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We are all reasonable and rational people.

Right?

Or do you know somebody who isn’t?

Ah, you see, but even they are reasonable and rational…. in their own mind.

Like all of us.

I agree, this is hard to wrap our mind around. How can it be that everybody is reasonable and rational?

Well, the title of this article already let the cat out of the bag. The brain justifies. While the brain is indeed in control, that control is different from what most people suppose it is. Our brain controls our actions, but most of our decisions are made subconsciously. After these are made, the rational brain takes over and justifies the action we just took.

Sure, we can also make conscious decisions, cold hard logic as they say. But these account for just a small percentage. In order to increase this percentage we must make a real effort. And that takes real energy. If we are tired after a day’s work at the desk, that is not because we are physically exhausted, it is because we are mentally exhausted.

I do not know how the brain works, but I have read that there is some mechanism in our brain that works analogous to a muscle: it uses up energy and must rest to be refreshed. To me, that makes a lot of sense. As I have written in another post, we seem to have two decision systems in our brain. A fast one that uses very little energy, and a slow deliberate one that uses a lot of energy. At the end of a long day at the desk, we have used up the available energy for the deliberate decisions and fall back to the low energy decisions. Besides, our bodies don’t like spending energy (a survival mechanism) and thus revert to the fast low energy decisions whenever possible.

But we are also conscious. And being conscious means being aware of our future. I.e. knowing that we exist in the future. And our survival instinct wants us to exist in that future: the continuation of the self. This then creates a problem: our unconscious decisions create a conflict with our consciousness. Our consciousness is aware of the future and the actions we took. But it does not know if those actions will guarantee our future.

To solve this problem an elegant mechanism has come into existence: rationalisation. The conscious brain retroactively finds a reason why we did something. We went into the cafetaria because we are thirsty and wanted some coffee. Or did we? maybe we went into the cafetaria because they successfully projected a welcoming atmosphere where we would feel safe on an unconscious level? Would we have bought a coffee if it was just a stand alongside the road with a bench beside it? (And why that cafetaria?)

Science is unlocking many surprising connections to the question of “why?”. Seems most of our decisions are (at least partly) driven by factors outside our conscious knowing. Consciousness is just along for the ride. And our brain delivers the justifications our consciousness needs on an ad-hoc basis.

That is why we can all feel to be reasonable and rational people. Not because of any objective standard. But because we rationalise ourselves as being so after the fact.

2016-12-27: Changed the description


Originally posted at: 2016-12-15
Last modified on: 2016-12-27