Where reason fails

Staszek Krawczyk (Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw)


Rational thinking is neither as frequent nor as useful as it seems. Before I make my points for this argument, though, let's define "rational thinking". Roughly speaking, the term refers to those cognitive processes that involve abstract, conscious reasoning or decision-making with heavy use of prefrontal cortex. You think rationally when you are solving a puzzle, or deciding on a next move in a chess game, or perhaps reading this text with a critical touch. That kind of thinking is deemed highly valuable in our culture, and it is a major slight to call somebody "irrational".

But should it be?

Firstly, one funny thing about driving is the number of things you gradually stop realizing you are doing. When backing a car from a parking spot, you are likely to 1. have your left foot on one pedal, 2. have your right foot on another, 3. have your left hand on the driving wheel, 4. have your right hand on the gearbox, 5. be bending your head so that you can look through the rear glass, 6. be talking to a friend, 7. be listening to music. Needless to say, if you try to be aware of all that while driving, it will be an attempt at the Darwin Award to be reckoned with. And automatic things like that are what gets us through a bulk of what we do in life, from walking to reading.

Secondly, how much logic is there in the dress-code for a mass, or a university examination, or a job interview? Not much, really. In these contexts, the reason why we get distracted by shorts is that we get distracted by shorts. Or to put it another way, there are arbitary social conventions concerning what to wear for various occasions. You should not look for logical reasons behind these conventions since there are none. Dissecting the social life is a fine intellectual task but it should not lead you into temptation of criticizing the well-functioning social norms just because they are not consistent. Barely anything is.

Thirdly, if you were asked to prepare a short material on a recent flood for the evening's TV news, would you not seek out a suffering family and let them tell their story? We are all natural storytellers, after all. This has been recognized by Jerome Bruner, who suggested a fundamental difference between what he termed narrative and paradigmatic thinking. Whereas the former is concrete, metaphorical and has a temporal structure, the latter – necessary in such areas as science – is abstract and systematic, and thus much closer to what I call "rational". Narrative thinking focuses on a character who strives to overcome difficulties on the road to a goal. A thing to consider is that we all need this type of thought in our lives, if not to improve our understanding of other people's and our own intentions or needs, then for rhetorical reasons. A story is worth a thousand charts. So, why not get some training by finally starting that novel of yours?

To conclude, "rational" is not always the same as "adaptable". There are a lot of situations in which we are better off if we do not think too much. Of course, in some cases it is indeed advisable to reflect on what is going on… But if you have found any interest in this article, you hardly need to be reminded of that, do you?

Further reading

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