The Four Horsemen of Irrationality
The attainment of rationality lies beyond our ability.
Posted April 3, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- In his new book, Rationality, Steven Pinker explores what stands between us and the attainment of rationality.
- The lack of rationality is a crisis that must be addressed because it causes all manner of harm in the world.
- The Four Horsemen are unreflection, poor information ecology, tribalism, and moralism.
"What’s wrong with people?" – Steven Pinker (said while riffing on his bubbe).
"It’s not your fault." – Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to Will Hunting in the eponymous good movie.
In chapter ten of his Rationality, Steven Pinker (2021) provocatively asks, “What is wrong with people?” This is indeed the title of the chapter. Pinker, after reviewing a near dozen of systems and models of logic and probability and what they mean for rationality, resigned himself – almost with an audible sigh – to the question he figures motivated his readers to buy his book (see Krueger, 2022, for a full review of Rationality).
Rationality is a good book. In the beau ideal of it, the question of what is wrong with people, and how it can be fixed, would have been answered by the time we get to chapter 10. But it hasn’t. When Pinker muses that “if we could put something in the drinking water that would make everyone more open and reflective, the irrationality crisis would vanish” (p. 311), he is saying that a purely psychological approach cannot succeed. He goes on to consider policy-centered initiatives to mitigate that which is wrong with people. Out of necessity, it seems, the search for a cure has moved from the mental to the social.
Reading Pinker and other texts of this genre, we relive a familiar drama. Psychologists assess the mind and find it wanting. People should be rational, but they are not, or insufficiently so. The lack of rationality is a crisis that must be addressed because it causes all manner of harm in the world.
Educating people about rationality is difficult. Inasmuch as irrationality is, at least in part, attributed to hard-wired limitations of the mind, reaching a higher mind thanks to tutoring cannot, by definition, fully succeed. If pigs can’t fly because their nature does not allow it, training them is a waste and a folly (i.e., an irrationality on the trainer’s part).
Pinker senses this conundrum and looks for help from our institutions. “Let’s consider,” he writes, “a broad set of policies and norms that might strengthen the cognitive immune systems [?!] in ourselves and our culture” (p. 311). The drive soon loses steam. Pinker [like many of us] would have hoped that universities could play a role here, but many a campus has devolved into a “suffocating left-wing monoculture” (p. 312). In other words, institutions of learning have themselves become irrational if intellectual openness and the ability to reflect are the marks of rationality.
It is an odd rhetorical arc to diagnose and document a problem (irrationality), review its cognitive correlates (failure to reason logically), and then look for remedies outside of the mind (institutions). Why not go there straight away? Oh, right, the institutions disappoint too.
I admire Steven Pinker, his work in general, and this book in particular, but here we have an anti-climax that leaves both the author and the reader helpless. To ask “What is wrong with people” is a rhetorical flourish, which, as Pinker knows, attracts readers, but it is logically unsound. Much like the infamous query, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Pinker’s question begs itself. The revealed assumption is that there is something wrong with people and that psychologists should know how to fix it. If this is true, it must be shown. Pinker does not show it, hence failing on the standard of justified true belief.
If three’s the charm, I add one more example of where Pinker fails to take his own medicine. Besides dualism (the idea that mind and matter are distinct and can act independently) and essentialism (the idea that a [living] thing contains an unobservable and immutable core [e.g., a soul]), Pinker lists teleology (the idea that things happen for a reason [not a cause]), as a broad-band human belief that enables all manner of woo-woo thinking and irrationality. Yet, he asserts that “The arc of knowledge is a long one, and it bends toward rationality” (p. 309). Pinker has a teleological dream. He will, I venture, vigorously contest this suggestion, so I have to be moderate. Let’s just say Pinker's borrowed phrasing invites a teleological interpretation while leaving wiggle room for deniability (see Krueger, 2021, for a discussion of the adaptive utility of these three beliefs).
The Four Horsemen
As research on (ir)rationality is rich but inconclusive, let’s check in with the four horsemen. What stands between us and the attainment of rationality (+ virtue, + well-being)?
- Unreflection. This is the bulk of Pinker’s charge: there are failures of logical reasoning, ignorance of probability theory and experimental methods, and other critical-thinking what-have-yous. Our shoddy performance, as Pinker explains, is in large part a cultural artifact if it is indeed the case that people living in a state of adaptation to their environment – such as the Ju/’Hoansi Bushmen (i.e., the San) – are being rational in their world.
- Bad information. With social media, fake news, and the breakdown of information systems curated by experts, we find another source of irrationality that does not reside in the mind proper; rather, it exploits the natural features of mind. To fault the the mind for this is to blame the mouse for being stomped by the rhinoceros.
- Tribalism. This is the enfant terrible du jour among the masters of our misery (Forgas et al., 2021). Our minds, the story goes, are adapted to a Pleistocene world of gathering and hunting, a world in which maintaining a place in a close-knit and interdependent group was of utmost importance. Now we live in a complex and fluid world, and our stone-age minds search for tribal assurances that become ever more ephemeral. This might just be a Just So story. Its Achilles heel is that it is far from clear that among persistence hunters like the San [whom Pinker praises for their rationality], fear and loathing of the tribe across the river is a major psychological driving force.
- Moralism. The last horseman Pinker only hints at (e.g., when bemoaning collegiate asphyxia); he does not develop it. Moralism, the bastard child of morality, deals in absolutes and thereby shortcuts critical thinking (see 1.). It begets motivated, self-serving, and ingroup-serving thinking. Moralism offers the empty calories of feeling good about oneself while failing to do the hard work of thinking through the implications of one's judgments. Perhaps a book will come along to beat this horse and the man who rode in on it.
Nachklang [a reverberation after a tone has gone]
The master narrative on (ir)rationality in the psychological literature wobbles between pity and condemnation. Pinker and other recent authors have toned down the condemnation, pointing to the out-of-mind forces that conspire to trap us in woo-woo thinking and saddle us with weird beliefs. When judgment is completely gone, we can focus - like Spinoza - on the task to understand people.
Forgas, J. P., Crano, W. D., & Fiedler, K. 2021) (eds.). The social psychology of populism: The tribal challenge to liberal democracy. Taylor & Francis.
Krueger, J. I. (2021). Inborn ideas. American Journal of Psychology, 134, 122-124.
Krueger, J. I. (2022), January 19). Rationality now! Review of Steven Pinker's 'Rationality'. American Journal of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/wyc8q
Pinker, S. (2021). Rationality. Viking.