Skip main navigation

Talking Point and Summary: Week 3

We have thought about rationality and some of the reasons why we seem to depart from rationality, caused ultimately by the comparative, rather than
Hello, everyone, and welcome to week three of The Mind Is Flat roundup session. So Jess, what are the issues that we’ve been talking about this week? So the topic for this week was rationality, which I think, as with a lot of the terms in this course, is a word that has a lot of different associations and connotations, and different people might interpret in different ways. So perhaps we could just start off by you explaining what exactly you mean by rationality in the context of this course, and why it’s important. Yeah, so rationality is indeed a very overloaded term with lots and lots of slightly contradictory meanings.
From the point of view of this course, what rationality is about is essentially consistency. So, it’s not in itself irrational, for example, to buy large amounts of food and let it rot in your fridge. It seems like a strange thing to do. But it’s not in itself irrational if that’s consistent with some strange purpose you have. For example, if you’re wanting to create some kind of terrifying artwork, sort of damaging the… about the damage that the consumer society can create. But if you’re actually intending to save as much as possible and eat as well as possible, then it is starting to look like an irrational thing to do.
So the thought is that individual actions, or indeed individual beliefs or individual desires, aren’t themselves irrational. But they can be irrational when you put them together and think, hang on. These don’t fit together in a sensible way. If you wanted this and you wanted that, then why would you do this? And it’s that process of keeping everything coherent. And I guess it’s useful to clarify that there are different things that can be inconsistent, right? So you can have two beliefs that are inconsistent. You can believe, like, I want to eat as healthily as possible, but also believe, like, I want to eat chips all of the time. I mean, that’s not really a belief, that’s more a desire. But like…
or you can have beliefs and actions be inconsistent. So you can, like, believe I want to not… like, it’s bad for me to smoke. But then also, like, go and smoke because you want. So it’s good to clarify there are various different kinds of inconsistencies you might have. So one of the examples you gave at the beginning of course this week to kind of illustrate this sort of paradigm pace over rationality and consistency, is this idea of a money pump.
So the idea that if you have these inconsistent or circular preferences, someone else could come along and pump you for money by getting you to make these repeated trades where you, perhaps, pay money to swap options, but end up with the same thing because you’ve got these strange circular preferences. And the example that you gave was of someone trading hot chocolate and paying a little bit of money to have a slightly less expensive but slightly indistinguishably tasty hot chocolate. And I think it makes sense in abstract, but a lot of people thought well, like, I wouldn’t go and do that in practise. I would notice what’s going on.
So could you perhaps say a bit about why you think the idea of a money pump is actually important in real life? And perhaps in cases in real life where it might be a real problem? I mean, people might actually fall prey to this. Yes, so I think there are two things about that. The first is that it’s true that if you are actually doing some endless hot chocolate swapping, you’d think, this is a bit fishy. What’s going on here? And you’d probably stop. But that doesn’t mean that the preferences would still not be irrational.
And what the money pump is saying is that if you really held onto these preferences and went through with them, then you’d do something crazy. Now halfway through, you’d think, this is going wrong. This can’t be right. I’m stopping. And in some sense, then you’re giving up on some of your preferences, or at least not following them through. So you’re sort of violating original choices. And that’s exactly right. That’s what you should do. When you notice an irrationality, you should fix it. And we’re actually pretty good at doing that, in general. Exactly. We are always on the lookout for devious trickery. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have the irrationalities and inconsistencies… Exactly. If you had the irrationality…
…in the beginning …in the first place, we could fix them. And the other thought is that these things do occur a lot, particularly, for example, in financial markets. So if it is the case that I can buy grain or shares and then I can find someone who will swap some other thing for my grain or my shares, and I find someone else who will swap again and swap again in a little circle, then I will make lots of money. And there are people in the financial world who are continually looking out for opportunities like this. And often they’re known as arbitrary opportunities. They’re ways to make money.
Now of course, as soon as one of those get spotted, people pile in and close it pretty quickly. Because as soon as I realise I can do that swapping, then the prices tend to adjust themselves. People’s preferences tend to adjust themselves so that opportunity disappears, just like in the case of the hot chocolate. So as soon as the market realises, hang on, there’s free money here, then suddenly the free money disappears. But that’s a case of the market, as it were, recognising the irrationality and correcting it.
But still the basic logic that if there’s, as it were, if you have a set of preferences or beliefs or whatever, which is such that you’re going to hand money freely to somebody else, then you better change them. And as soon as you realise that’s what’s happening to you, you will. I mean, one thing, I think, one distinction there’s also to draw there with the financial markets example is that it’s not the case of you found one person who has these inconsistent preferences that you can repeatedly trade with, right? It’s like, the fact that overall, there were like 10 people who have different preferences.
And so there’s a kind of inconsistency in general that you can exploit, which makes it slightly different. That’s right. One other thing that I thought was that there are cases, perhaps, a little bit more subtle and complex than the case with the hot chocolate. Where you do actually have inconsistencies in one individual’s preferences rather than just across a bunch of different individuals. And one case that you discussed in the course this week was how one individual can have different preferences at different times, for things at different times in the future, and how that can create these kinds of inconsistencies and perhaps exploitation. Could you maybe say a little bit about that and how that works?
Yes, I think that’s a very important issue. Whenever, essentially, a sense of impatience or excessive focus on the present can get the better of us. So if you’re trying to sell me a cake when I’m on a diet, you may successfully sell me a cake. But of course, I may then regret eating it. And so, I might actually want to try to avoid going near your shop, in fact, to try to not fall into this inconsistency. If I was a completely consistent being, I’d think, oh, I’m on a diet. I can walk past as many cake shops as I like. That’s not a problem. Once I realise I’m potentially inconsistent, then I have to manage my behaviour very carefully.
Another example would be things like payday loans. Where if I’m thinking strategically, I might think, I really must be very, very careful about payday loans, because they can explode very quickly and I’ll be in trouble. But at an intuitive level, if you run out of money, then getting a payday loan looks like a good idea. So I think these tensions between our long term interests and our short term immediate interests often do cause us real problems in finance and in health, and in many other areas. Yeah, and I think in our lives in general. Most people can identify with the idea of procrastinating, right?
Like, if I were to take a long term view, I would write this essay or this report right now. But right now I feel like sitting in front of the TV and eating ice cream. And then you kind of do have this inconsistency amongst yourselves. Yes, so I suppose to finish with, one piece of advice, which all of us actually who knows the advice, still struggle to actually keep to. But still, one piece of advice we should try is to try to step out of one’s immediate situation and think, what would I wish I had done in five years? So if you’re thinking about the cake– Or even in two days. Or even in two days.
You don’t get too far. Or like an hour. Yeah, thinking, let me step out from my immediate feelings right now and imagine what I would prefer to do, and try and do that. Easier said than done. So, thank you very much everybody for your attention. And we’ll see you next time.
This week, we have thought about rationality and some of the reasons why we seem to depart from rationality, caused ultimately by the comparative, rather than absolute, focus of the brain.
In this video I talk with Jess about the common themes of the third week. Jess has also summarised the week’s themes here.
Next time, we will see how the fact that we can only compare and do not really know the absolute value of any quantity (size, money, risk, pain) can help explain some of the puzzling, and apparently irrational, peculiarities of human decision making.

