Growing up in a golden age of post-Western Culture, it has seemed both odd and fitting to me that our current everyday ways of thinking about human behavior depend so much on earlier models. The models I’m talking about are not the ones that necessarily come from the hallowed halls of academia (though some do), but the ones that everyday people use, the ones that children learn at their parents’ knees.
In other words, I am not planning on looking at the world of cutting edge science; we do not, by and large, live in that one. Instead I am speaking of the cultural truths that shape our lives and our decision-making. When we want to get at understanding people, we need to look at both the rational person and that underlying biological stratum.
For all that we believe in, or at least depend on, “science” and its answers, as I look around, I see that we are terribly dependent on pre-scientific ideas of the person in our everyday lives. Our ideas of people as “rational actors” or “inherently good” or “genetically predisposed” to various behaviors, are all things we have inherited from some part of Western Culture. Yet at the same time, we are not rational about these ideas at all.
It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing. But it is a conceit to think of ourselves as somehow beyond all that.
Living in Tension
Our spoken models of human behavior, the ones that we subscribe to in our everyday speech, and the ones we enshrine in our laws, policies, and business decisions, speak of people as rational products of 16th century enlightenment, 18th century political liberalism, and 19th century notions of progress. We tie these all together with 20th century ideas of modernization and globalization to become “modern” people.
Western culture is not simply a product of these new ideas, but something that ties back thousands of years to Medieval Europe, the Roman Empire, Classical Greece, Ancient Egypt, and the first cities in Babylonia.
But there is another side to being human. We are not just these cultural constructions, however ancient, but also messy biological animals. Our “selves” are not one or the other, but exist in a tension between these two positions—the rational thinker driven by choice and the often territorial, instinct-driven primate.
Rationality Is a Duck
One of the traditions that we have inherited from the Enlightenment is a rejection of the “animal” side of ourselves. We speak as if, by rejecting that half of ourselves, we can become somehow more “pure.” This is not as successful as we would like it to be. Instead, by forcing these parts of ourselves into hiding, we create a more complicated landscape where truths we have closed our eyes to shape our movements and inform our decisions.
As any advertiser knows, putting an attractive woman in the picture with a car makes it more appealing to a certain demographic. This is not rational, but it works.
When we try to analyze human behavior under the assumption that it is rational, and that we make choices for reasons, we trip ourselves up. Sure, I have reasons, and you have reasons, but in the end, when we look at aggregate patterns of human behavior they indicate that there are some things going on that have more to do with non-rational decision-making.