You’re so irrational

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

[[ My thanks to Natalie Sidner for editing this essay. All names in this essay have been changed. ]]

While it might be admirable to aspire to be as rational as possible, what I’ve noticed, over and over again, is that people overestimate how rational they are. Or they imagine themselves to be objective and unemotional, when in fact their behavior is driven by strong emotions. The accusation “You’re emotional, I’m objective” tends to be a manipulative power play. I notice this especially in the tech industry, where the ideal of rationalism has become a bit of a fad. People irrationally insist on how rational they are. I’ve also seen people lose their temper and rage at someone, yet they accuse that other person of being unhinged. It’s a common power move. Apparently it’s best to throw the first accusation, if only to keep the other person on defense.

I’ll share three anecdotes from personal situations. But I also suspect these patterns of interaction have toxic effects at work, so I’ll talk about the wider implications at the end.

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Where I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, Mike was the best Ruby On Rails computer programmer I knew. A bit overweight, and very loud, he was a major presence anywhere he went. He was known for aggressive opinions:

“Shaquille O Neal was a better basketball player than Michael Jordan. He just was. If you don’t get that, you’re stupid.”

“Heineken is what beer is supposed to be like. It just is. If you don’t get that, you’re stupid.”

“Jimmy Page is a better guitarist than Keith Richards. He just is. If you don’t get that, you’re stupid.”

How much of this was sincere versus how much was performance? I don’t know. Some kids grow up heavy, and other kids pick on them, and so they learn the art of verbal combat at a young age.

Despite his talent, he could be difficult to work with, so I avoided projects where he was a central player. But he had a great reputation, and sometimes I was hired by a client who was already working with him.

Independently, my business partner and I had hired a graphic designer named Cassie for various projects. When we needed a strong design voice, she delivered. Unique, humorous, and international, she could bring varied aesthetics to different projects, depending on what was needed. Even after I’d moved to New York, I still brought Cassie in on projects that needed to dazzle.

Later I learned there was some kind of problem between her and Mike. Quick synopsis: Mike had a friend named Ant, Ant and Shauna were brother and sister, and Shauna was friends with Cassie. I’d guess they were all in their mid-20s when I first met them, although the conversation I’m thinking of happened several years later. This was just after I was called in to do some go-to-market work on a project where Mike had been the lead developer.

I had been invited by a friend of mine to have breakfast at a great little place called La Taza, but I misunderstood the time and arrived an hour early. Mike was there with two friends. The sun was blazing, and we all sat at tables on the patio outside. Eventually Mike’s friends left. It would have been odd not to acknowledge him so I went over and said hello.

“Lawrence!”

He shouted this.

“Lawrence, have a seat!” His exaggerated greeting took me by surprise. Either he was very happy to see me, or this was part of his pattern of performing.

“Hello,” I said.

He repeated himself. “Have a seat!”

I sat down. After a taking a second to figure out what to say to him, I decided on, “I’m excited to ramp up on this project.”

“Yeah, it’s going to be great, man, really great. We are so happy to get your help!” His grin was large and sort of plastered. I don’t mean drunk. I mean rigid like plaster. Exaggerated. Like he was acting.

I cleared my throat. “Hey, listen, the whole thing needs some serious design work. I told the investors they should pull in Cassie to help.”

His grin fell. “Ugh. Cassie is disgusting.”

“Hey, man, can you chill out with that bit?”

He inhaled deeply and exhaled dramatically. Then he put his hand on his chest, to emphasize his role in the situation. “I simply want to help you by offering my professional opinion of her professional capacities.”

I defended her quite openly. “I’ve worked with her. I liked the work she did.”

“She’s a crazy.” Note that he used the word as a noun, not an adjective. “You work with her much, you’re gonna realize. She’s a head case.”

“Don’t bring a personal fight into the workspace.”

“Why do you say personal?” He acted a bit shocked. “I didn’t say it was personal.”

“You talk like it’s personal. Nobody talks the way you talk, unless it’s personal.”

“Did SHE tell you this was personal?”

