Saturday, July 31, 2010

People are massively irrational & loyalty, a form of irrationality

Loyalty from Philosophy Talk: The Blog - Jul 17, 2010 posted by Ken Taylor
Loyalty binds people together. Friendships, marriages, even nations are built on loyalty. Try imagining a person who has no loyalty whatsoever to anything or anyone. Such a person would be friendless, loveless, nationless. She would feel no devotion to any higher cause or principle – like truth or justice. She would not even be a fan of any sports team. A life like that would be empty, devoid of many of the things that make us fully human.

Of course, loyalties are not all created equal though. Loyalty to a sports team is a shallow form of loyalty. Loyalty to a nation can sometimes demand too much. Or think of the loyalty that some battered wives display to their abusive husbands. There’s a misplaced loyalty if there ever was one.

Loyalty goes hand in hand with trustworthiness. If you can’t trust your spouse not to beat you or cheat on you, then your spouse doesn’t deserve your loyalty. If you can’t trust your government not to send young men off to fight in fruitless, forlorn wars, then your government doesn’t deserve your loyalty.

That’s connected to something else. Earlier I said that loyalty unites and that’s a good thing. But loyalty also divides. And that’s a bad thing. For example, soldiers at war are driven to kill each other by their competing loyalties. Or think of a parent who lavishes more toys on his/her children than they really need, out of a sense of loyalty and devotion, while entirely ignoring the needs of poor, abused, malnourished children around the world. If he would just spend a little bit of his wealth elsewhere, he could do a tremendous amount of good. But his loyalty has blinded him to the needs of others.

Loyalties can also divide a person from herself. Loyalty and devotion to your family, for example, can pull in one direction, while loyalty to an employer can pull you in an entirely different direction. Managing such conflicting loyalties is no easy task.

You could think that you just have to decide. You have to decide where your highest loyalty lies. Do you most want to be a better parent or a better philosophy professor and radio host?

But it doesn’t seem quite right to me that choosing between conflicting loyalties is a brute decision, a matter of simply deciding for yourself to whom or what you owe the higher allegiance. There must be some principles -- some moral principles -- that tell you who and what you owe loyalty to and to what degree you owe loyalty. Such moral principles should help you resolve such conflicts on an objective moral basis.

Speaking of abstract moral principles, though, depending on your moral outlook, the very idea of loyalty can seem morally problematic. Take utilitarianism, for example. Its highest principle is that you should always act so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But it’s actually pretty hard to make sense of the very idea of loyalty if you are a utilitarian – at least if you are a crude act utilitarian.

To see why think about two people drowning. You’re in a boat and can save only one of them. One of them happens to be a Nobel Laureate who has discovered a cure for cancer. The other happens to be your spouse. Which one do you save?

The obvious answer to me is that I’d save my wife. But you’d have a hard time justifying that answer on utilitarian grounds. That’s because utilitarian morality has a hard time justifying giving the kind of special weight to one’s wife that loyalty demands. In deciding what to do, her well-being should count, to be sure, but no more, and no less, in your calculations than the well being of any arbitrary person.

That seems wrong to me. But I have to admit that I have hard time putting my finger on just why. My wife means a whole lot more to me than just any arbitrary other person. But does my loyalty and devotion really morally obligate or entitle me to give more weight to her well-being than to the well-being other people?

Consider a further test of just how much added moral weight loyalty endows my wife’s well being with. Suppose it was a matter of saving my wife, while letting two other people or three or four other people drown. Would I still be inclined to save her and let the others drown?

Here I feel something of a quandary – perhaps divided loyalties are tugging at me. On balance loyalty, and the special concern that goes with it, seem to me like very good things. But loyalty can be taken too far and can demand too much. And drawing the line is a tricky matter.

Clearly, we need some help sorting this all out. And luckily for us, help is on the way, in the form of our guest, poet and philosopher, Troy Jollimore. Troy has thought long and hard about loyalty, love, friendship and morality. So it should be a fun episode. If you’ve got the time, give a listen. Maybe even call in. 

