Tag Archives: rationality


yesterday we went car shopping. after driving the sixth test car, in which we were quite interested, the salesperson made us a very tempting offer. we did the rational thing and retired for a family powwow to a nearby fast food place. after briefly going through the pros and cons of another car that was quite attractive, the decision to accept the offer came fast and unanimous.

then we finalized the deal, and the question of warranty insurance came up. my husband left the decision up to me. it had gotten dark outside, i was getting tired from a day of car shopping, and suddenly that decision, which was much less important, and involved much less money, suddenly began to wear on me. after 30 minutes of back and forth, we finally came to a decision on that one, too.

afterwards we went to an east indian restaurant. i hadn’t been to one for a while and chose to eat a bit more than i had planned.

(hold on, i’m going somewhere with this :))

before i went to bed, i realized that i hadn’t done any exercise yet. what to do, what to do? go for a

the fool, a tarot card

image by ark in time on flickr

walk, use the stationary bike, or dance downstairs in my studio? argh! i hadn’t been outside enough and the stationary bike would be really easy, and my studio is beautiful! then i decided to just quickly draw a tarot card and drew the fool. pretty clear image: the fool is on a hike. so i went for a walk.

what i found really interesting was that each step underscored what we know about decision making:

the first step, when we decided to buy the car, was very much carried out along the lines of rational decision making. we gathered all the information, didn’t get swayed by cute arguments (“it has heated seats and adjustable cup holders!”) and didn’t act without reflection.

and then decision fatigue started to set in. i started getting tired, my glucose level went down, and things started to slow down.

by the time i reached the east indian restaurant and one of my favourites, palak paneer (spicy spinach with fresh cheese curds), was particularly well cooked, ego depletion was in full force – all my rational “muscle” was used up, and my food choice was made by that little gremlin inside of me jumping up and down, slobbering with anticipation of devouring yet another tasty morsel.

it was the last situation that i found perhaps the most interesting. typically i consider myself a happy and vigorous decision maker (note to self: ask family how delusional i am with that assessment.) and yet, here i was like a deer in the headlight – quick, tell me with way to go! it looks like indecision is not as well researched as decision . but there was another level to it: i knew at some level that i did not want to choose any of the options. but because a) i want to see myself as someone who engages in at least moderate exercise and b) the option of not doing anything was VERY tempting, i could not add that forth option. instead i head to tell myself that “i don’t know what to do.” i knew EXACTLY what i wanted to do, which was nothing! having removed my favourite option, the next best thing i came up with is to shift the burden of decision to someone/something else. i wonder how often that happens?

by the way, the walk was lovely. the moon, still almost full, poured a magical light over the neighbourhood full of sparkling christmas lights.

questions, koans

sometimes asking the right questions is what turns a problem around. and often making the questions as precise as possible is a good thing. i’m going to take the liberty of using one of raul’s posts. he asked, “why can’t i sometimes help the people i love the most?”  (by the way – read it. it’s quite moving.)

maybe that was the right question. and i wonder, how else could this have been approached?  let’s take the word “sometimes”. when it’s important to indicate that something doesn’t happen all the time, it’s a great word. on the other hand, there are situations where “sometimes” obscures what’s going on. in that case, it might be a good idea to ask something like

“why can’t i help my loved ones who have cancer?”

the good thing about rewriting a question is that it helps us see it in a different light. looked at it this way, i start to wonder, is this really a question, or is it a – a sigh perhaps, a sigh phrased as a question …

what, though, if it really is a question? in that case i’d like to know what the questioner is trying to accomplish, what the exact knowledge is that he wants to gain. in this case, i imagine that raul wants to help his loved ones who have cancer. so we could end up with this question:

“how can i help my loved ones who have cancer?”

this is a question that can be answered much easier, and can lead to action.

there are other times, though, when taking this rational approach doesn’t go anywhere useful or satisfactory.

“why can’t i get over my negative feelings about my father?” is a question someone (let’s call her perl) asked the other day. turning this into “how can i get over my negative feelings about my father?” didn’t have any effect. it was a long-standing problem that just didn’t want to go away. “what will your life look like once you’ve gotten over it?” produced only a lukewarm discussion; it just didn’t resonate, the possibility seemed too far away. “do you want to get over it?” is a question i asked quietly – it didn’t seem appropriate to ask at that particular point. so we were at a stalemate.

then we let go of reason. all we wanted was find a question …

“why can’t i get over my father?”
“why can’t i get my father?”
“why can’t i get it?”
“why can’t i let go?”
“what’s it like to let go?”
“what’s ‘let go’?”
“what’s let, what’s go?”

when we arrived at the last question, perl started laughing. it was a loud, free, happy laugh.

