What’s So Great about Being Rational?

The ancient Greeks lauded the idea of rational thinking (logos), and deemed thoughts and behaviours based on emotions as irrational and sources of false assumptions and statements.

Oh, if only thinking and emotion and behaviour could be so neatly tri-sected. If only the heart and body didn’t converse with the brain, and the brain with the different parts of itself. Of course, nowadays, we know a great deal more about those body/mind partnerships than did the ancient Greeks, and yet… that old idea of what is rational and irrational still holds a high place in our ethos.

Perhaps it’s time to redefine irrationality. Ron Ashkenas, a business consultant and well-known business author puts it this way: irrational thoughts and behaviour may be a result of adding our own meaning to a situation that may or may not be real.(1)
Have a look at the following psychological test and see if you agree.

Player X is given twenty dollars and then told to offer some of it to Player Y. By ‘some of it’, we mean 20% ($4.00) or less. Y can accept the low offer or reject it. If Y rejects it then neither player get any money.

The odd thing is that the Ys will most often reject the low offer even though it will mean both players will get nothing.

It seems irrational to turn even a low-ball offer down, doesn’t it? A kind of ‘cut off the nose to spite the face’ scenario. At least that’s the way it seemed to X – the holder of the money; s/he was willing to share some of it and surely must have thought Y would see that having some money was better than having none at all.

Some psychologists label Y’s turn-down as irrational and interpret it as an act of revenge against X’s low-ball offer. But given that we hold fast to and put great emphasis on the value of fairness in our society, perhaps Y’s action wasn’t born out of revenge, but instead is a silent message to X about the unfairness of the offer.

Rather than calling the turn-down irrational, it would seem Y’s action makes a great deal of sense when viewed from a broader lens – it was more important to Y to be fairly treated (or maybe even to be the standard-bearer for fairness) than it was to get some money.

Or consider the behaviour of people who have had someone close to them die. Is the outpouring of grief irrational and false, without considered thought? Or is it the reasonable thought of being without the loved one that prompts the grief, the keening, the feeling that an abyss has opened up? In other words, aren’t some things so hurtful, so devastating that the seeming irrational behaviour that sometimes follows might actually be the most sane and rational response?

This is not to say that outright irrationality or senselessness doesn’t exist – that people don’t add their own meaning to a situation that may or may not be real, in some situations causing them to stray so far from societal norms as to be dangerous and destructive. Get behind the wheel of your car and travel down any road during rush hour and you’ll find angry drivers doing plenty of irrational, dangerous things (and you might be one of them!). Or go into a restaurant and it won’t be hard to find the disgruntled patron who believes that because service was slower than they thought it should be (through no fault of the server) they’ve been disrespected and take it out on the wait staff. On a much more serious note, consider the mindset of a suicide bomber.

Perhaps attaching our own meaning to a situation comes from the belief that we are the target of an action… which is most often, not the case. But to call that meaning ‘illogical’ and therefore by default flawed, useless, and/or dangerous is to deny the myriad of circumstances over the years leading to that thinking.

The important takeaway is that there are valid reasons for the ways we think and behave and no matter how illogical they seem, if we dig deep enough, it all makes perfect sense.

1. Forbes article. How To Make Sense of Irrational Behaviour by Ron Ashkenas. July 23, 2012. Mr. Ashkenas also writes a weekly blog in Harvard Business Review and for Forbes.com.




  1. Good article, Peter. It brings to mind the “perceived choice” tool we used to teach. (Perhaps it is still taught). The underlying assumption is that, no matter how unreasonable the other person seems to me, he/she seems to him/herself to be acting perfectly sensibly. So, what does that person see as the consequences of saying Yes, and as the consequences of saying No?

    Continued success to you and your associates.


    1. Hi Joe,
      Once again thank you for compliment and your thoughtful comment. I hadn’t thought about our article that way, but indeed it does draw on the same principle of the “perceived choice” tool (and yes, we still use the tool. It has timeless wisdom embedded in it).
      Best wishes,

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