The rational mind as storyteller not decider


in Economics, Politics, Psychology, Science, Writing

There is an intriguing hypothesis about the rational mind: while we think of it as a weigher of evidence that contributes to the decisions we make when faced with a choice, it’s possible that its real role is to construct a story after the fact about why we made the choice we did for instinctive or emotional reasons.

Chris Voss alludes to this in his book about negotiations:

In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explained a groundbreaking discovery he made. Studying people who had damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated, he found that they all had something peculiar in common: They couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should do in logical terms, but they found it impossible to make even the simplest choice.

In other words, while we may use logic to reason ourselves toward a decision, the actual decision making is governed by emotion.

Voss, Chris. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Penguin Random House, 2016. p. 122 (emphasis in original)

It has occurred to me that while the fundamental units of the physical universe may be the particles of the standard model or superstrings or something similar, the fundamental units of the psychological universe may be stories. We make decisions — perhaps — by analogy and imagination, using the stories we know as templates for projecting what could happen from one or another course of behaviour. This is compatible with the idea that generals are always fighting the last war, or that decision makers find an analogy as a schema for assessing the options before them in the present case (famously, the notion that states blundered into the first world war arguably motivated the appeasement policy toward Hitler which was later judged to have contributed to the second, while the lesson learned about the dangers of appeasement fed the undue combativeness of the cold war).

The idea that rationalization is after-the-fact storytelling risks feeding in to a nihilistic perspective that our decisions are just uncontrollable emergent phenomenon, coming out of a black box which we cannot control or influence, but that does not follow if we accept that we can influence the conditions that influence our emotions and train ourselves in how we respond emotionally. Voss’ book elaborates on this view with numerous practical details and examples, not taking for granted that people are emotional so they just do as they do, but highlighting how often-subtle mechanisms for influencing how people feel can powerfully influence how things turn out.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Alena Prazak April 13, 2021 at 4:25 pm

That is quite a plausible theory; we utilize the stories that seem rational to us and perhaps support our emotional position.

Richard Kearns May 8, 2021 at 4:56 pm

This parallels how people try to invent explanations for our arbitrary, accidental, counter-anthropocentric universe. Language and science are both efforts to extract narratives from an unruly and indifferent cosmos.

. July 3, 2021 at 9:58 pm

One of the reasons that the tale is so powerful is that, despite the motivated reasoning that we engage in, we never realize that we’re doing it. We think we are being rational, even if we have no idea why we’re really deciding to act that way. In “Telling More Than We Can Know,” a seminal paper in the history of social and cognitive psychology, Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson showed that people’s decisions are often influenced by minute factors outside their awareness—but tell them as much, and they rebel. Instead, they will give you a list of well-reasoned justifications for why they acted as they did. The real reasons, however, remain outside their knowledge. In fact, even when Nisbett and Wilson pinpointed the precise inspiration for a choice—in one case, someone casually walking by a curtain to make it swing back and forth in a manner that suggested the swing of a pendulum, prompting the subject herself to swing a rope as a pendulum to solve a puzzle—the vast majority of people persisted in a faulty interpretation. It wasn’t the power of suggestion, they insisted. It was an insight they had reached after meticulous thought and evaluation of alternatives.

Konnikova, Maria. The Confidence Game. Why We Fall for It… Every Time. Penguin Books, 2016. p. 185-6

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