She hadn’t. But I liked the idea of him thinking that she had. So I simply said, “I’d prefer not to answer that.”

Mike now crossed his arms in front of him. “Yeah, I can imagine what she said. Did she tell you she stuck me in the friend-zone for years and made fun of me?”

“Mike, the friend-zone doesn’t exist. What does exist is men who are cowards. If you’re interested in a woman then you should ask her out. If a guy doesn’t ask a woman out, then he’s putting himself in limbo. The woman doesn’t have the power to put him there.”

“Oh, man, you don’t get it.” He shook his head, like the motion you make when you think someone’s a complete idiot. “She must have spun you around sideways. I’m not a coward. I did ask her out.”

“Oh? What did she say?”

“A bunch of bullshit. If you know her long enough, you’ll realize 99% of what she says is bullshit. She’s not a sane person. She’s irrational in some serious ways, man.”

I offered a counter-argument. “If a guy asks a woman out and she tells him to get lost, and then he keeps fixating on her, he’s not in the friend-zone. He’s in the creep-zone. There is nothing friendly about it.”

He tried diverting the subject a little. “Was she honest enough to tell you that she still hangs out with Shauna? Or did she lie about that too?”

“Um, isn’t she a long-time friend of Shauna? Why would she have to lie about that?”

“Yeah, she is, but she knows I hang out with Ant. And then she gives me the evil eye, when the four of us are all together.”

“You don’t seem over her.”

“She knows how I felt.”

“How long ago?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Does matter. A guy asks a woman out and she says get lost, and he doesn’t want to get lost? That’s bad enough. But a year or two later? That serious creep-zone.”

“I’m friends with Ant.” He seemed somewhat defiant at this point. “She doesn’t get to dictate who I hang out with.”

“What matters is how you act towards Cassie when you hang out with Ant.”

“She doesn’t get to dictate who I hang out with,” he repeated.

“Okay, but she has the right to hang out with her friend.”

“Whatever. I dunno, I mean, is that a sane thing to do? She doesn’t want to see me, so she hangs out with us? How does that make sense?

I sighed briefly. “It shouldn’t be a big deal for her to see you. You’re a guy who asked her out years ago and she said no. You get that it’s weird if that’s a big deal?

“She doesn’t get to dictate my emotions. I feel whatever I feel. If she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t have to hang out with us.”

“You don’t see this as a problem?” I felt like I was being a shrink. Like I should be charging him for my time.

“I don’t have a problem.”

“You seem hung up on something minor that happened years ago.”

“I’m not hung up on it. I’m just saying, she doesn’t get to give me trouble.”

“Is she really giving you trouble though? I mean, she’s never talked to me about you. Ever. But I mention her to you one single time, and suddenly you feel the need to criticize her.”

“She doesn’t get to dictate who I hang out with! If she doesn’t want to see me, she doesn’t need to hang around us. But she does! I’m telling you, she’s a crazy.”

We went around the same theme a few more times, with minor variations — but he wouldn’t concede, nor even budge a little on any of the basic points. He was a guy who asked a girl out, years ago, she said no, and he was still bitter about it, years later. And in his version of reality, she was the crazy one.

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I knew Bob from national competitions in high school. As teenagers, we were good friends. In our early 20s, we hitchhiked around the country. We were reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as well as essays by the great philosophers like Plato and Kant. We would meet in cities like Chapel Hill or Boston, or at an apple orchard in New Hampshire where we both picked apples to make some quick money. Long discussions followed of politics, money, the economy, food, women, and the relationship of humans to nature.

By our mid-20s we had grown apart. There was a rigidness in his thought that I found dull. He claimed that he made all the important decisions in his life via careful rational processes, but I felt he was oblivious to the variables he left out of his models, and therefore his whole rational effort was just a silly game — somewhere between pointless and self-injuring.

Years later we were both living in Virginia. For a while I rented a room from my friend Fiona. She’d gone through a long stretch when she was drinking too much alcohol; then she joined a 12-Step program and she stopped drinking. For her, exercise took the place of drinking. I was fit, but she could run circles around me. She ran 75 kilometers a week. To my surprise, she had already met Bob, primarily because he was into running as well. They started dating, and after I moved to New York City, I heard via the grapevine that they had fallen in love and gotten married.

