Smarter Than We Look, Part 2

Posted on 2012 October 8


Once again, scientists have found a way to demonstrate that humans are irrational. (They do seem to enjoy proving that, don’t they?) Except the irrational humans aren’t the ones the scientists point to.

What they did was give rhesus monkeys a choice between (1) a nice piece of fruit and (2) a nice piece of fruit plus a vegetable. Rhesus monkeys really love fruit and they sorta like vegetables. The monkeys chose the lone fruit over the combination plate. The scientists, unable to figure out why the monkeys would choose less rather than more, concluded that this was an irrational artifact of the primate brain’s propensity to take shortcuts when comparing the values of things.

The researchers cited an earlier study that showed people have the same propensity: a group of human test subjects “rated a 24-piece dinnerware set more highly than one with the same 24 pieces, plus 16 more pieces of which nine were broken.” The people wouldn’t take the extra set that had some breakage even though there were good items they could have salvaged. Apparently this is another example of how primates oversimplify — in this case, finding that the average quality of the double set’s contents is lower than the average of the single set and therefore rejecting it — thus making “irrational choices”.

You can almost hear the glee with which scientists announce how foolish the rest of us are. Obviously they aren’t subject to such irrational behavior, because they’re scientists and they know better, having thought up the experiment and carried it out.

But hold on a minute. How do the researchers know the test subjects were “averaging” the values of the options? They don’t. Nothing in the experiment indicates directly the thought processes involved. But apparently the PhDs can’t imagine anyone not taking extra stuff even if it’s kinda crappy. So the subjects must have been, I dunno, averaging. And, hey, that’s stupid! Ha-ha!

But there’s a perfectly good explanation makes much more sense. Let’s take a look.

First, the monkeys: If they fill up on the fruit they crave and keep the vegetable they barely want, they lock themselves into carrying that veggie around with them, using up energy and limiting freedom of motion. Worse, at some point they’ll have to set it down (if they can’t hide it) so they can do something with both hands, nervously guarding the veggie in case a less-well-fed monkey decides to move in for a quick snack. By day’s end the vegetable, having been handled so much, will be a squishy, disgusting mess. It’s all a pain, and for what? The veggie they didn’t really care about in the first place?

Now, for the humans: a 24-piece dinnerware set will provide for nearly all the dining needs of most people, but an additional set with broken pieces will require extra work to transport and sort, and they risk cutting themselves on the shards. Besides, who wants to present guests with the bonus plates when these might contain hidden cracks that show up during a meal? It’s too much trouble, especially when the good set is more than enough.

Now, I’m just one guy, but I test pretty normal, and I love getting freebies as much as the next person. When I learned about the research and wondered what I’d have done in each case, I knew at once that the option with the extras would be too much bother. Averaging never occurred to me. I had to re-read the article until I was sure I understood the “averaging” theory the scientists preferred, and it didn’t remind me at all of the way I’d thought about the problem.

Maybe these primates — human and monkey — displayed, not irrationality, but efficient thinking. Maybe it’s the scientists whose rationality was flawed.

Scientists, irrational? Pshaw! Except that seems to be the case here. The experiment may have been well designed and executed, and the results interesting, but the conclusion they drew — that we streamline our thinking and thereby introduce flaws — is rank speculation. Meanwhile, there’s at least one sensible alternative explanation (as I’ve suggested, above) that doesn’t invoke the bromide of human stupidity.

Why would scientists — whom we revere as exemplars of rationality — trip themselves up this way? I suggest three reasons:

1. Scientists don’t really dwell in the same world as the rest of us. They live in their labs, in their research, in their heads. Their workday companions include computers and machines that function with mathematical exactitude using logical protocols. Machines can be awesomely accurate, and I’m willing to bet that many scientists — in their heart of hearts — wish, like reverse Pinocchios, that they could be more perfectly mechanical and less imperfectly human. (I’m not a scientist, but at times I’ve wanted my thinking to have the precision of a machine. I suppose it’s the Sherlock Holmes wannabee in me.) But machines and computers and equations don’t have to suffer the consequences of their activity (well, aside from robots that defuse bombs), whereas humans — who descend from a billion-year chain of ruthless evolution — can get killed if they make the wrong choices. Perhaps, by now, our minds are careful and practical in ways yet unimagined by researchers and computer programmers.

2. Scientists think they’re smarter than the rest of us. We of the Western nations, and Americans in particular, suffer from the peculiar conceit that we’re each of us better than average at what we do. Of course, it’s not possible for an entire population to be above average, but we can get away with thinking we’re exceptional and our neighbors are the ones who are wrong about themselves. This is especially true of scientists, who have to be smart to begin with, and who attain high prestige along with their advance degrees, and who often think of themselves as an intellectual elite. Armed with such overweening self-confidence, they can get careless with their conclusions, especially the ones that make them look more intelligent than everyone else.

3. Scientists need grant money, and it’s tempting for them to dramatize their conclusions so as to catch the attention of donors. This is when over-interpreting the results comes in handy. In this case, they made a startling claim about the irrationality of the rest of us poor slobs. “Most humans are dumb in a particular way, and we can prove it!” That’s pretty dramatic! (Cue the sound of checkbooks flipping open.)

Having thus snarked the scientific community, let me cut them some slack. I’m a big fan of science — how else would I learn of an obscure rhesus monkey experiment? — and I strongly believe that the salvation of human society lies in scientific and technological innovation rather than political pie-slicing. Also, it is true that human thought is prone to errors of various sorts. Many of these flaws have been well documented. The topic is worth pursuing. And, yes, scientists probably are smarter than most of the rest of us.

But not all the time. Besides, thinking about thinking is difficult! It’s hard to reason clearly on the nature of reason itself. To do so creatively, we must make up the process on the fly. And that will generate mistakes as well as insights.

Mainly, though, there’s a slippery difference between observational data (“Rhesus monkeys prefer a piece of fruit to a piece of fruit and a veggie”) and the conclusions we might infer from the data (“Rhesus monkeys are ‘averaging’ their options and therefore behaving irrationally”). Experiments can be elegant and flawless, but, in the elation of success, researchers sometimes are tempted to jump to conclusions not supported by their beautiful results. It’s easy to skid from tight experimentation to loose opining. It’s easy for scientists to outsmart themselves.

In short, the researchers were right that some primates were being irrational. But it wasn’t the ones they studied.