Naomi Ellemers Ph.D.

Social Climates

Angry White Men

It's important not to dismiss instances of "irrational" behavior.

Posted Apr 14, 2019

People often do things for reasons that are difficult to fathom. In elections, voters sometimes support parties whose programs are largely unknown to them, as is shown in post-election interviews. Some even vote for politicians whose goals they don’t agree with, or are diametrically opposed to their own.  Who exactly is represented by social movements—such as the "yellow vests" in Europe—is unclear, as are the reasons for their discontent and the precise issues they want to see changed.

It may be tempting to hold these people up to ridicule by demonstrating that they are as unable to explain their own motivation as anyone else. But to say that they are ruled by general feelings of discontent or are just "angry white men" is not to take them seriously. It would be more constructive to ask where these feelings come from and exactly what they constitute. Is it sadness about old times past, or the fear of losing what has been achieved? Perhaps it is frustration brought about by unfulfilled ambitions, or worries about the prospects of future generations. Every single one of these feelings has its own particular cause and its own particular solution.

Rational choices

Many of us expect that human behavior can be explained from the so-called rational choice models used in economic theory. The supposition is that people carefully weigh the pros and cons of any decision in order to derive the greatest personal benefit from their choice. The theory is that an exact calculation of the financial and environmental cost of driving a car, for instance, can convince people to opt for traveling by train every once in a while. Rational choice models form the basis of most systems used for predicting, understanding and managing human behavior. We impose fines and step up controls to make people abide by the law. We promise promotions and bonuses to persuade staff to go the extra mile. And we come up with spending power predictions to make people feel better about their financial situation.

At the same time it is well known that economic models cannot really be relied on to predict human behavior. People do not always do what is in their best interest. They may be creatures of habit who get in the car every morning without thinking, or prefer to be on a fixed salary rather than chasing a fat but perhaps elusive bonus. Others choose not to think about the long-term effects of an unhealthy lifestyle—even if they know they should.

Marketeers know that unrealistic images have the power to seduce people to make choices that that are in some way harmful to them. Spin doctors and communications advisors know that presenting the exact same information in different ways garners different effects. And shop managers know that changing the position of a product in the shop—even for the same price—will affect sales. Where are the rational choices in that?

Examples of this type are often dismissed by calling them instances of "irrational behavior." But doing this prevents us from further considering why people behave the way they do. The word "irrational" suggests that there is no rhyme or reason to people’s motives and therefore there is no point in exploring them. A person who disregards the objective pros and cons of a decision must be unreasonable or prone to primitive urges. The model is fine, it’s people who are fallible. Bring on the algorithms and robots.

There are, however, ways of predicting and explaining human behavior with greater exactness. By combining economic models and knowledge about decision making and emotions from psychology, researchers have been able to make great inroads into this area. Work on the subject is being done in various disciplines, such as behavioral economics, economic psychology and neuroeconomics. The result of these toils have resulted in a number of Nobel prizes. Herbert Simon was honored for his work on bounded rationality, Daniel Kahneman for his study into the difference between thinking fast and thinking slow, George Akerlof for his insights regarding the importance of non-economic motives such as trust and identity, and Richard Thaler for explaining routine behaviour and nudging.

Adding psychological insights to economic behavioral models can help to clarify what defines "irrationality." They give us a better idea of when people can be expected to behave in an irrational way, and what the predictable effects are of certain experiences, emotions, identities, values and ideals. All these are elements that fall outside of the standard explanations and are therefore often dismissed as discontented underbelly rumblings.

But further exploration of these behavioral motives shows that emotions, group pressure and other social influences do not always lead to anger. In fact, they can have positive effects as well, for instance when workers become enthusiastic about their jobs, citizens bond together in their local community or generations stand in solidarity with each other. People who are angry can become motivated to rise above their own interests, to formulate common goals and find solutions together. This attention to feelings and ideals may seem ‘soft’ but the influence of ‘irrational’ motives is predictable and concrete, and can be measured to produce hard outcomes. So next time you wonder about people behaving irrationally, don’t dismiss them. Just ask a psychologist to help you understand what’s going on.