Short term (ir)rationality: A post to celebrate the new year

Happy new year from all of us.

Normally at this time of year, or kicking around the last couple of weeks of December, there are two distinct kinds of thoughts that come up. One is a matter of taking stock over the past year (since the year seems the largest small amount of time as a unit of time). My RSS feeds were chock full of ‘a year in review’ of blog posts and soforth. I even got an email about the most popular posts and most hits on my blog. Funny enough its never the posts that I want to be the most read or that I think are most important thematically to this blog.

The other thought that often comes up this time of year is that with the novelty of having a new year, we see this as a time to engage in different behaviour and reflect on ourselves and actions to improve ourselves in some way. Christmas and New Year are often times where people say ‘never again’: never again to so much food, never again to so much alcohol or perhaps some embarrassing situation might have happened (I was witness to many last week, but not party to them, fortunately).

The constant mantra of ‘never again’ and the urge to improve oneself are both candidates of how people engage in a fallacy of placing long term plans on the basis of a short term feeling. The newness of the new year is a novelty, and any novelty of change gives one a temporary improvement in their mood and situation, eventually however their mood levels out and novelty becomes boredom and regularity. Many situations fit this bill: winning the lottery for instance, a new job or promotion. The temporary novelty of change makes one feel that their situation or mood has improved, conversely, a change that is negative can often create a sudden downward change in mood or motivation, but eventually one’s mood levels out and gets used to it (usually at least).

This is a common critique of utilitarianism: to seek out the highest good, or to seek out happiness as a moral goal is facile for this exact reason: to see out something that causes a boost in one’s mood temporarily eventually fades to normality and either we must reconstrue what we understand as happiness to something a little less emotional and putatively understood, or a hedonic utilitarian (qua of the Bentham kind) would be some bizarre agent who seeks thrills and short term happiness, who then finds the boredom of their initial goal lacking the foresight of knowing this psychological phenomena would happen so they would have to jump ship to a new goal. There’s a name for this kind of agent, I’ll leave her name undisclosed to preserve her shame.

This kind of agency lacks an understanding of the human condition. Seeking out such a feeling and having it substantiated by the novelness of the new or or the novelty of change is a feeling we so often forget. Like the ‘never again’, we so easily forget why we resolved to avoid some actions and distinctly go into them again. Some personal examples of my ‘never agains’ which I systematically forget to learn are:

  • I have motion sickness if I play too many first person shooters
  • Low quality chinese food is a recipe for disaster
  • Don’t order the duck soup
  • Never watch a horror film again

Many have philosophised about what I’d like to call the short term rationality, or perhaps I should call it short term irrationality. Perhaps I should define it. Short term rationality is a phenomena where one bases reasoning about actions based on the immediate affectation it has on the agent, under the presumption that this immediate feeling is the sole constituent of the experience or the process of the experience.

Here’s some examples. When I am really hungry, I often order or make too much food. What is best for my body and to satisfy hunger is usually less than what my immediate urge is to estimate my limit. In short, I always make too much, or order too much. Similarily, I seem to think that the immediate pleasure of the experience is the whole experience itself, and I overlook other aspects of the experience. When I am invited to a kill fest playing a first person shooter, I enjoy the repartee of insults between my friends, I enjoy the funny kills, and thrill of the match. What I don’t normally seem to remember are the facts that if I play for too long the high frame rate affects my constitution and I tend to feel unwell if I play too much, I normally in recent years have learned to know when I need to stop playing shooters (I haven’t learned this for RPGs which do not have high frame rates). Often it is said that pregnancy is a similar issue. With the pain of childbirth quickly forgotten by the woman (many women often report not having a memory of the final moments, to the disdain of their partners and midwifery staff).

What I find interesting is the amount of interdisciplinary interest in this short termism of rationality. Philosophers have often spoken of this in context of mind. But what about in terms of reasoning. There are many interesting formal models of reasoning in contemporary philosophy: there is decision theoretic oriented approaches which try to consider non-co-operative models of discerning beliefs and deciding actions; there are agent co-operative/agent competitive approaches in the guise of Game theoretic notions of rationality; then you have similar to decision theory a bayesian probabilistic set of approaches. Notions of rationality are interesting for so many reasons, the applications are astounding, from international banking, deciding actions in social situations and non-human interactions. There are normative and descriptive things to be said of rationality.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that led me to think about this is a conversation with a friend who is a microbiology researcher. My microbiologist friend works on bacteria and some of his work involves communication on the prokaryote (sic) level. When we look at organisms, we can see a narrative of co-operation and competition through the lens of natural selection. To what extent, he asks, is it that we have the power to understand our environment and its conditions, in deciding to further our long term interests? Be it the survival of our kin, or defending or resources or determining the availability of these resources.

I answered jokingly to this thought and said: this is very much the human condition

My friend corrected me and said: no, this is the condition that all life faces.

Happy new year, and if you are considering making any new years resolutions, consider the phenomena of short term (ir)rationality and think of the lines of Jason Statham’s character Frank Martin from the Transporter film series:

Rule 4: Never make a promise you can’t keep


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