich Wilcox of the University of Texas says: “Recovery process in addiction is based to a great extent on cognitively mediated changes in brain chemistry of the frontal/prefrontal cortex system. Furthermore… there is even a surprising amount of literature cited in PubMed suggesting that prayer also induces substantial changes in brain chemistry.”

Clearly this spectrum of “addiction” includes reinforcement of behaviors that are utterly beneficial and that have important value to us, e.g., love of our children. I get a jolt every time I smell my kids’ hair, for instance. The “Aw!” that many people give when then see a baby smile is accompanied by skin flushes and iris dilation, reflecting physiological pleasure. Similar jolts come to people (variously) from music, sex, exercise and the application of skill.

Although a lot of recent research has danced along the edges of this area, I find that the core topic appears to have been rather neglected. I’m talking about the way that countless millions of humans either habitually or volitionally pursue druglike reinforcement cycles — either for pleasure or through cycles of withdrawal and insatiability that mimic addiction — purely as a function of entering an addictive frame of mind.

For a majority, indeed, this process goes un-noticed because there is no pathology! Reiterating; it is simply “getting high on life.” Happy or at least content people who lead decent lives partake in these wholesome addictive cycles that have escaped much attention from researchers simply because these cycles operate at the highest levels of human functionality. (It is easy to verify that there is something true, underlying the phrase “addicted to love.”)

This wholesomeness should no longer mask or exclude such powerfully effective mental states from scientific scrutiny. For example, we might learn more about the role of oxytocin in preventing the down-regulating or tolerance effects that exacerbate drug addiction. Does this moderating effect provide the more wholesome, internally-generated “addictions” with their long-lasting power?

Even more attractive would be to shine light on patterns of volitional or habitual addictive mentation that are NOT helpful or functional or desirable.

Gambling has already been mentioned. Rage is obviously another of these harmful patterns, that clearly have a chemical-reinforcement component. Many angry people report deriving addictive pleasure from fury, and this is one reason why they return to the state, again and again. Thrill-seeking can also be like this, when it follows a pathology of down-regulating satiability. Ernst Fehr, Brian Knutson, and John Hibbing have written about the pleasure-reinforcement of revenge, that Hollywood films tap incessantly in plot lines that give audiences a vicarious thrill of Payback against villains-who-deserve-it.

The Most Common (but Unstudied) Form of Self-Addiction

So far, we are on ground that is supported by copious (if peripheral) research. If nothing else, at least there should be an effort to step back and notice the forest, for the trees, generalizing a view of this whole field as we’ve described so far. A general paradigm of self-reinforcement.

Only now, taking this into especially important new territory, please consider something more specific. A phenomenon that both illustrates the general point and demands attention on its own account.

I want to zoom down to a particular emotional and psychological pathology. The phenomenon known as self-righteous indignation.

We all know self-righteous people. (And, if we are honest, many of us will admit having wallowed in this state ourselves, either occasionally or in frequent rhythm.) It is a familiar and rather normal human condition, supported — even promulgated — by messages in mass media.

While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even… well… addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.

Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again. Moreover, as Westin have found, this trait crosses all boundaries of ideology.

Indeed, one could look at our present-day political landscape and argue that a relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism and an inability to negotiate pragmatic solutions to a myriad modern problems. It may be the ultimate propellant behind the current “culture war.”

If there is any underlying truth to such an assertion, then acquiring a deeper understanding of this one issue may help our civilization deal with countless others.

Actually, there are other problems besides the enormous political, social, and personal costs of irrationality. Another is what I would call the “atrocity cost”.  As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

Well, as they say in all the Twelve-Step programs, the first step to recovery is “admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion.”

Hello. I’m Poor Richard, and I’m an irrationalcoholic.

Are you an irrationalcoholic, too?

