The Not-Quite-Rational Animal

The ancients called human beings the “rational animal,” meaning that the essence of being human, what distinguishes the human from all other living beings, is that we can think. They were only partly right. What they meant by rationality is illustrated by Plato’s famous analogy of the charioteer. The human psyche, he said, is like a charioteer guiding two horses, one ugly, wild and unruly, the other beautiful and noble but quite spirited. The unruly horse symbolizes our emotions and desires. The spirited horse symbolizes our urge to move, to be active, to get things done. The chariot itself is the body, and the charioteer is the rational faculty, our ability to think. The ideal way to live, Plato thought, is that the charioteer should command the horses, not the other way around. When we are ruled by our appetites and passions we get in trouble. When we are ruled by clear thinking, we make wise choices.

But Plato had an inadequate view of human psychology. Recent discoveries, based on brain research, experiment and on a model of thinking as a sort of computation, reveal that we have two modes of thinking. What Plato thought of as rationality is only one of them. Plato’s rationality is “cold cognition,” the kind of step-by-step reasoning that we use in working out a math problem, for instance, or reading a map to find the best route, or planning the architecture of a building. It requires careful attention to detail, remembering all the steps, and being able to retrace the moves from step to step to be sure we are right. But there is another kind of thinking, “hot cognition,” that comes into play far more often. It consists of very rapid judgments, hunches, and flashes of intuition. We do not pay attention to how we arrive at our intuitions, only to the intuitions themselves, if, indeed, we pay any attention to them at all.

Consider a quarterback about to pass the ball down field, trying to find a receiver while a bunch of big, angry guys from the other team are rushing at him. How does he decide where to throw the ball? Not by consciously evaluating all the options, working out the trajectories and probabilities, and then acting. No, he acts on a hunch, on what feels right.[1] What guides his action is emotion, a feeling of what is best, most appropriate, in the moment.

We may think of ourselves as rational, thoughtful creatures, but it is emotion, in the form of hot cognition, that most often drives our behavior. And in fact such emotion is a crucial component of cognition. People with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex lose much of their ability to feel emotion, even though their ability to reason is intact. You might expect that they would be models of Platonic rationality, acting solely on the basis of reasoned argument, but they don’t. Instead, they have trouble acting at all! They spend hours examining alternatives and are unable to make simple decisions or set goals.[2]

Hot cognition drives most of our judgments. “When you feel yourself drawn to a meal,” says researcher Jonathan Haidt, “a landscape or an attractive person, or repelled by a dead animal, [or] a bad song …, your orbitofrontal cortex is working hard to give you an emotional feeling of wanting to approach or get away.”[3]

So emotions are judgments, judgments that we rely on to get through life. They are vitally necessary. We could not get along without them.

But not all emotional judgments are accurate. We are hot-wired, for instance, to crave things that were scarce but vital for life for our distant ancestors but are harmful in excess, things such as fatty, sweet and salty foods. They were rare in the environment our hominid ancestors lived in, but junk food is plentiful nowadays, so many of us become obese and unhealthy because we can’t overcome our cravings. Another example: credit cards are a trap for many of us because buying something on credit provides immediate gratification without the corresponding sense of loss that we would have if we paid with cash. We find it difficult to choose a long-term gain (a smaller bill) over an immediate reward.

So does this mean Plato was right, that we need to cultivate our rationality in order to overcome blind emotion? Unfortunately, cold cognition isn’t perfect either. Our rationality often fails, We make a mistake in reasoning and get a wrong answer. We overlook some crucial variable and build something that doesn’t work. We misjudge our own abilities and talents and get in over our heads. We fall victim to what Buddhist psychology calls “afflictive emotions,”[4] which impair our ability to think clearly by making us react to a current situation as we did to an earlier, painful one. What worked in the past may not work in the present, but we feel bound to repeat blindly what we have always done in such a situation.

What’s needed is a way to notice when these things happen and take corrective action, and some way to recognize them and head them off before they happen. Fortunately, we are able to do that as well, and that ability, more than mere rationality, is what makes human beings unique.

Psychologists call it “metacognition.” We might call it “self-consciousness,” except that that term has connotations of embarrassment and social ineptitude. I like “second-order mentation,” the first order being our ability to think about the world around us and the second order being our ability to direct that advanced reasoning power toward ourselves. It takes two forms. One is thinking about what we have done and how we have reacted in the past, and planning how to act in the future. The other is being conscious of ourselves – our feelings, our actions, our thoughts – in the present moment, being able to notice these things as they happen.

We can find lots of information and advice to help us with the first mode, thinking about how we behave and react. Books are plentiful with titles like How We Decide, Why We Make Mistakes, Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain, and many others.

Information about the second mode, paying attention to our experience in the moment, is less plentiful, probably because it is harder to do. Reading about it only goes so far; it’s something you have to practice, to do, not just imagine. Much of our practical knowledge comes from the world’s wisdom traditions. The Buddhist technique of mindfulness, the Sufi practice of presence, the Christian exercise of contemplative prayer and no doubt many more are rich sources of practical know-how.

To live well, to fulfill the promise of our full humanity, we need to cultivate the ability to adopt a second-order point of view that encompasses not just the two horses of desire and volition, but the charioteer of reason as well. The ancient advice inscribed at Delphi is still the best: “Know thyself!”

  1. Lehrer, Jonah, How We Decide (New York: Mariner Books, 2009), pp. 1-8. ↩︎

  2. Haidt, Jonathan, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006), p. 12. ↩︎

  3. Idem. ↩︎

  4. Goleman, Daniel, Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. (New York: Bantam Books, 2003). ↩︎

How To Be An Excellent Human

Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life by Bill Beacham, Ph.D.

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