The Difference Between Rationalization and Rationality

Beyond Thinking Fast and Slow: Wanting, thinking and talking fast

Posted Jul 13, 2015

“Why do I keep doing these things for my future self? What has he ever done for me?”
Jack Cohen

“The instinct to survive is strong; the instinct to alleviate fear is stronger.”
Stephen Kull

Nobel Prize-Winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow heralds economics catching up with psychology on something we all recognize from personal experience.

Humans are not merely rational optimizers as economists have long assumed. We’re of two minds, one impulsive; the other deliberative. Thinking fast is following our gut desires impulsively; thinking slow is deciding deliberatively what would serve us best in the long term.

Distinguishing the two minds is a major breakthrough well worth celebrating, though perhaps with some embarrassment for economists (What took you guys so long to acknowledge the psychologically obvious?) The interplay of thinking fast and slow is spawning a passel of wonderful insights in economics and psychology and books for general readers on how to apply the insights to making better decisions. My favorite this week is Misbehaving, by one of Kahneman’s longtime colleagues.

I’ve long wondered whether we can train our fast-thinking guts to act more like our deliberative minds. That there are so many books explaining how to apply the insights suggests that there’s hope that we can, but Kahneman and others suggest that we shouldn’t be too optimistic. Kahneman admits that, even with all his expertise, his fast-thinking impulses don’t conform to his slow-thinking deliberation. Studies suggest that even the most highly trained behavioral economists still act on shortsighted impulse.

Still, I wonder if the difference between fast and slow thinking is perhaps two differences blurred in the research. One is about wants; the other is about thinking.

Fast wanting is appetite for immediate gratification; slow wanting is appetite for long-term gratification. Fast thinking is wanting a fast solution and so deliberating as little as possible; slow thinking is wanting a better solution through more thorough deliberation. It’s understandable that researchers might confuse fast and slow wanting and thinking. Wanting fast motivates thinking fast.

I think of the human condition as something like what aviators call “flying by instrument.” When visibility is low, pilots who have their “instrument licenses” are permitted to fly anyway, guided only by the cockpit’s internal gauges. In parallel, our internal gauges are our feelings, and we often fly by them.

A plane’s gauges are rarely mis-calibrated but our feelings can be way off. I want to make good decisions, but I gauge whether I have, by my feeling that I’ve made good decisions, a feeling I can get more readily through hubris than through deliberation. I want to be reasonable, but I gauge whether I am by the feeling that I’m reasonable, which I can get more readily through self-convincing rhetoric, than through careful reasoning.

I first started thinking about flying by instrument some 20 years ago when a friend once blurted, “I want to make a difference! I want to feel like I’m making a difference!” It occurred to me that these are two different things. Making a difference is hard. Feeling like we’re making a difference is easy so long as we can become “legends in our own minds.”

I was reminded of all this today when thinking about the difference between being rational and rationalizing. Both are efforts to sound logical, unbiased by personal appetite or stake. But rationalizing is just the sound, not the actual neutrality. It’s wanting fast and thinking fast dressed up to sound like Kahneman’s thinking slow to convince oneself that one doesn’t need to think slow. It’s what we mean by a “fast talker.”

All of this ties to what I call the Curiosity Paradox: Curiosity is motivated, and motivations tend to bias curiosity. Rarely when we say “I’m just curious” is curiosity all that drives us. It’s more like:

“I seek truth, but it better be encouraging.”

“Let the best idea win and it better the one I favor.”

“God, grant me one good reason for what I want to do.”

In other words, no matter how hard I pursue the truth, it will never catch me.