Poor Richard

by Dave Pollard (

Dr. Gabor Maté ~ Who We Are When We Are Not Addicted: The Possible Human


14 Responses to “Addiction to Irrationality”

  1. "Natural Lefty" Says:

    I read this one on the way to the bestiary post. Was that a “cognitive miser” sighting? Yes, it was. I think our writing styles are starting to converge, which is mostly a good thing from my perspective. I know; there we go agreeing again. This is a largely agreeable post to me, although the long list of irrationality is somewhat redundant, and I don’t think of humans as basically irrational although the more primitive parts of our brain may lack the capacity for rational thought.

    The only psychological perspective which views humans as basically irrational is the largely discredited psychodynamic approach (the Freud stuff and neo-Freudian stuff). However, it is true that we have many irrational processes which cognitive and social psychology research has been able to point out. Well, actually, cognitive therapy does try to change irrational thinking into rational thinking, but that is only for psychologically disturbed people.

    You make good points about thought addictions to irrational beliefs, diminishing returns and the irrationality of promoting the benefits of irrationality.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      NL, Good comments, especially where they point out my failure to make a convincing argument. You say “I don’t think of humans as basically irrational.” I think they are, but I accept that I haven’t made a good enough case to persuade an irrationalcoholic. You concede that “we have many irrational processes which cognitive and social psychology research has been able to point out” but I think you still believe we are more rational than not; whereas I think we are more like 10% rational and 90% irrational. I think the most compelling evidence is our largely negative impact on the biosphere. In that light, I tend to think the burden of proof should fall on those who claim to be rational. Also, I am less concerned with addiction to specific irrational beliefs than with addiction to irrational methods of thinking and decision making.

  2. "Natural Lefty" Says:

    Good point about the effect of humans upon the biosphere. Wiping out life on planet earth (plan-it erth?) is about as irrational as we could be. I would reply that behavior at the individual level is not the same as behavior at the species level. We are programmed to act rationally as individuals within a social and environmental context; worrying about the entire biosphere is a new concern for us. Secondly, I would respond that since being essentially responsible for the entire biosphere is a new concern for us as a species, we are not good at it yet — not necessarily irrational, just incompetent at it and slow to realize the importance of taking action. Hopefully we will become good at it rather than destroying the planet. Third, I think the historic trend is toward rationality.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      I agree that the historic trend is towards rationality. Reason is a … whatchamacallit … emergent capacity. If we sit back and let ole evolution finish up the job of making us all nice and rational we should be good to go in about, oh…. half a million years.

      When will we stop making excuses….

      Hey, have you heard of that Venus Project? What’s up with all that?


  3. Natural Lefty Says:

    What do you mean about the Venus Project? You know I wrote about that. I agree with them up to a point, but when they say we will naturally do away with government, or as you say, when they think there will be no money and nothing to replace it, they seem a bit naive to me. I do think we should be going in the direction of their sustainable economy ideas, though, sharing of resources, and also change our monetary system.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      I didn’t know/remember about you writing about the Venus Project. I was looking at their website and was impressed with the intro video re emphasis on design, science, and the future being post-political. A bit later I read about the moneyless economy and agree that aspect is naive. There’s always a fly in the ointment…


  4. Natural Lefty Says:

    I agree that rationality is an emergent process, but one we should try to help evolve, the sooner the better.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Yeah. Giving evolution a helping hand with the rapid improvement of the human brain’s bullshit detector is a matter of extreme existential urgency. We can’t wait thousands of years to get our heads the rest of the way out of our asses.

      The more I think about cognitive training video games the more I think it may be a world-saving idea.


  5. Lori Says:

    To your bullet list of addictive irrationalities, I would suggest self righteousness, as described by David Brin.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Gee, is this your subtle way of telling me that I am too self-righteous? OK. Guilty. I already admitted that I’m an irrationalcoholic.

      Anyway, I see that Brin anticipated my thesis by several years (or decades), and expressed it about 10 times better than I did. I certainly will add self-righteous indignation to my list of irrationalities and quote some excerpts from Brin’s letter. I’m sure glad you brought it to my attention. The Lori Goldmine of information has sprouted yet another vein…

      Thanks, PR

  6. The Origins of Human Nature « Poor Richard's Almanack 2010 Says:

    […] Addiction to Irrationality (PRA 2010) […]

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