Why *I* fail to act rationally

There is a lot of talk here about so­phis­ti­cated ra­tio­nal­ity failures—prim­ing, over­con­fi­dence, etc. etc. There is much less talk about what I think is the more com­mon rea­son for peo­ple failing to act ra­tio­nally in the real world—some­thing that I think most peo­ple out­side this com­mu­nity would agree is the most com­mon ra­tio­nal­ity failure mode—act­ing emo­tion­ally (pjeby has just be­gun to dis­cuss this, but I don’t think it’s the main thrust of his post...).

While there can be sound evolu­tion­ary rea­sons for hav­ing emo­tions (the thirst for re­venge as a Dooms­day Ma­chine be­ing the eas­iest to un­der­stand), and while we cer­tainly don’t want to suc­cumb to the fal­lacy that ra­tio­nal­ists are emo­tion­less Spock-clones. I think over­com­ing (or at least be­ing able to con­trol) emo­tions would, for most peo­ple, be a more im­por­tant first step to act­ing ra­tio­nally than over­com­ing bi­ases.

If I could avoid say­ing things I’ll re­gret later when an­gry, avoid putting down col­leagues through jeal­ousy, avoid pro­cras­ti­nat­ing be­cause of laz­i­ness and avoid re­fus­ing to make cor­rect de­ci­sions be­cause of fear, I think this would do a lot more to make me into a win­ner than if I could figure out how to cor­rectly cal­ibrate my be­liefs about trivia ques­tions, or even get rid of my un­wanted Im­plicit As­so­ci­a­tions.

So the ques­tion—do we have good tech­niques for pre­vent­ing our emo­tions from mak­ing bad de­ci­sions for us? Some­thing as sim­ple as “count to ten be­fore you say any­thing when an­gry” is use­ful if it works. Some­thing as so­phis­ti­cated as “be­come a Zen Master” is prob­a­bly unattain­able, but might at least point us in the right di­rec­tion—and then there’s ev­ery­thing in be­tween.