This isn’t about guns, but it is about everything, and since TTAG reviewers analyze and review everything related to guns, it seems valid to consider whether they’re doing useful work – or just confusing the issue. In We Are All Talk Radio Hosts, Jonah Lehrer challenges the usefulness of rational analysis. He starts off talking about strawberry jam – specifically, conflicting reviews of name-brand jams.
What happened? Wilson and Schooler argue that “thinking too much” about strawberry jam causes us to focus on all sorts of variables that don’t actually matter. Instead of just listening to our instinctive preferences, we start searching for reasons to prefer one jam over another. For example, we might notice that the Acme brand is particularly easy to spread, and so we’ll give it a high ranking, even if we don’t actually care about the spreadability of jam. Or we might notice that Knott’s Berry Farm has a chunky texture, which seems like a bad thing, even if we’ve never really thought about the texture of jam before. But having a chunky texture sounds like a plausible reason to dislike a jam, and so we revise our preferences to reflect this convoluted logic.
And it’s not just jam: Wilson and others have since demonstrated that the same effect can interfere with our choice of posters, jelly beans, cars, IKEA couches and apartments. We assume that more rational analysis leads to better choices but, in many instances, that assumption is exactly backwards.
Presumably, a reviewer could also get all caught up in the minutiae of a given gun design, disdaining the pattern of the grip while ignoring that he and other shooters instinctively find the gun easy to shoot.
The larger moral is that our metaphors for reasoning are all wrong. We like to believe that the gift of human reason lets us think like scientists, so that our conscious thoughts lead us closer to the truth. But here’s the paradox: all that reasoning and confabulation can often lead us astray, so that we end up knowing less about what jams/cars/jelly beans we actually prefer. So here’s my new metaphor for human reason: our rational faculty isn’t a scientist – it’s a talk radio host. That voice in your head spewing out eloquent reasons to do this or do that doesn’t actually know what’s going on, and it’s not particularly adept at getting you nearer to reality.
Instead, it only cares about finding reasons that sound good, even if the reasons are actually irrelevant or false. (Put another way, we’re not being rational – we’re rationalizing.)
While it’s easy to read these crazy blog comments and feel smug, secure in our own sober thinking, it’s also worth remembering that we’re all vulnerable to sloppy reasoning and the confirmation bias. Everybody has a blowhard inside them.
And this is why it’s so important to be aware of our cognitive limitations. Unless we take our innate flaws into account, the blessing of human reason can easily become a curse.