Why do seemingly smart people make dumb decisions? Why there are still people who believe that the world is flat?1 Others who think Yetis are actually aliens? Third believe that Stephen Hawking was a computer? That Elvis is still alive and that dinosaurs never existed? Even though our brains are extremely sophisticated we can be spectacularly bad at making some basic decisions.
No matter the progress which we have achieved thanks to our ability to communicate, how evolved we’re as a species, we have a tendency to do stupid things.
We give in to our emotions, allowing them to control our body and mind resulting in doing senseless, a lot of times even ridiculous things. Such as spending more money than what we actually have, on things we don’t really need. Or, abusively protesting for a cause we’re not 100% committed with a crowd of people we don’t really know. And even, feeling aggressive when your friends didn’t like immediately your new Instagram photo.
However, this is not a guarantee that you won’t drive without a license or that you’ll never touch a hot plate even though you know it will burn your hand.
Even the wisest among us are capable of doing foolish things. Ever wondered why?
Why We Act Irrational?
In essence, life is about survival. That’s the baseline for every living thing on the planet Earth. Everything we and our fellow animals do is aligned with our ultimate goal, to live another day. This mental model helped us survive in the hot savannas and icy tundra – when jackets and hot water wasn’t invented.
Nowadays, though, things are not that savage. I mean, you don’t have to kill a wild animal to feed your clan. You don’t have to go bare naked, with a knife in the forest to have a meal. You can simply go to the store and buy a packed steak that’s ready to be cooked.
Things weren’t exactly so simple thousands of years ago.
Living organisms, millions of years ago, relied on their hardcoded system of instincts to guide them. In a split second, an animal could sense danger in the surrounding environment and respond immediately. The animal reacted at the moment the signal for threat was received. Basically, there was no lagging between impulse and action. The two reactions were one. Slowly, this process evolved. The time between receiving the information from the outside world and responding was getting larger.
Animals adopted a new sensation, the ability to feel what’s happening, and based on that feeling they could decide how to act. Meaning, there was more than one available outcome. Previously, the available reaction was only one: fleeing the scene, or if needed, attacking at full force. Now, with the new upgrade, humans, in particular, could feel fear and act in the best possible way. Well, at least that’s what’s included in the new version. This doesn’t mean that everyone is using it.
For example, if you hear a strange noise in the forest, you’ll most probably feel fear but you won’t escape immediately. Your mind will process everything that’s happening: How familiar is the environment for you? Who’s with you? Do you know how to protect yourself? Can you use something from the surrounding environment to protect yourself? Is there even a slight chance an alien to be hiding in the bush?
After the mind takes into account all of the data, it might conclude that John, the person with you, it’s simply taking a piss.
The Evolution of Emotions
We’re abstract animals. We can imagine a different universe while we’re drinking our morning coffee. Not like animals, who think only about what’s happening around, at this very moment.
They don’t dream about becoming rich and famous, like we do most of the time. They enjoy the present to the fullest. When a dog feels fear, it’s only for a brief moment, once the danger passes, they’re again in a perfect mood. They don’t think about “Oh, I could have responded differently; “I’ll bench 60 kg next time I’m hitting the gym and I’ll beat the shit out of the neighborhood dog.” For good or worse, we do think about these things though.
I’m sure you still regret things that have had happened in the past. Even years ago. Like the time you lent John $20 but he never returned them. Now, every time you see him you’re thinking, “John, you piece of shit, give me back my $20.” Even though it’s too late to ask for the money the thought alone is making you hostile against your friend every time you see him.
That’s just one of the feelings we have. There are thousands of others. We relate objects and places with certain people. That’s why every time you drive past the hospital in which you give birth to your children you’re feeling emotional. Also, our mood can be easily influenced by something simple like the weather. When outside is raining, you feel blue. The sun is shining, you immediately feel full of energy.
Unfortunately, we don’t have conscious access to the origins of our emotions and the feelings they produce. We don’t have full control over our brains and our thoughts. A lot of times we’re victims of the thoughts circling inside our brain.
For example: If we see a crispy chocolate chip cookies but we’re on a diet, our brain will immediately mix a cocktail of thoughts and emotions that have one purpose, to make us eat a cookie. Just one. Well, that’s the strategy. The emotions will try to convince us that “only one cookie won’t do any harm” but in reality, they only want to lower our defenses. Our brain is fully aware that if we eat one chocolate cookie this will lead to a system failure. Meaning, we’ll eat the whole plate.
How Rational and Irrational People Act?
It’s getting a bit confusing and you might get lost somewhere between what a living organism did thousands of years ago and whether someone owes you money. To ease you, let’s see what we know so far:
- The main function of the body and the mind is to survive, feel good and safe.
- The outside environment is triggering emotions in us.
- These emotions sometimes can stay with us forever and repeat in every single moment.
So, let’s see how the irrational person reacts to a situation:
How Irrational People Act?
When something happens they act without thinking too much about it, without evaluating the situation. They act immediately, impulsively, relying solely on their animal instincts to make the right decision (Daniel Kahneman labels this type of thinking fast thinking). Since the main goal of the body, as mentioned, is to survive and feel good, the decision will be towards getting this result.
So, let’s observe a couple of examples: The moment an irrational person sees a chocolate cake he’ll instantly eat it; The same person hears about a fast-money-making scheme and he’s immediately involved with a couple of hundreds; He’s also helpless when he sees the latest commercial of his favorite sneakers. He’ll buy them regardless of his current financial situation.
In all of the above-mentioned situations, the person acts without thinking about the possible outcomes. Constantly eating chocolate lead to a couple of extra pounds. Investing in quick money-making schemes will lead often, in 99% of the cases, to bankruptcy, loans, mortgages, asking your parents for cash.
