An Irrational Mind
I have been working on a theory over the past couple of years that humans are not really rational creatures.
Not other humans, certainly — probably no argument from you there. But I have tested this theory most consistently (and most uncomfortably) on myself. And the more I test it, the more it feels true. We do not operate on a fixed, rational framework. Rather, we are prone to rationalize our beliefs and behavior through our mental processes after we commit to them. We are very influenced by non-rational motivators and will find a way to make sense of them to ourselves, whatever they are.
I recognize this in how I will feel convinced in a strong belief about something, completely justified in my reasons for it. Then something changes, perhaps related but not necessarily, and I’m suddenly plopped on the other side of the argument.
This happened recently with my stance on owning a car. I live in the Bay Area. Driving in city traffic is hell. Parking is a nightmare. You can’t leave anything in the car when it’s parked. Your car is going to get dinged and broken into at some point. Then there’s gas and insurance and parking and street sweeping ticket fees. I sold my car in 2011 and haven’t looked back.
I saved a lot of money. I benefited from the exercise and enjoyed the intimate inspection of my world when getting around by foot or bicycle. I became familiar with bus routes and liked being part of the public transit system. (Shout out to AC Transit drivers!) I never had to worry about finding parking or my car getting damaged or stolen. Just eliminating that stress from my life was major. And I’ve read that it’s one of the best things an individual can do for the environment. I felt really good about it. I could go on about the virtues of being car-less, and I have.
Then we got hit with a plague, and I started doing some reflecting. One thing I had to acknowledge is that I was not getting enough time in nature. Who cares about trivial inconveniences with natural wonders just a car ride away?
While my car-less existence worked great for the cycle I was in with work, home, work, home… getting to a dang redwood grove required quite a bit of planning.
Beg/Borrow a friends car or rent one? Coordinate when and where. Go get it. (Re)Familiarize myself with driving it. Make sure nothing happened to it, especially if it’s a friend’s. Get it back in one piece. Get myself home.
It was involved enough that I only got into California’s exquisite nature a handful of times each year, more the exception than the norm. What good is living so close to the Pacific Ocean, the Yuba River or Joshua Tree if I never go?
Something core in me wanted… needed… a connection with the earth, and suddenly I had a very different set of priorities.
Long story short, I bought a car.
Over the course of a few weeks, I completely changed what was most important in my car-having thought process. I didn’t go for anything fancy, but it’s still a rather large purchase. I mean, it’s a car. It wasn’t an impulsive decisions exactly — I stand by my purchase after the fact. But it’s not a decision I was planning on making even 3 months ago. In fact, I still think all of my old reasons for not having a car are damn good.
Which is the rational stance? Neither? Both?
I have this experience of changing my mind often enough that I am now very suspect when thinking I’m “right” about anything. Although it doesn’t stop me from having strong beliefs and acting on them at times, I try to maintain enough space around them to be open to changing my view. It’s not a very common approach in our highly politicized world, but it’s a bit of a balm if you can swing it.
What I really like about letting myself and others be “irrational” is that it lets me dive a little deeper on the priorities and motivations for behavior and belief without judgment. It’s the difference between a book and a soundbite, listening to an orchestra play Beethoven vs. hearing it in the background of a commercial. It makes room for context and nuance and humanity. It makes me like people on a much deeper level, myself included.
It’s a little counter-intuitive that being irrational might mean being more thoughtful, but I see the concept of rationality as restrictive. Because we’re all operating in service of shifting priorities with incomplete information. We’re often ignorant of things we have no idea exist or are so entrenched in something we can hardly imagine other points of view.
If we can give others some grace that their beliefs and actions make sense based on how they conceive of their experiences, we might create a little space through a conversation. It’s at least a start, one that isn’t possible when we’re running around acting like little self-righteous deities.
So, I say, lean into this irrationality, embrace it. There is no “right” way.
It could be one thing that helps us make better decisions, and enjoy this insane experience of life, together.