A Rationalist Responds to Godin’s Blog Post “Are You Rational?”

In his recent post Are You Rational?, Seth Godin makes a broad argument that nobody is rational all the time (true enough): that some decisions fall squarely within the domain of  rational methods (e.g., analyzing your Adwords click-thru rate) while other things are best approached irrationally: falling in love, appreciating music or wine, or generating ideas for new businesses and startups.  He goes on to say that “irrational passion is the key change agent of our economy.”  Simply put, he proposes that there are entire domains of human endeavor  that are better managed  with the  “gut” — a common belief and arguably a staple of American culture itself.

A great professor once told me, “If a good essay is one that’s fun to argue with, yours is a great essay.”  It’s in this spirit that I can’t resist offering a counterpoint to Godin.  My argument: that passion and irrationality are two different things.  Passion has place, but the time when it was OK to “go with your gut” is well behind us.

Godin asks us, “Were you rational when you fell in love? Did you do the math?”  This expresses a common sentiment, but the logical conclusion is that if  you don’t happen to know much about something, just assume there’s not much worth knowing about it.  Accept whatever you hear other people say.  Falling in love may seem irrational because much of the process is unconscious, but this doesn’t mean we should permit ourselves to throw our hands up in the air and say that science or rationality doesn’t have anything useful to contribute.  It’s particularly interesting that Godin happened to use falling in love as an example, considering that research suggests our choice of mate is probably the single most important decision many of us will ever make. My  own experience in the online dating industry has taught me, among other things, that we would all be happier if we DID do the math on mate value:

Even when it comes to something as “unquantifiable” as falling in love, everyone would be better off if they knew the following: psychologists and genetecists have shown that each of us is attracted to others possessing a specific set of genes, the major histocompatibility complex (MHC); and that mates with dissimilar genes are more attracted to each other, have more active sex lives, and produce healthier offspring.  Though scientists have yet to fully understand how we detect these genes in a potential mate, smell appears to play a significant role.  Now here’s the thing: hormonal contraceptives make women much more likely to choose mates with an incompatible set of genes.  That is, hormonal contraceptives make women more likely to choose a mate whom she’ll be less attracted to in the long term and with whom she’s less likely to have healthier children.

This is a big deal.  Clearly, doctors and educators should be advising women to consider avoiding hormonal contraceptives when choosing who to date.  Why aren’t we all taught this? Because those who teach us about the birds and the bees believe that love is simply something to be felt and experienced rather than something to be  understood.  It’s a terrible irony that if we knew more about MHC, we’d actually be more passionate.

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Godin continues: “Faith and beauty and a desire to change things can’t be easily quantified, and we can’t live without them.”  But it’s easy to determine how much information is worth, and social scientists and economists to a large extent make their living by figuring out how to measure things that aren’t easily or inexpensively measurable.  We can measure almost anything and I would point to some excellent resources such as Douglas Hubbard’s How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business or Eugene Webb’s Unobtrusive Measures to support that point.

This way of thinking — that some decisions best belong to the gut — is as pervasive in business as it is in personal matters. Which begs the question: Is there any times when we really should let irrationality prevail?  Here’s a quick list:

  1. You have no actual influence over the outcome, such as when calling a coin toss.
  2. The stakes are small, and you know the stakes are small because you are well-read on the topic.  See Freakonomics for examples of seemingly small-stakes decisions that have large impacts, such as naming your child.
  3. The situation is such that you’re “supposed to know” something immediately, and you believe your personal outcome will be maximized by “going with your gut.”  (Just a tip: Managers, don’t put people in this situation.)
  4. The cost of acquiring additional information exceeds the stakes at hand.  This situation is much rarer in business than is typically supposed.  In the personal domain, cognitive misership (that is, we’re just lazy) probably accounts for much of our failure to learn about the games we play before we blindly lose our shirts (or fall in love with the wrong person.)
  5. There is insufficient time to acquire additional information.  This situation is also much rarer in business than is typically claimed.

Godin concludes by saying, “The worst thing we can do is force one when we actually need the other.”  And I have to completely agree — we almost always need to know if there’s something we don’t know.

And here we come full circle: Why did I write this response?  Passion.

Thank you, Mr. Godin, for your all your observation and inspiration.

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