Bob had a little baggage (don’t we all). Back when he was 19 years old, he had attended a party in Ocean City. Long story short, he fathered a child — but didn’t know about it until over a decade later. The child’s mother, after 12 full years, finally wrote to Bob and told him the big news.

A few years later, when the boy was 16, the woman said she could no longer handle him. And so, despite already having three children of their own, Fiona and Bob opened their home to a fourth.

In college, Bob had studied science and learned VisualBasic 6 to run the software simulations that school required of him. We had both experimented with different careers during our 20s, but by age 30 both of us had become computer programmers. He mostly worked with science labs.

I lost touch with Fiona and Bob, but remained close to our mutual friend Silk, who told me they were having some terrible fights. Apparently, when Fiona spoke, Bob would take notes. This stemmed from the fact that they had starting seeing a marriage counselor, who said, “You must not speak over each other. You must give each other the time to complete your sentences.” Bob adapted to this edict by writing down his ripostes, instead of shouting them. I could imagine him smirking at each crime she committed against rational thought, and jotting down the essence of his reply, which he then delivered as soon as she was done talking.

A few years ago, we were invited by a mutual friend to a birthday party. Fiona stayed home with the kids. At some point Bob and I were alone in the backyard. Our conversation went as follows.

“So, how are things going?” I broke the ice.

Bob began the conversation very upbeat. “Great. Really great. I’ve got more work than I can handle.”

“Cool. Do you still work with VisualBasic?” Since we were both computer programmers, this was the most natural thing to talk about.

“Sometimes. One of my old clients still has a huge base of code. We’ve been transitioning to C#, but we spent many years working with VB, so it’ll take a long time to convert all that to newer languages.”

“All Microsoft?”

“Yes, it’s a scientific lab, and all the machines assume Windows.”

“You enjoy it?” I casually asked.

“The work’s good. Fiona complains about the hours, though. I try to get her to be realistic about our budget.”

We had know each other more than 20 years, so I spoke informally: “You must make good money …?”

“Yes, but, you know, we’ve got a house, two cars and a pickup truck, a motorcycle, a boat, four children, three of the children take private music lessons, one has a tutor to help with reading, and Fiona likes to for us to travel.” He rolled his eyes a little. Clearly a sensitive subject.

“It adds up,” I consoled.

“It adds up really fast, to a really big number. And Fiona doesn’t seem to get that. She’s constantly on my case about the hours I work. And I’m like, ‘Hey, you want this life? Let’s be rational. Let’s sit down and add this up on a piece of paper. Let’s specify what you really want. And then we can optimize for that.’ But no, that never happens.”

“Why doesn’t that happen?”

“You know the old adage about romance, how opposites attract? I think maybe that’s us. I’m rational and she’s irrational. I’ve been trying to teach her to be more rational in her approach, but she just gets angry.”

I chuckled. “Well, I mean, come on. She might get just a tiny little bit angry if you tell her that she’s irrational.”

Bob showed the slightest indication of annoyance, at the very edge of his eyebrows. Perhaps annoyance that I would find any comedy at all in his situation. Then he replied with, “Okay, well, two people can play that game, if that’s the game we’re playing. I can get angry too. I can get angry about being given conflicting directives. I can get angry when I’m told we need to make more money, but I should work less hours.”

“Has she ever said that to you?”

“All the time.”

“But specifically, those words. The words, ‘I need you to work less hours.’”

Bob shuffled his feet a little. “Oh, of course not, because the only thing she hates more than rationality is directness.” Then he stood straighter and his voice came up a decibel or two. “She’d rather die than tell me, in a plain and honest way, what she wants.”

“But maybe she is being direct with you …?”

“Ha! Right. That will happen when hell freezes over.”

“No, I mean, if she’s never actually said the words, ‘I need you to work less hours,’ then is it possible she doesn’t want you to cut your hours?”

