A primer in rational thought


Just watched an interesting BBC Horizon program on rational thought.

Highlights of the program include:

* Loss complex
* Post-decision rationalization
* Priming
* Precognition

* Loss complex:

Apparently if you take the same situation, but present it as a loss, time-and-time again you can prove that humans will choose more risky, daring [often irrational] choices than if you present the same situation as a potential gain.

The example they give is with gambling. If you give someone 20€ and then tell them they can gamble that money to win 50€ most people will take the 20€ and leave.

But if you give someone 50€ and then take 30€ out of their hand and say that to keep that 30€ they are going to have to gamble to get it, most people will gamble.

This well studied effect, called "the loss complex" is stimulated by our emotional brain centers. People who are able to resist the gambling effect are shown under cat scans to have frontal lobe activity which controls the emotional centers of our brain.


If you are faced with a loss situation, and need to make a decision, be aware that we [humans] tend to over react when choosing what is the best course of action. Conversely, if things are going well, we tend to under-react when making decisions that would further our current situation.

Rationalization of the situation [as opposed to reacting from the feeling of loss, gain] will help to make better decisions.

* Post-decision rationalization

Another well studied effect is that we tend to post-rationalize our decisions. So it doesn't matter whether you make a good or a bad decision, once you've made your decision, you justify it, even if its wrong, and even if reality contradicts the result you anticipated. The effect is so strong that memory itself can be altered.

Being aware of this common psychological disposition that we all have is important when analyzing the results of our choices, especially in the identification of wrong ones.

* Priming

Amazingly, another well studied effect is called 'priming'. If you are stimulated by something positive or negative prior to making a decision, your choice is strongly affected by that prior experience.

The example they give is disturbing. People are asked to hold a hot or cold beverage 6 to 8 minutes before they need to make a decision; unaware that its the fact that they were asked to hold a beverage in their hands that is being measured [they don't drink it, just hold it]. In this example warmth is associated with warm positive feelings, and cold with negative feelings.

The results are consistent, people who hold the warm drink react far more positively than those who cold the cold drink. The task at hand was to decide if someone interviewed should be hired, and in all 6 cases they showed, the 3 people who held the warm drink thought the person should be hired, and the 3 people who held the cold drink thought he shouldn't.

The same works if you prime someone with concepts like 'heroism', 'fear' etc. countless studies have been done, and the effect is very measurable...


Realize that how you make decisions is often determined by how you 'feel' rather than what you 'think'. How you feel is unfortunately not rational but environmental. So if you are experiencing something negative, any choices you would then need to make in the ensuing time period after such an event would seem negative even if they were not. We make automatic internal-external associations which are not context dependent.

* Precognition

Another well studied effect is pre-cognition. You may have heard of this test, because the first time I heard of it was in the 80s. If you study the emotional response of someone who sees random images on the screen, people will somehow 'know' what image is going to appear before it arrives because their emotional response always begins before the image is on the screen. The images shown have been internationally recognized as good images for psychological studies and each image has an associated emotional response to it that is common through out most people, so the pre-responce of a person to the image also fits a pattern between all studies.

This precognition is approximately 3 seconds in duration, meaning that we know what will happen [at least] 3 seconds before it does, on some level.

How this pre-cognition can be used is debatable and open to much speculation. Proponents on the multi-dimensional space/time theories would state that this is bleed in effect from the fact that time is not linear. Or that decisions are not only made based on the past but also are influenced by the future.

* Random gratification

This effect was not in this program, but another I had seen years back but I include it here because it is relevant.

Random gratification is an effect that is well documented in humans, rats and other animals. Random gratification is the source of many addictions, or patterns in our [illogical] behavior.

If you give a rat a button which they have to press to get food, they only press it when they are hungry. If you make the button work only when it is pressed 10 times, the rat will press it 10 times exactly when its hungry and still be healthy and of normal weight.

But if you change it so that the button gives the rat food randomly, meaning after a random number of presses, then the rat will spend its entire day, pressing the button continually and it will eat excessively and become fat.

This is how gambling [slot machines] work, but in more subtle ways this is also present in all our lives.

For example I realized a few years ago that I was infatuated to women who would perpetually remain uncertain [with moments of gratification and then followed by rejection] as to whether they liked/loved me in return, but if they person either did or did not like me then the situation would resolve itself far more quickly, rationally and less emotionally.

Knowing the allure of random-gratification is vital to avoiding another aspect of the emotional center over-ruling cognitive abilities.

Rational thinking advice:

The program also went into effective tools for rational thinking:

* the 5 why's
* pros cons with 1-10 weighting
* abstracting and structuring of options
* look for past patterns to make estimates instead of current contexts
* consider the opposite

* the 5 why's

When faced with a decision, asking yourself 'why?' 5 times in a row is usually sufficient to get to the root of why you want to make a certain choice.

For example:

"i want to leave my job"
"because I am not happy there"
"because i am not challenged enough"
"because i want to do something important in my life"
"because life is too short and I want to give something back to the world"

Knowing this 5th deeper motivation will then assist you in deciding what to do 'when you leave the job' - where as if you just 'left your job' but didn't bring the reason to the 'conscious' level, you might not take the decision you really wanted to.

* pros cons with 1-10 weighting

Most of us know about this, to make good decisions one method is to list all the pros and cons about this choice, and to then weight each pro and con with a value from 1-10. When you are done, just add up all the pros and cons, the side with the highest number is the decision you should take.

* abstracting and structuring of options

Another common fact about human's is that we are very good at making choices between two things, but bad at making complex choices. To resolve this short-coming of our minds, one solution is to use abstraction. If you are faced with lots of choices, try and group them into categories of choices, and then decide first on the group that is better than the other [using pros cons for example] and then on the members of each group afterwards in multiple steps.

for example, if you are faced with an illness and dozens of different treatments, you might first group them into two groups: "surgery" or "drug-based medication" or "medical" vs "holistic" and then decide first between these two poles as you break the choice down into smaller and smaller one vs. another

* look for past patterns to make estimates instead of current contexts

another phenomena is that our predictions about outcome are far more accurate if we evaluate things out-of context than in context.

The example they give is that if we try and make a prediction on how well we will do on a test our estimates will be very inaccurate if we just base it on current factors: how much i think i know, how much time i can study etc.

If instead we look at all past tests, people's average scores and also our past behavior and scores, our predictions will be far more accurate.

Basically my interpretation here is to do sufficient research into the patterns so that you know where the 'weight' of the outcome is tilting. Knowing this can help you to place more 'counter effort' to break the pattern [if you want the opposite effect]

* consider the opposite

This is related to the post-rationalization, but basically we tend to filter information so that it fits with our beliefs. If you think someone is a criminal, everything they do will seem to confirm that belief. Considering the opposite in all important decisions will allow you to weigh the pros/cons of a decision much more effectively.