“it’s a koan!” she said, “i found my koan!”

the question doesn’t make much sense. but then not being able to let go of her negative feelings about her father after all these years of therapy didn’t make much sense either.

a koan goes deeper. it pierces through the shield of rationality – an important shield, one we are in great need of, but it’s not the level at which most of our life takes place. “why can’t i get over my negative feelings about my father?” it’s a mystery. so we went to a place of mystery.

what will perl do with this koan?

i don’t know.

where does a koan go?


does this happen to you, too? once in a while you look at an obvious fact for the 1,285th time and all of a sudden, its profound truth hits you like a ton of bricks.

for the last few days, this profound truth was – well, let me say it this way:

humans are 60-70% water and 98-99% emotion.

as you can guess, this post is be mostly about emotion (i’ll leave the water to my good friend raul) although it is interesting to note that in some traditions, water is intimately connected with emotion – in most pagan traditions, for example, as well as in jungian thought.

freud spoke of the thin veneer of civilization, and boy, is it thin. even when we are rational (for example, in science). or maybe even then. how edgy we get when our thoughts/logic/rational arguments/fill-in-the-blanks are challenged! anger and fear arise, the stomach knots up, blood pressure rises, heartbeat increases and wham! we fight back. if we stay “rational”, our arguments will not be physically violent or replete with swearing; they will be well crafted and most likely laced with sarcasm, knowing we are right, an unwillingness (and inability) to hear the other and a frantic scrambling for hitting the other with more facts that prove our superiority.

the funny thing is that a truly rational response would be to reach out, to soften, to be curious. that is, assuming that one has in mind to have a true exchange between equals, which again would be a rational thing to do. we could define rational behaviour according to psychologist albert ellis as

acting, emoting and thinking in ways that are alternative-seeking, realistic, flexible and most importantly self- and social-helping and functional in helping humans in achieving their personal and social goals and desires

and somehow we find this incredibly difficult. currently i’m reading three books (you always have at least five books on the go, too, right?) that show just how deeply important emotion is to us. one is mark goulston’s just listen who keeps driving home the fact that in order to interact with people rationally, we need to make sure that they can actually hear us, without being prey to the “amygdala hijack”. the amygdala is part of our limbic brain (sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain) and initiates the fight or flight response. it compares incoming information (e.g. facial expressions, tone, body language, smells, etc.) with emotional memories. an amygdala hijack occurs when the amygdala decides that the information it has just processed threatens survival and hence any reaction needs to be fight, flight or freeze – and not be directed by the frontal cortex, which is the part that helps us act rationally (i.e. the amygdala “hijacks” decision making power from the frontal cortex). the amygdala will react similarly to the threat of being eaten threatened by the woolly mammoth and a perceived emotional attack.

the other book is daniel ariely’s predictably irrational. from the jacket cover:

not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day but we make the same types of mistakes … we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. we fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own.

fortunately, ariely proposes that

these misguided behaviours are neither random nor senseless. they’re systematic and predictable.

that’s good. it has such a – rational sound to it.

finally, a book i have been gnawing on for months now is made to stick – why some ideas survive and others die, by dan and chip heath. i’m “gnawing” not because it is hard to read – it decidedly is a joy to read – but because there is so much useful information in it. the main idea of the book is that in order to get a message through to an audience – students, for example – the last thing we need to do is inundate them with facts (which is something our rational brain likes to do). ideas that stick are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, contain a story, and appeal to our emotions.

they give an example of an appeal to help starving children in malawi, africa. one appeal provided very informative statistical bullet point to show reasons for giving; the other told of a little girl, and what the money would do to help her educate and provide her with medical care. not only did the story-based appeal result in donations over twice as high but also when potential donors were presented with both the story and the statistics, they still gave significantly less.

as i said, many of the points i made are pretty obvious. but do we really act on them? often, way too often, it seems that some irrational part of our brain tells us to keep hitting people over the head with too much rationality.

does that happen to you? how do you deal with it?