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

Normal Schnormal

The older I get, the crazier I realize that I am. Despite some evidence that I am getting smarter at peeling back layers of reality and seeing more of the big picture, the more clearly I see myself, the worse I appear in my mental bathroom mirror– full of neuroses, false narratives, revised memories, self-deceptions, obsessions and compulsions, unconscious associations, and cognitive biases.

If I’m right that each age and each age group suffers from its own set of individual and collective self-delusions, the only rational behavior would be for all of us to abandon our faith in normality, whatever we currently think it is, and work together in multi-generational, multi-disciplinary groups to re-explore the world and to prospect for new nuggets and veins of reality together.

Homer statue at the University of Virginia

Homer statue at the University of Virginia (Image via Wikipedia)

Prospecting for reality…

I think this is what Thomas Jefferson hoped would happen at the University he established. He doubted the value of simply handing out degrees as certificates of competence. He wanted to create an ongoing, living experiment–a diverse demographic of people living and laboring together in a common cause: questioning normality and learning something new about reality every day. I don’t think the University of Virginia has lived up to that hope over time, but time isn’t all over and done, yet.

When I suggest abandoning normality, I’m not proposing anarchy. I’m really talking about “beginner’s mind“. Of course, there may be some babes worth saving from the dingy bath water of normality and tradition. But normality is  missing something we need to keep the whole bathtub from going over a cliff: We need a diversity of experimental colleges* and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, I see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard


* “Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”); indeed, some colleges call their members “fellows”.” (Wikipedia: college)

Related PRA 2010 posts:

Externalizing Reality

In economic theory, an externality is any cost or benefit not accounted for in a calculation of profit or loss. Classic examples are the cost of pollution not included in the price of a manufactured product, the death of coal miners not included in the price of electricity, and the cost of mass murder or the little matter of global warming not included in the price of oil and gasoline.

Economic externalities are only a small subset of a more general category I call cognitive externalities–anything that is filtered out of our mental picture of the world around us.

We all externalize parts of reality, not because they are unknowable, but because they are unpleasant or inconvenient. That is the principal basis of all our corruption, all our dis-enlightenment. We all do it. Its in our DNA. But the costs or consequences of externalities in economic models or in any other domain of reality, are disproportionately borne by the poor and powerless. One of the worst examples of externalized reality is this: despite some remnants of local color from country to country, the new world order is a global East India Company with helicopter gunships. A Martian anthropologist studying the last five thousand years or so of human history would have to conclude that the primary industry of our species is conducting mass murder for profit and that the masses, even in the dominant cultures, have all devolved into cargo cults.

If cargo cults are mentioned in anyone’s personal library of mental narratives they probably take the form of a story about the peculiar behavior of small numbers of black natives somewhere on the coast of Africa in some prior century. Am I the only person with a story in her head about how that same behavior shows through in all of us under the euphemistic label of “consumerism”?

People live by stories. Each person’s head holds a library of short and long narratives and we pull one off the shelf that fits something about any particular situation or circumstance we meet from moment to moment. Too often these stories are on the level of children’s picture books, suggesting simple but wrong solutions to complex problems or situations. Most of us have stories about history that are wrong, stories about our families that are wrong, stories about nature that are wrong, and stories about ourselves that are wrong. And anything that doesn’t exist in the current active mental story, right or wrong, is externalized from a person’s reality in that moment.

Sometimes, reality is externalized on purpose. The principle weapon of special interests today is information asymmetry, a simple idea (better known to most of us as fraud, deception, marketing, public relations, spin, infotainment, etc.) that won a Nobel Prize for economics. This has resulted in a vast and thriving industry of disinformation and information pollution that corrupts and perverts every institution of society. But by far the most destructive lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

Our addiction to self delusion is encouraged and enabled by a liar’s code. If you don’t unmask me I won’t defrock you. Popes, presidents, senators, CEO’s, teachers, and parents set the example for one and all.

Of course there is such a thing as an ethical (justified) lie, a lesser evil than some dire alternative, but self deception dissolves sanity itself. Identity itself becomes externalized. Self awareness fails and then, as Yeats said, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” This is the truly unpardonable sin. But it won’t be avoided by force of will, strength of character, or high moral ideals. Our cognitive deformity, self-delusion, settled upon us by evolution, will be undone not by willpower, for which humanity is not noted, but mostly by wit, art and innovation–things we are good at.

The opposite of the unpardonable sin of self deception is liberation from self-imposed delusion–especially delusions about ourselves. The ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and look clearly at uncomfortable facts is the essence of authentic enlightenment. It was inscribed on the entrance of the ancient Greek Temple of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself.”

Externalizing inconvenient reality (sometimes called denial, self deception, willful ignorance, or preserving cognitive consonance) is a coping mechanism. I would never suggest that we discard a coping mechanism without replacing the truly protective parts of it with something new. In fact with many, many new things.

The Greeks knew what they didn’t know (self-knowledge) but their philosophical methods were empirically weak. Today we know how to come by that knowledge–by the scientific method. We must discover and invent new cognitive prophylactics and prosthetics not as Sir Thomas Moore invented Utopia or as Reagan-era bean counters invented “Trickle-Down Economics”, but as Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin: with all the real working parts. We need a science and technology of cognitive hygiene and end-to-end information quality control. Despite living in an “age of science,” we still mostly resort to authority and reputation to judge the quality of information. I guess there are many reasons that “fact checking” remains in the dark ages. Information Quality Management is fine for database administrators, but we human beings reserve the right to our own facts, just as we reserve the right to mate with the worst possible partner. Still, without surrendering such rights, it might be nice if the scientific/academic community devoted more effort to producing a science and technology of information quality assurance that we could consult or ignore at our own risk.

In addition to empirical knowledge, like that which we might gain from brain signals, functional MRI pictures, or implicit association tests, enlightenment grows from coaching and practice with the object of re-engineering faulty parts of the operating system of the brain. Unlike genetic engineering, it requires exercise and training much as any physical, athletic ability.

I’m not drumming up a utopia built on some cult of cognitive science. But we MUST discover alternative practical means to protect ourselves from that suffering which we seek to evade by externalizing reality. As we do, we may find that workable solutions to nearly every other problem and crisis are already on the table.

Poor Richard

“The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0”

“The Enlightenment 2.0″

“The Inner Hunchback”

“Is Spiritual the New Supernatural?”

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