Overcoming Irrationality!

Are you superstitious?  Do you wear a “lucky” piece of clothing when you need the “gods” to be with you or have a “lucky” charm that you use or hold dear when you hope and pray that a certain event turns out as you want it to?

If so, you are not alone. But, like your comrades, deep down you realize that the superstition, the “lucky” piece of clothing or the “lucky” charm is irrational, and, in reality, has nothing to do with the outcome of the event in question.

The notion that we cling to the superstition and the irrational although fully aware that each is poppycock or hogwash was the topic of an article entitled “Believing What You Don’t Believe” by Jane L. Risen and A. David Nussbaum in the SundayReview section of the November 1, 2015 edition of The New York Times.

In their article, the authors note that the reason we cannot overcome the superstition is our intuition or System 1 thinking as discussed by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. Our intuition or System 1 simply will not allow us to come to our senses and ignore the superstition.  As an example, the authors highlight the following study:

Consider a 1986 study conducted by the psychologist Paul Rozin and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. The participants were asked to put labels on two identical bowls of sugar. The labels read “sucrose” and “sodium cyanide (poison).” Even though the participants were free to choose which label to affix to which bowl, they were nevertheless reluctant, after labeling the bowls, to use sugar from the one that they had just labeled poison. Their intuition was so powerful that it guided their behavior even when they recognized that it was irrational.  (Id.)

To get through the day, we use our System 1 which is intuitive, fast, emotional, automatic and subconscious. It relies on heuristics and cognitive biases to get us through our lives.  System 2, on the other hand is slow, deliberate, effortful, logical, conscious, and requires us to use up quite a lot of energy.

Most of the time, we can succeed in using System 1 to accomplish our tasks. But, as just mentioned, System 1 does contain cognitive biases causing us to make assumptions unconsciously that may be untrue. The authors cite the example of gray skies in San Diego; this would normally lead one to think that it might rain, until one remembers that California has been in a drought for four years! The issue is whether your System 2 will step in and remind you that it hasn’t rained in California in four years. But, as the authors point out, System 2 does not always take over the way it should:

But as one of us, Professor Risen, discusses in a paper just published in Psychological Review, many instances of superstition and magical thinking indicate that the slow system doesn’t always behave this way. When people pause to reflect on the fact that their superstitious intuitions are irrational, the slow system, which is supposed to fix things, very often doesn’t do so. People can simultaneously recognize that, rationally, their superstitious belief is impossible, but persist in their belief, and their behavior, regardless. Detecting an error does not necessarily lead people to correct it. (Id.)

Thus, System 2 may actually make the problem worse by “doubling down by trying to rationalize the intuition, generating reasons…” why the intuitive thinking of System 1 is correct. (Id.)

As the authors note, overcoming an irrational thought requires two processes; first it must be detected as being an irrational thought; then it must be corrected.  To accomplish this actually requires two separate processes, not just one process with two steps.   As our System 2 thinking takes quite a lot of deliberation and effort, this is easier said than done.

What has this to do with negotiation and mediation? Quite a lot. We have all, at times, gotten caught up in taking a course of action that we know is irrational or is impulsive but feel compelled to carry on, all the while knowing it makes no sense. Now we know why, and more importantly, we now know that we must double down on our System 2 deliberations to override this System 1 error.

…. Just something to think about.


By Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis Pollack
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