Identity, Reason, and other Lies

Your identity does not matter.

Last semester, a partner and I conducted a small-n study for a class project on talent and expertise. We examined a variety of factors and one of them was “identity,” or how one would verbally describe one’s self to oneself.


We found a perfect zero-correlation between self-description and achievement, and after we went back to the literature we found this to be supported by educational studies.


Practice, location, sacrifice, and interest all matter a lot. Identity doesn’t. In short, we found what Lieberman et al found: “self-reports of mental processes are notoriously unreliable” (682).

For years we have assumed that because we talk and write, thinking could be best understood in terms of talking and writing. With talking and writing comes reason, and thus we have put a premium on logical analysis and rational behavior. Yet as we have understood the modular nature of language, so we have learned that language (like every other module) is separate and distinct from the rest of the brain and the mind. Language can be important as well, but we increasingly see that placing faith in language and what comes with it (logic, rationality, etc) is no more wise than placing our main trust in our ability to detect cheaters, our innate sense of what is attractive, or any other instinct.

This has been accomplished in two main ways: evidence that human decision making is irrational (and not merely rational but often ignorant) and that irrational decision are often better than rational ones. Human thinking is irrational. It is true that “most citizens most of the time will be biased reasoners” (Lodge and Taber 1-2). Over the past few weeks we have read paper after paper demonstrating irrational behavior in controlled laboratory settings (Guth and Tietz, Smith, Smith et al, etc.) There is no need to rehash those details here.

A corollary is that rational thinking is a style of cognition that is unhuman, or at least maladaptive to humans. Indeed, Lieberman et al’s statement that “when novices must provide explicit reasons for their preferences, they tend to focus on features that are easily described in words rather than the features that contribute to their natural preferences. Indeed, novices later regretted their preferences if they had originally been required to express them linguistically” (685) is probably generalizable to experts, as well. That affect “is so useful that sometimes thinking too hard can lead to inferior choices” (Casmerer, Lowenstein, and Prelec 25) would be no surprise to military strategists such as Erwin Rommel, who describe the power of “fingertip feeling” in deciding what to do next. (Nearly identical advise is given by teachers before giving multiple choice test: trust where your fingertips want to go for an answer, don’t over think!)

“Standard economic models of human decision making (such as utility theory) have typically minimized or ignored the influence of emotions” (Sanfey et al 1755) and sadly these biases live on. Much of our research is of questionable value, as political science’s “reliance on introspection” (Morris et al 3)means that much research to date is of questionable value Indeed, they are so questionable that even methodologically questionable “bias” tests may be better (Bower). Lodge and Taber repeat the statement that “the self is the strongest node in the ]cognitive] network and that identity … and self-esteem are the strongest links in the network” (4) — a statement said without evidence.

Verbal ability – the linguistic component that feeds into IQ – was the foundation for Modernism and its belief in Progress and Rationality. The belief that human desires are calculable and that our words give us insight into our thinking created the High Authoritarianism, and all the other conceits of planners who wished to “redesign society from the top down using ‘scientific principles” (Pinker 170). This has created the systems of explicit rulesets we see everywhere, the outside controls which limit our freedoms. Yet we have learned from these research findings, and from new paradigms such as the Wary Cooperator Model, that humans are not only altruistic but willing to altruistically punish. So much of the verbalized, rational, top-down controls are unneeded, if humans are allowed to act naturally: to altruistically cooperate and altruistically punish free-riders.

The precise nature of what will come after Modernism is open to dispute. We can only know that its nature will be irrational, illogical, and impossible to describe.


One thought on “Identity, Reason, and other Lies”

  1. while i'm with you in anti-Modernism, are you welcoming irreason and illogic? because that, in my mind, would be going too far.

    i welcome the eviscertaing post-modern critique of Modernity. in many ways, in fact, PoMo is the logical conclusion of Modernity and shows its poverty. but PoMo spins off into complete subjectivity, which is not only practically useless, but false.

    we need a practical and rational balance of the objective and the subjective (i like to throw around 95/5, but that's just arbitrary). further, we need to find fresh ways of addressing the necessary place of authority, metaphysically and in human institutions. subjectivity, especially, becomes much more important in radical micro (eg quantum) and macro (eg relativity) situations.


  2. Sean,

    Perhaps my understanding of these terms is a bit too prejudiced by francophilic [1] and francophonic [2] intellectuals. Still, I think the important takeaway is that language and those things that come with it are not as valuable as we thought.

    Federalism is often vilified because it makes geography matter. “How does it make sense that whether you can marry, how you may work, or how long you live depend on where you live?” Indeed, under federalism the Union as a whole has no coherent social policy. While some other country may have a reasonable, well thought out left-of-center social policy, and yet another may have a reasonable, well thought out right-of-center social policy, we are left with fifty policies that all contradict each other.

    I would rather have our internal competition than their easily explainable laws.

    Perhaps then I am not so much arguing against reason per se, as against reason as a measure of things. In that case “federalism,” “limited government,” etc are reasonable, even if they lead to unreasonable things, because by preventing us from acting reasonably & coherently it prevents us from doing great harm.

    (It's interesting how reason leads us to limit the power of reason, and science leads us to limit the scope of scientific endeavour…)

    Ah, the joys of trying to backtrack from some fun, but overbroad, rhetoric… 🙂


  3. interesting, don't you think, that someone who posts so many words would extol the relative poverty of language 😉

    we c i2i on federalism 😉

    it's simply 'reason from what standpoint?' 'to what end?'. too smart is dumb.

    eg, imnsho, Calvinism is a Modernist theology that, sure takes certain premises (eg, the sovereignty of God) to their logical conclusions (eg, double presdestination). but those conclusions end up clashing with the source code itself (ie, the Bible). sometimes tension and paradox (though not contradiction) capture reality better than reason infinitely prosecuted.

    one of the greatest things about the Constitution is it achieves balances through the use of tension. in a way, you could say it pits the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches against each other; the States and the Federal government. or it balances them against one another. big problems and weaknesses, but it beats every other system.

    reason is not a world unto itself. it has to match up with the external data. external data is one of the reasonable limits (checks/balances) on reason.

    why do i hang online with so many guys who engage in exaggerative rhetoric? 😉

  4. Sean,

    My favorite linguistic attack on linguistic knowledge comes from C.S. Lewis's “That Hideous Strength” The protagonist, Mark Studdock, is a sociologist. I forget the exact passage, but there is a section that compares the sociological knowledge of workers with workers' knowledge of their own lives, the sociological knowledge of shop-owners with shop-owners' knowledge of their own lives. Lewis' point was not just that science is limited, but that verbal-linguistic description can never capture the true essence of anything. But that other ways can.

    Your comment about Calvinism reminds me of the Pope's recent speech. Whether or not Christ as Logos implies that all of logic should be included into Christianity is an interesting question. Of course, the speech has been notable for enitrely different reasons…

    I like your discussion of the beautiful “tension” in the Constitution. I also like the idea of contradictions that are not meant to be synthesized. I wonder how a Hegelian [2] would respond to that?….

    “why do i hang online with so many guys who engage in exaggerative rhetoric? ;-)”

    Because the alternative is superstition, fear and ignorance: the destruction of the civilization itself and inevitable dawn of a new dark age?

    heh 🙂


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