As philosophers, I’m sure that John and I would like to believe that we make decisions in a perfectly rational way. Indeed, I’m sure that most people think of themselves as pretty rational decision makers. How would thoroughly rational decision making go? Well, first, you’d decide what things you want, and how much you really want them. Second, you’d survey your options for getting what you want. Third, you would assess the upside benefits and downside costs of each alternative. And last but certainly not least, you’d choose the alternative that has either the greatest upside or the least downside, depending on whether you were risk-averse or risk seeking. It’s pretty simple really.

Decades of psychological research has shown, thought, that although philosophers may be paragons of rationality -- ahem, ahen – in fact most people (and probably most philosophers too) are pretty irrational in their decision-making. People go wrong at every turn. We aren’t so good at figuring out what we want. Our preferences aren’t very stable or coherent. We’re bad at assessing risks and reward. You name it, when it comes to decision making, we’re bad at it.

Here’s a little game you can play with a partner that helps illustrate how irrational we can be. Let’s call it Sellers and Choosers. If you’re reading this alone and you want to play along, go get a partner now and let’s play the game together. I’ll be the referee. I’ve got two mugs – one for you, one for your partner. The mugs are exactly alike. I’m just going to flat out give you one of the mugs. (I can’t really do that over the internet just yet. But use your imagination and play along.) Anyway, the mug is yours to keep. It’s a really beautiful mug and very well made. Or, if you like, you can sell it. No doubt you’d be willing to sell the mug for the right price. So go ahead, write down the price at which you’d be willing to sell your lovely little mug.

Now as for your partner. I’m going to offer your partner a choice. I’m not going to flat out give her (or him) the identical mug. She or he has to choose. She has to choose between an identical mug and a sum of money. How much money, you ask? Well, I’ve written an amount of money on the bottom of the mug. She doesn’t get to see it. Instead what she has to do is write down an amount of money such that if she had a choice between the mug and the money, the choice between the two would be a wash. She gets the mug only if the price she writes down as a fair price for the mug is higher than price I’ve written on the bottom of the mug. 

You may be wondering going with this and what it has to do with irrational decision-making. Don’t worry, the punch line is about to come. Here’s the thing, suppose we run this little experiment thousands of times and put people in different roles – sometimes the role of Seller and sometimes in the role of a Chooser. You know what we find? Well we find that people in the role of the seller place a significantly higher price – like more than twice the price -- on the mug than people in the role of the chooser do. What that means is that if the mug is already yours (and you have to set a sell price) you’ll think it’s worth a lot more than a similar mug that isn’t yet yours (on which you have to place a “willing to purchase it” price.) 

One way to think of this is as an instance of loss aversion. You’ve got your precious mug in hand and you don’t want to lose it. It means a lot to you. And so you set a very high price on it. That is, people tend to value things they already have and might lose, much more highly than things they don’t have, but could get.

That seems pretty irrational, doesn’t it? Go back to what I was saying earlier about calculating upside benefits and downside costs. It looks like those calculations are highly skewed, depending on whether we’re talking about gains or losses. That doesn’t make any sense.

We’ve looked at just one tiny little example of apparent human irrationality. There are literally hundreds of experiments that demonstrate that people are massively irrational in the way we make decisions. And luckily for us, we’ve got one of the world’s leading investigators of human irrationality as our guest this week. Dan Ariely, author of the bestselling Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

By the way, Ariely has a follow up book out – The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. We’d love to have him back on the show to talk about the new book. This week’s episode, though, is less about the upside of irrationality than the downside. But I think one can get a glimmer of how irrationality might have an upside by considering last week’s topic – loyalty. From pure self-centered cost-benefit analysis, it can be hard to make sense of loyalty. You might even call loyalty a form of irrationality. But without loyalty (and trust) all kinds of relationships wouldn’t be possible. So if loyalty is a form of irrationality, it may be a darned good thing that we are irrational in that way. But that’s a topic for another show.

Update: March 30, 2016
Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo & The Mother.