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.

2 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi Charlie,

    So, first, you say: "… But I think there’s also something still out there, beyond explaining the perversely expressed logic of self-interest." And then ask, "…And where’s the explanation?" And finish with: "…Maturity comes upon us at the pace of molasses.  Change is a bitch."

    So, here’s one perspective on why change is so hard.

    Visualize the ball return groove in a bowling alley.  Assume at one point it was flat and the ball was guided by  barriers (our childhood parents, primary caregivers, relatives, then teachers, clergy, etc., etc.)  on either side to reach the ball return destination. Over days, weeks, months and, maybe, years (depending on often that particular ball return path was used),  a groove began to develop and the "guides" could then be removed as the ball followed its own groove back.  See these  grooves as brain synapses, or neurons or cells, that represent "habitual ways" of doing, be-ing, and thinking (self-images, self-concepts, and other personal and world related assumptions, premises, expectations, worldviews, beliefs, etc.

    So, now with all the neuroscience research touting "brain plasticity," and popular books  showing how irrational we are in spite of our protestations to the contrary,  etc. most folks cannot or will not change.

    Doing the "work" required to first "sand-paper" down the original grooves and then create new grooves is just out of most people’s realm of ability and/or possibility. Why "recidivism" of a sort haunts most folks who want to make change in some par of  their life.

    In a word, they are "clinging."

    Most folks live in a "closed system" – a loyalty to our own internal reality –  that is resistant to change. We become in the present what we became in the past. In Buddhist terms, we are attached to this inner reality, constantly reconditioning to itself. The brain also continually generates this closed internal representation of our outer world. WE se it the same way, over and over again, even if , IN REALITY, the outer world is changing.  We are stuck in our "grooves." It’s survival for us to keep it the same. "I am this" and "my world is such-and-such."

    This is how we were as infants, then children, then as adolescents and now as adults. We are our earliest "grooves" even as adults.

    The good news is that this "stability" helped us survive and make sense of our world as infants and children. The bad news is that it locks us into seeing and reacting to our world and experiences in similar ways over time, i.e, we are hardwired to be resistant to change.

    The key to true and lasting change, from the perspective of some psychotherapists and Buddhists, for example is t open the closed system in such a way that I do not see myself as a calcified, reified structure but as a "process" –  often why many folks who do deep personal work say they are "works in progress," not as an "entity" or "thing" – no longer saying that "I am this" or "I am that" but see themselves simply as "being" sandpapering down the grooves, and loosening the hard, rigid identification with one’s self, i.e., "who I think I am" or "who I take myself to be."

    The important point here is that such change often cannot be done through the mind, i.e.,  cognitive efforts, alone. It needs to be processed through a conscious mind-body-spirit process. Why "positive thinking"-type efforts hardly ever produce true, lasting change and transformation over the long term. The mind alone cannot "open" a closed system.

    Think of the moment you wake up. That split moment. When perhaps you hear the birds communing, or notice the sky, or hear the rain, or really smell the coffee…that split moment before "thinking" kicks in. That’s the place where true change and transformation take place.  Once "thinking "begins, almost all (change) bets are off. That’s the place where we are an "open system." Here we are not conditioned by past experiences. We are completely present to our experience. No brain to interrupt, to interpret, to link our present moment to past experience.

    As soon as we allow this moment to be influenced by memory, conditioning, and past experience we  move right into the old "grooves" and are take over by past perceptions, judgments, thoughts, beliefs, etc. – back to the old ways of "I am this." "I am that." We futurize our past. Our history take over. Our present is experienced through our past.

    As soon as we begin thinking, then all the old feeling and emotional patterns related to our thoughts also arise. This process is mental, cellular, neuronal, emotional, psychological and physiological. Then, all the old patterns, urges, needs and desires arise.

    In a word, we cling. A clinging that reinforces our closes-system inner reality.  Our old, habitual self.

    Clinging is the basis of resistance to change. I need to prefer the "me" I know, to the "me" I don’t. So, in a way it is "self-interest." But a way that emanates from deep, deep down in our core. In every "new" situation’, we keep "re-birthing" our old, fixed self and in the process our familiar, protective ways of defending this old, familiar, resistant self also arise. This process is our "way of life."

    A process that leads one to a deeper awareness of these dynamics, a process that supports one to move into presence (where no identity with "grooves’ exist), where there is no need to defend, where there is no attachment to "I am this" or "I am that" is one way to change. Engaging in a conscious process of "being" fosters true shifts and change.

    The mind alone cannot foster such change and that’s one reason we read about "irrationality."  That’s the challenge. To move away from "things mental and rational" into "things spiritual" where we shift from identification with the proliferation with our conditioned self, to an attunement to our self as we are in that moment when we wake up, in that present-time experience,  before "I" (me) kicks in.

    True and lasting change is eminently do-able. But it takes time, consciousness, work, effort, steadfastness, courage, strength, will and lots of love and compassion for one’s self –  qualities that for many seem to be in very short supply.

    We can smooth out those ball return grooves – just not by 9:00 tomorrow morning – a sad realization for many in our microwave-oriented, Twitter-connected, 15-second sound-bite, immediate-gratification-necessary culture. So, what then is rational? Hmmm.


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