23:17 Sat 16 Jun 2007. Updated: 01:18 17 Jun 2007
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I’m currently reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness, which is excellent, and which I’ll probably write more posts about once I’ve finished it. Right now, I find quite striking his approach to overcoming human irrationality: he assumes that overcoming it is near-impossible and so seeks instead to avoid triggering it.

For example, he writes about how status is extremely relative, such that a family with an income of about $500K/year who live on Park Avenue feel like complete losers because they associate with much wealthier people. He then notes that they could try to rationally overcome their feelings of status anxiety (by comparing themselves to the larger population), but that this is unlikely to be effective, and his suggestion is to move to a poorer neighborhood and associate with poorer people. The irrational status comparisons will continue, but now they’ll be more favorable.

That sounds obvious, but I don’t know if it really is. How many people make decisions like that, despite their unhappiness? Taleb’s admission that he is fundamentally irrational and needs to therefore take steps to avoid this irrationality id not a standard message, really. Most advice involves learning how to change, or attempting to be rational. I’m not giving up on the project of personal rationality, but I have to recognize that Taleb has a point.

We’re all wired with predispositions, biases, complexes, and so on, such that our ability to process reality, and to make decisions about what will make us happy, is questionable. If we know this, we should attempt to compensate for these biases, but not necessarily by trying to force ourselves into rationality for each decision—this is what Taleb considers impossible. Rather, we could try to construct a life that’s organized so as to avoid encountering those biases. How to do this in practical terms is difficult to figure out—but it’s a solvable problem, a problem that we can treat as a puzzle. Tabel uses the example of Oddyseus and the sirens: Oddyseus knows that he and his men will be unable to resist their song—even knowing that they must—and so has himself strapped to the mast and has his men fill their ears with wax. Taleb uses the wax-in-ears metaphor for describing how he strives to avoid certain situations that will make him irrational in one way or another.

It seems to me that while this idea is simple, it is also profound, although I don’t know if I can get that across properly. But the basic point is that you cannot be trusted to act rationally, and that you probably need to be tricked into doing so. Coming up with the right tricks is left as an exercise for the reader.

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2 Responses to “Earwax”

  1. Radegund Says:

    I love this idea of assuming one’s own irrationality and taking steps to avoid triggering it – sounds eminently sensible to me. The hard part would be figuring out how to short-circuit the function that says “but if you were really solving the problem you wouldn’t need to rely on these intellectual artifices”…

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Radegund: I’m quite familiar with that function! But its message is quite problematic, especially if one considers that we are intellectual artifices, at least in large part…

    And, of course, the key is not whether you’ve succeeded in addressing the “core problem”, but to what extent you’ve made your life better. Prometheus gave the gift of how to make fire, not the gift of how to not need fire, right?

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