Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mistrusting Our Own Minds

The more we learn about psychology, the more irrational we seem. Consider the basic intellectual question, "Why do you believe that?" For any sophisticated problem, from whether string theory is good physics to whether the Mountain Goats are a good band, the real answer is going to have at best a minor component of rationality. Over the past 30 years I have been on a quest to purge my thinking on technical questions of my personal prejudices. I find, though, that I am constantly uncovering strong feelings, unmotivated by data, about what ought to be rational questions. On the other hand I have also been trying to stop pretending that my feelings about art are anything but irrational; you like the Mountain Goats, I don't, and that's pretty much all there is to say.

I was thinking about this because of this review of Michael Lewis' new book on Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two academics who have done a lot to uncover the irrational bases of human decision making. (My favorite piece of their work exposed how deep our habit is of telling stories to explain patterns that are really random.) Lewis writes of one of Tversky and Kahneman's followers,
He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.

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