This type of behavior is primitive because the person acts without considering the other options. He’s influenced and controlled by his emotions. “If something feels good I must have it,” that’s the motto of irrationality.
Now, let’s see how a rational person will act in different situations:
How Rational People Act?
When a situation occurs, they’ll rarely act immediately, unless they already know how they should respond. They’ll think about the possible options, evaluate and consider what’s the best long-term decision (this is slow thinking). Surviving and feeling good is still something they consider but they can postpone the pleasant feeling for a while.
Let’s observe the same examples as before: If the rational person is on a diet he won’t eat the chocolate cake. He knows that the time is not right for sugar; He also doesn’t get involved in fast-bucks programs because he knows that you can’t make money without putting in the needed hours; No matter how many ads you throw at his face, he won’t buy unless he really needs something.
Rational people think a couple of moves ahead. Their decisions are based on logic and discipline. This type of behavior is advanced because it puts on hold the initial desires, makes an assessment of everything around, and acts only if the future self is going to benefit from the situation.
The guys in the dictionary already have the proper description: “A rational person is someone who is sensible and is able to make decisions based on intelligent thinking rather than on emotion.”2
I believe you got the idea. If you’re making decisions based on your emotions, you’re an irrational person and you’re most probably in debt, lonely, addicted to something (alcohol, cigarettes, social media, tv), overweight, constantly looking for the perfect job.3
On the other hand, we have
Since we’ve covered in detail how these two types behave, let’s see how we can become more rational in our decisions so we won’t have to ask our parents for money so often.
Becoming A Reasonable Person
In order to become more rational in our decisions, we need to understand these two concepts in great detail first:
- Emotions are constantly affecting our thought process and decisions while always leaning you toward feeling pleasure. On top of that, they’re really sneaky. We may think that we’re doing something because it’s good for the nation, when in fact we’re simply executing it to soothe our ego, i.e. feel good.4
- We should be mindful of our capacity for errors and understand that we have a fundamental tendency to act according to our initial emotions no matter how smart we think we are. In essence, the animal inside of us will want to eat the chocolate cake, whether you’re on a diet or not, because food means survival.
All of this leads to the following: In order to become more rational, you need to learn how to handle your emotions better. That’s the fundamental principle of becoming a more rational person. No matter what you do, emotions will emerge. If you learn to handle them correctly, you’ll become more reasonable in your decisions.
So, armed with this knowledge we can go ahead and observe some base emotions. This will help us handle them better when they occur and also allows us to keep our cool under pressure.
Base human emotions:
- Triggers from early childhood: At the beginning of our lives, we were fragile and vulnerable. A lot that happened around influenced us, both physically and emotionally. Some of these emotions still exist deep inside of us. The feeling of humiliation when you stepped outside of the pool without bathing suit. Or, the feeling of abandonment if your parents didn’t express their love towards you. If you notice a sudden change in your behavior – defensive and childish – most probably the current moment is somehow related to your early years. If you take the time to understand it and accept it, you’ll strengthen your emotional self.
- Sudden gains or losses: Sudden success can be very dangerous because we’ll convince ourselves that we’re on a lucky streak, which will cloud our thinking. That’s why people who gamble and are currently winning often end up in debt. Winning or losing doesn’t mean that this will go on forever. You simply need to be mindful and consider that your luck can change at any moment.
- Stressful situations: Everyone seems so cool, patient and in control all of the time. However, when something stressful happens, we’ll surely act way different than how we acted so far. Under stress, some people panic, other lash out in anger, third become hypersensitive and pathetic. It’s out of great importance to control your emotions while there is a rapid change in scenes. Appearing vulnerable will weaken your influence over the group of people around you and also cloud your thinking.
- Emotional influencers: There are a lot of people living in this world who can trigger a bouquet of emotions inside of us. Some good, others bad. I’m sure you know such people. They get under your skin and can easily make you fall for them. There are of course others, who you can’t simply stand. Notice these people in your life and create a strategy for overcoming their charisma. You have to learn how not to give in on their spell.
- The group bias: We’re social creatures and we rely a lot on the people around. When we’re in a group, we tend to accept their believes and understanding of the world. When you’re attending a social event, for example, a hockey match, you’ll surely get excited by the atmosphere in the crowd. Your heart beats faster and you’re stimulated by the actions of your seat neighbors. Be aware though. There are also situations where the crowd won’t be cheerful and happy. That’s why riots occur. The group bias is also the reason you have to be careful what kind of people you let inside your life. Communicate with smart and like-minded people, otherwise, you might end up in jail with your “friends.”
Some Closing Thoughts
Despite the base human emotions and the triggers mentioned, there is something else you need to do in order to become a rational person. You need to understand how to get to the bottom of things. To understand yourself thoroughly. The moment you understand why you do what you do and how certain situations made you feel, is the moment you’ll grow emotionally and start making better decisions.
When you’re angry, thinking about why you’re feeling mad. Don’t think about the event itself. Rather, think about what is making you angry inside of you. Is it your inability to control the situation or this reminds you of something when you were little.
Finally, make sure you allow yourself some time for reaction. This simple act will help you in your development. In time, you’ll learn to be more patient, thus a more reasonable person.
“Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like.” Anton Chekhov
- OMG, I still can’t believe that there is a whole community of flat-earthers.
- I pulled the description out of this site: LINK.
- There is no such thing as the perfect job. Any job will suck from time to time. You simply need to find a job that offers a level of suckness you can bear.
- On top of that we also need to consider other people. They’re also sneaky and a lot of times they’ll install a certain feeling only to make us do something for them. When the time your wife told you that she is not feeling OK only to make you wash the dishes.