Rationality: The science of winning, Part III

This is part III of a series on the importance of rationality and applied rational decision-making (see part I, part II).

Why we have biases

We have biases because our brain-design dates back to the stone age. Our intuitive decision-making consists of shortcuts, heuristics, that led to successful gene-copying more often than not in our ancestral environment. If you had a true belief that differed from the cherished beliefs of your group, you were at risk of ostracism. Our belief-acquiring mechanisms were not selected for producing accurate beliefs, but for producing beliefs that paid rent in terms of reproductive success. Upon reflection, we would hopefully come up with different personal goals. This mismatch between the (metaphorical) goals of our genes and our personal (very real) goals is one reason for the existence of cognitive biases.

The other reason is that our environment has changed drastically, so that once goal-tracking shortcuts are now misleading. Our ancestors only ever lived in small groups, not in a globalized world where they could positively or negatively affect the lives of future generations or people living on other continents. Our intuitions fail to adequately keep track of large numbers, because brain size is limited and emotions cannot scale indefinitely; besides, up until very recently, we were never playing for stakes this high. Similarly, exponential processes or low-probability high impact scenarios are intuitively neglected as well, because the corresponding scenarios did not come up often enough in our evolutionary past.

Applying rationality to ethics

There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world. Unfortunately, our resources are limited. Time and money spent on one project is time and money that is missing elsewhere. If all lives count for the same, then it follows directly that numbers and cost-effectiveness matter. It pays to invest time and money into figuring out where resources can do the most.

For instance, in the domain of poverty reduction, scientific charity evaluators have found that charitable interventions differ in cost-effectiveness by orders of magnitude. And yet, the biggest concern in traditional giving seems to be how high a percentage of the donations go to the overhead of a charity, rather than directly to the people who need help. This measure seems completely irrelevant and is therefore certainly not goal-tracking.

Applying rational decision-making to ethical questions and charitable giving is what REG is about.

Doing the best we can

With our thinking being prone to biases, we are starting out in a suboptimal position. Nevertheless, this is no reason to be discouraged: For one thing, rationality is to a large extent learnable, much more than e.g. IQ. Furthermore, rationality is completely pragmatic. Despite having biases, shortcomings and personal weaknesses, it is about making the best of the situations we find ourselves in. Personality traits and skills matter because they influence the strategies that are open for pursuing a goal: When two people share the same goals, their strategies for pursuing them don’t necessarily have to be identical, but for each individual person, there will be one strategy that is better (or at worst equal) than the alternatives.

When we set our standards too high while trying to be more rational, we might fail and end up discouraged and less happy with our goals than before. It is therefore important to factor in personal limitations when it comes to our expectations to ourselves.