Week 3 Experiment

This week’s experiment looks at how you weigh up risks and rewards.
Week 3 experiment
This experiment ran in 2013 and, now that the results have been processed, the website is no longer maintained, so may not be fully accessible or current and technical support is not available. Participants are encouraged to try the experiment in order to test this week’s theories in practice and see how their results compare with the overall findings. However, participation in the experiments is not essential to the learning outcomes of the course.

Talking Point

Before we move to Week 4 we’d be really interested to know how you’re finding the course this week, so please leave a comment or share some part of your experience so far in the discussion below:
  • Is there a situation or scenario you can imagine where a ‘money pump’ is not a good thing?
  • Is there anything happening in the news recently that you can relate to the ‘unstable trade-off’ from this week?
  • Do you agree with the implications I talk about when discussing the difference between £1,000,001 and £1,000,005?
On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 is a ‘believer’ and 1 is not) how much do you now subscribe to the idea of a ‘flat’ mind? It’ll be interesting to compare your answer here your previous weeks and see if anything has changed in either your understanding or appreciation of the idea or concept of a flat mind.
Don’t forget to contribute to the discussion by reviewing comments made by other learners, making sure you provide constructive feedback and commentary. You can also ‘like’ comments or follow other learners throughout the course.

Next Week

Next week we will focus on the puzzling fact that, while under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, we seem to make all kinds of horrible reasoning errors.
We will see how human intelligence, in dealing with the real world, far exceeds any artificial intelligence system we build. We will see one particularly interesting aspect of this contrast, by considering how our brains see the world in terms of stories.
This article is from the free online

The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education

  • 30% off Futurelearn Unlimited!