In ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers’, Richard Kwiatkowski and I use the distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts ‘provocatively’. I sort of wish we had been more direct, because I have come to realise that:
- My attempts to communicate with sarcasm and facial gestures may only ever appeal to a niche audience, and
- even if you use the scare quotes – around a word like ‘irrational’ – to denote the word’s questionable use, it’s not always clear what I’m questioning, because
- you need to know the story behind someone’s discussion to know what they are questioning.*
So, here are some of the reference points I’m using when I tell a story about ‘irrationality’:
1. I’m often invited to be the type of guest speaker that challenges the audience, it is usually a scientific audience, and the topic is usually evidence based policymaking.
So, when I say ‘irrational’, I’m speaking to (some) scientists who think of themselves as rational and policymakers as irrational, and use this problematic distinction to complain about policy-based evidence, post-truth politics, and perhaps even the irrationality of voters for Brexit. Action based on this way of thinking would be counterproductive. In that context, I use the word ‘irrational’ as a way into some more nuanced discussions including:
- all humans combine cognition and emotion to make choices; and,
- emotions are one of many sources of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ that help us make some decisions very quickly and often very well.
In other words, it is silly to complain that some people are irrational, when we are all making choices this way, and such decision-making is often a good thing.
2. This focus on scientific rationality is part of a wider discussion of what counts as good evidence or valuable knowledge. Examples include:
- Policy debates on the value of bringing together many people with different knowledge claims – such as through user and practitioner experience – to ‘co-produce’ evidence.
- Wider debates on the ‘decolonization of knowledge’ in which narrow ‘Western’ scientific principles help exclude the voices of many populations by undermining their claims to knowledge.
3. A focus on rationality versus irrationality is still used to maintain sexist and racist caricatures or stereotypes, and therefore dismiss people based on a misrepresentation of their behaviour.
I thought that, by now, we’d be done with dismissing women as emotional or hysterical, but apparently not. Indeed, as some recent racist and sexist coverage of Serena Williams demonstrates, the idea that black women are not rational is still tolerated in mainstream discussion.
4. Part of the reason that we can only conclude that people combine cognition and emotion, without being able to separate their effects in a satisfying way, is that the distinction is problematic.
It is difficult to demonstrate empirically. It is also difficult to assign some behaviours to one camp or the other, such as when we consider moral reasoning based on values and logic.
To sum up, I’ve been using the rational/irrational distinction explicitly to make a simple point that is relevant to the study of politics and policymaking:
- All people use cognitive shortcuts to help them ignore almost all information about the world, to help them make decisions efficiently.
- If you don’t understand and act on this simple insight, you’ll waste your time by trying to argue someone into submission or giving them a 500-page irrelevant report when they are looking for one page written in a way that makes sense to them.
Most of the rest has been mostly implicit, and communicated non-verbally, which is great when you want to keep a presentation brief and light, but not if you want to acknowledge nuance and more serious issues.
*which is why I’m increasingly interested in Riker’s idea of heresthetics, in which the starting point of a story is crucial. We can come to very different conclusions about a problem and its solution by choosing different starting points, to accentuate one aspect of a problem and downplay another, even when our beliefs and preferences remain basically the same.