If We’re So Rational, How Come We Don’t Believe It?

From Australia’s news.com comes the story of how positive thinking can make things worse.   

REPEATING positive statements such as "I am a lovable person" or "I will succeed" makes some people feel worse about themselves instead of raising their self-esteem, a study says.

Positive self-statements make people who are already down on themselves feel worse rather than better, according to the study conducted by psychologists Joanne Wood and John Lee of the University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic of the University of New Brunswick.

For the study, the psychologists asked people with low self-esteem and people with high self-esteem to repeat the phrase: "I am a lovable person," and then measured participants’ moods and feelings about themselves. What they found is that individuals who started out with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement.

Hmm.  So much for mantras, affirmations, cognitive therapy and NLP?  Now now, don’t bother writing in, the research also says those things can work in the context of a larger program.  But that just means it’s a helluva job to change our beliefs, no matter how irrationally we got there.  The head is a weak instrument with which to heal the heart.  Syllogisms are powerful only in computer programs.

Dan Ariely’s excellent book Predictably Irrational  uses an opening story/example  involving a nursing practice to show how people behave irrationally. 

Curiously, when he explained the irrationality of the practice to the nurses themselves, they agreed about the irrationality.  And then kept on doing it.

In the “same only different” vein, we have Tim Harford’s Logic of Life.  An economist, his purpose is similar to Ariely’s—to show that apparently emotionally driven patterns in life actually demonstrate very rational behavior, meaning they make perfect sense when explained in terms of the pursuit of self-interest.

Harford has his own curious moment.  He shows how juvenile delinquents’ criminal behavior demonstrate rational decision-making based on the relative severity of juvenile vs. adult laws.  So much for adolescent impulsive crime, he says.  Higher penalties actually do deter criminals.  The data show it.

As Harford puts it, “the policy recommendations that emerged from…the theory and data are strikingly clear and precise…Unfortunately, politicians prefer simple ideological answers.”

Well, duh!

I think both these books are superb—great reads, and very insightful.  I’m not making a fundamental critique of them at all, I agree with them.  I’m just high-spotting a side moment in each book.

But what moments!  Here are two deservedly respected experts on the subject of how apparently irrational behavior actually makes sense.  Yet each of them is flummoxed when faced with people who nod their heads at the experts’ logic—and then proceed to completely ignore it!

Hey guys–aren’t those the folks you wrote the books about?  So–why are you flummoxed?  And where’s the explanation?

I think Ariely and Harford are quite right—as far as they go.  But I think there’s also something still out there, beyond explaining the perversely expressed logic of self-interest.

It’s the reason it takes a couple of generations to work out family neuroses. It’s the reason dieting is so hard, prejudice is so persistent, and why more people trusted Madoff than the IRS.

And it’s the reason mere affirmations can backfire.  Maturity comes upon us at the pace of molasses.  Change is a bitch.