Why We Are Not Rational

Why We Are Not Rational

We are not rational.

According to Merriam Webster, to be rational is to be “based on facts or reason and not on emotions or feelings.”  Yet in life, most decisions are based on the combination of both, and usually more so from our emotions.

Humans aren’t rational because we don’t make decisions solely on logic.  What we do do is evaluate the benefits and costs of each decision.  When the benefits outweigh the costs or vice versa, we take the necessary action (or inaction) to whatever is more favorable.  However, this benefits vs. costs analysis is processed both consciously and subconsciously.  For example, have you ever made a decision based on your gut feeling even though logic and reasoning may suggest otherwise?  In a way, we don’t consciously add up the benefits and the costs and weigh them, that’s only done within our conscious thinking  But the action we choose for our decision is based on the total of benefits vs. total of costs from both conscious plus subconscious.  A classic example is when our guilt or embarrassment inhibits us from performing an action that makes sense logically.

There are a few things we must admit to ourselves.  For example, even though we base our actions on whichever the total of benefits or total of costs add up more, it may not be the smartest decision.  Let’s say your friend tells you the company stock We Will Win is going to rise 1000% in 2 days, and he has absolutely no evidence to back it up.  You also know nothing about stocks and investing.  In this situation, you may put all your savings into this stock.  Of course, this action may not be the smartest course of action, but based on the benefits and costs from your conscious and subconscious at that given moment, and based on your limited amount of information, you would invest.

Of course, this is a simple and exaggerated situation.  Let’s say that after hearing your friend tell you this, your gut tells you not to invest- it’s too exaggerated and you’ve been duped before, or it sounds like something illegal.  In the end you decide not to participate.  Here, the costs are derived from the subconscious (the feeling that something isn’t right) that outweighed the conscious (stock is going to rise).

I want to continue on the notion that our weighing of the benefits vs. costs may not be the smartest thing.  Here’s why.  Human brains are limited in processing, causing inaccuracies and making bad predictions.  Somewhere in the benefits or costs, we somehow have aspects included into the list that actually doesn’t belong there or have been exaggerated or underestimated.  For example, in roulette you bet on black because red has won 5 times in a row and you feel that black will win next.  You acted based on the benefits – the feeling.  But you forgot to include the statistical probability that even though red has won 5 times in a row, black and red both continue to have probabilities of less than 50% of winning.  Or say you watched a scary movie with clowns in them, and you become terrified at the sight of clowns.  As you grow up, you learn that clowns aren’t that terrifying.  No matter, the fear in you is the cost, and that cost still outweighs the benefits, and so you continue to have coulrophobia (phobia of clowns).

Besides getting the lists of benefits and costs wrong (either consciously or subconsciously), our predictions of outcomes might also be wrong, or you may not have considered some of the possible outcomes at all.  For instance, people have unprotected sex because it feels good (conscious thinking it physically feels good short term) but they may downplay or neglect the risks of having a baby.  As such, the benefits (it feels good) outweighs the costs (having a baby) because the costs may be negligible at the person’s state of the moment.

As an even more extreme case, let’s say a heated argument occurs between a couple.  The man cannot control his emotions and kills his wife.  In this scenario, the man has acted on his benefits.  The benefits are the satisfaction of vengeance and the satisfaction of causing pain (usually violence is caused because we want the other person to understand our pain), which are both subconscious.  During that specific moment, these become our benefits, and they outweigh the costs (ie. the outcome of spending the rest of his life in jail).  It’s not smart, but it’s how we behave.  Let me try to clarify this concept in a simpler matter – the outcome of spending our life in jail is a very high cost, but feelings such as anger downplay the significance of this outcome.  Additionally, sometimes we become so angry that we express our feelings through inappropriate means, and we conduct these means because the need to express our anger (the benefit) downplays any logical thinking like going to jail (the costs).  I will write about a more detailed post about whether we should treat ‘killers who acted based on the spur of the moment’ and ‘killers who have planned their attack’ differently.

Even when you’re playing Roulette and you play based on the opposite of what you’re feeling, you are still acting based on your benefits because you think the opposite of what you’re feeling will give you the win.

Or when we volunteer, we want to feel good about ourselves.  Some people might logically say volunteering may be a waste of time.  But the act of volunteering makes you ‘feel good’, which outweighs the costs of wasting time and effort.

I believe 99.9% of our decisions are based on this benefits vs. costs approach as derived from our conscious and subconscious.  There are times when we don’t act upon this.  For example, you write down 6 different choices and you roll a die to determine the choice – this becomes more tied to ‘fate’ rather than benefits vs. costs.

Our feelings are usually based on our subconscious, which dictates on our survival, reproduction, and social aspects of our lives.  To read more about this, please see the post about ‘The Subconscious‘.

What do you think about my theory that almost all decisions are based on this benefits vs. costs as derived from both the conscious and subconscious?  Can someone think of an argument that may go against this theory?  This post may have been difficult to understand (I myself had difficulty trying to make this concept clear) so please address questions below at the comments and I’ll try my best to answer them in simple terms.

To conclude, we as humans aren’t rational.  We make our decisions based on the benefits vs. costs as derived from both the conscious and subconscious, rather than just logic, facts, and reason.  Feelings must be included into the equation.



Intrigued with ideas, strategies, and unconventional concepts. Interested in new and logical theories.