Is There Such A Thing As A Rational Person?

Originally published on Forbes.com 12/18/17.

The short answer is no.  The harder you try to be purely rational the less likely it is you’ll get there.  What people have is the capacity for rational thought.  This capacity exists on top (literally) of a large neurobiological apparatus that is driven by emotion.  And to complicate matters further, we all have the capacity for thought that doesn’t appear to be emotional but is far from rational— “fantastic thought” let’s call it. Finally, there’s a fourth factor that comes in to play which is neither thought nor emotion—I’ll borrow the term “self-state” from psychology.  This refers to underlying individual mental patterns of inherent personal reactivity to the environment. How much stimulation do you need?  What happens when you are tired?  When and how do you get over-loaded?  What leads to under-stimulation or boredom, and what effect does that have on your capacity to think?

As a leader, you are constantly making enormously consequential decisions.  If you can’t count on yourself to be rational (and you can’t) what can you do?  In each of us, there is an ongoing mental minuet where rational thinking, fantastic thinking, self-states and emotion dance with one another and exert mutual influence in ever increasing complexity. At any given moment, some of the thought and emotion is unconscious as well.

There is nothing to be gained by trying to eliminate emotion and fantastic thinking.  Even if it were possible, you wouldn’t want to.  They are the source of vision, motivation, energy and creativity.  When operating outside of our awareness, they are also the source of big errors in judgment.

 The cure is to practice, develop and keep developing self-knowledge.  When is my capacity for rational thought most likely to be overwhelmed by emotion?  What direction do I typically go when it is?  What fantastic thoughts do I hang on to?  How do these lead to specific emotions and/or interfere with rational decisions?  What are the various self-states I experience, what triggers them, and what happens to my thinking? In an earlier Forbes post, I wrote about practicing the capacity for self-awareness, the analytic process that leads to self-knowledge.

The idea of the rational human started to take hold in the 1600’s, thanks to the Scientific Revolution when, among other events, Newton defined the laws of gravity and Galileo promulgated Copernicus’ sun-centric vision of the heavens.

 In 1632, Rene Descartes gave birth to modern Western philosophy with his famous statement “I think therefore I am”, establishing that the capacity to doubt proves that there is a thinking entity—and this defined what it meant to be a person.  The scientific revolution gave birth to the 18th century Enlightenment also known as the Age of Reason.

Time went on and we all came to count on the idea that we humans had a refined capacity for rational thought. This despite the contribution from Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century, unearthing the very irrational and emotional unconscious mind as a prime motivator of human action.  Nevertheless, the preference for a rationalist theory of who we are persisted.

Famously, it led economists to develop the theory of “the rational market” where a rational consumer makes informed calculations about cost and benefit and arrives at a rational conclusion.  The idea of a rational market was exploded by the wave of observations generated by behavioral economists, who demonstrated that unconscious, non-rational cognitive biases played an enormous role in decision making.

The now well-known cognitive biases illuminated by behavioral economists are one type of fantastic thinking.  Let’s take the “gambler’s fallacy” as one example.  If I’ve flipped a coin five times and gotten heads each time, I’m sure I’m finally going to get tails on the sixth try, even though the probability remains 50/50.  These are automatic, more or less universal cognitive sets (fantastic thoughts), having nothing to do with emotion.  Another set of fantastic thoughts are highly personal.  They too seem devoid of emotion:  they are thoughts, not feelings.  But they are distorted thoughts, part of one’s personal narrative, forged in childhood and reinforced by later experiences.  “Everything I do has to be perfect. “I’m responsible for everything going right.” “Nobody gets it but me.” These non-rational thoughts are usually semi-conscious—lurking just below the surface of our thinking—and very powerful influencers on our overall thinking process.

A final word about self-states—those phenomena that are neither thought nor emotion but nevertheless strong determinants of our actions.  I pay a lot of attention to these when working with clients.  Restlessness, uncertainty, boredom, over-stimulation, under-stimulation, excitement, flatness—we each have different tolerances for these states and different needs to achieve internal equilibrium and optimal functioning. For example, I tend to get anxious when faced with uncertainty, but paradoxically always seek and need the excitement and stimulation of new ideas and projects.  One of my investor clients found it hard to hold a position because of innate restlessness.  An organizational leader wanted a new position but needed a familiar social group to feel confident.  A business owner selling the company he built from nothing thrives on the adrenaline rush of making critical decisions.  How could he take on a role that was less intensely stimulating and still feel vital and engaged?

Knowing how you personally integrate emotion, self-states, fantasies and rational thought on an ongoing basis leads to the best possible decision-making process.

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