Why Humans Are The Most Irrational Animals

Bence Nanay in iai:

It is easy to make fun of the Aristotelian idea that humans are rational animals. In fact, a bit too easy. Just look at the politicians we elect. Not so rational. Or look at all the well-demonstrated biases of decision-making, from confirmation bias to availability bias. Thinking of humans as deeply irrational has an illustrious history, from Francis Bacon through Nietzsche to Oscar Wilde, who, as so often, came up with the bon mot that sums it all up: “Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when he is called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason.”

My aim is to argue that humans are, in fact, not more rational, but less rational than other animals. Aristotle talked about rationality as the distinguishing feature of humans compared to other animals. I think we can use irrationality as a distinguishing feature. It’s not just that humans are irrational animals; humans are more irrational than any other animals. This is not a completely new line either, although the point has often been made merely as a provocative overstatement. In fact, according to the standard account of biases, irrationality (in the guise of biases) is explained by simpler cognitive mechanisms taking over. And these simpler mechanisms are exactly the ones we share with animals. So if human irrationality is explained by animal cognitive mechanisms, then humans will not come out as less rational than animals.

I have a different argument, one that focuses on the importance of imagination in our mental life. I argued here and here that imagination plays a crucial role in making most of our important decisions. Think back to some of the big decisions you have made over the years. Break up with your partner or not? Which college to choose? Go to grad school or not? Which job offer to take? Which house to bid on? And so on. My guess is that you made all of these decisions by imagining yourself in one of the two situations and then imagining yourself in the other and then comparing the two.

More here.

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