Bob’s tone got slightly drier. “You’re not listening. I’m telling you, she does want me to cut my hours. She’d like me to somehow become rich while only working 20 hours a week.”

“We all want that. I want that. If I could become rich while only working 20 hours a week, I would do it. It’s normal that she would want that for you.”

“It’s also completely INSANE. I’m working myself to the bone and we just barely make enough to cover the house, the four kids, the cars, and the music lessons for the kids; all of it.”

“Right, but maybe she looks at you and sees someone who’s at the limit of what he can do?”

“That’s exactly right. She sees it, she understands it, and then she feels the need to drive the knife in deeper. Doesn’t matter how hard I work, she still needs to complain.”

“Is it possible she just wants to talk about it? Maybe she’s worried about how you feel, so she starts off by talking how she feels …? She might think that’s the most neutral way she can raise the subject. She spent many years in a 12-Step program, and they urge people to use ‘I’ statements, so she would never say, ‘You look exhausted and stressed.’ Instead she would start with something like, ‘I wish you were around more.’”

“You know what makes sense?” He was now staring at the air, a bit vacantly. He seemed to have not heard anything I just said. “Clear objectives. Give me a set of targets. I’ll optimize for them. I’ll use rational techniques to figure out the path of lowest entropy. And we both need to commit to those targets. Does she want music lessons for the kids? Okay, that means she is authorizing me to work the hours needed to pay for those music lessons. Does she want us to travel? Okay, that means she is authorizing me to work the hours needed to pay for that travel. She doesn’t get to set our objectives, and then complain when I do what is necessary to meet our objectives. That’s irrational. She’s irrational. There’s really no other word for it.”

“Okay, but is she actually contradicting herself? You both can agree on certain objectives, and then she can see the stress it imposes on you, and then she can reconsider, right? She might want to re-open the conversation?”

Bob blinked at me. “Why are you defending her?”

I wasn’t expecting him to ask that, but I wasn’t ruffled either. “I’m just pointing out, maybe she raised the issue in the wrong way. In which case, she miscalculated, but that’s different from being irrational.”

I thought I had a pretty good point there, and I thought he might respond with something like, “That is an interesting point that you are raising.” Instead he intoned, “Two plus two equals four. If you ever decide that two plus two equals five then you are being irrational. Every miscalculation is a product of irrationality.”

There was always this element of extreme duality in his thinking — this sort of, black/white-and-nothing-in-between motif. And it’s why I eventually got bored of our conversations, when we were in our early 20s. I need for my friends to surprise me with new insights on occasion. The rigidness with which he relied on his version of rationality left me feeling that there was no point to further conversation.

I knew Fiona, and I suspected she had her version of things which wouldn’t sound so crazy. Emotions mattered to her, she was a sensitive soul. If she thought Bob was at the breaking point, I could imagine her wanting to revive discussion of their expenses, to see if the stress could be reduced. Or she might have thought that Bob was dishonestly reversing cause and effect — that he found home life stressful, and he was burying himself in work because work was a relief from a wife and four children. Either way, his rigid approach to objectives and optimizations was probably a difficult idiom for her to get used to.

Last year Silk informed me that Fiona and Bob had split up. I can’t say I was 100% surprised.

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Dave is a guy I know who left his wife, Sarah, when he was 53 years old. Incidentally, I had met both of them back when we were all teenagers; we’d all gone to the same summer camp.

As adults, Dave and Sarah were a much-admired couple within our social circle, for many years. They even offered workshops, with a New Age flavor, on how to have a happy marriage.

Dave — cerebrally, anyway — was not a stupid man. He’d been CTO at a fairly successful startup during the original dotcom boom of the 1990s. Some of you would even remember the name, if I named it. He was left wealthy enough that he never really had to work again, but instead focused on projects that he thought were interesting.

In 2013, I collaborated with him for a few months on a project. I flew out to Silicon Valley. We went to get drinks, he and Sarah and I. I had not seen her in 20 years. We spoke of friends, and then we spoke of couples, and then we spoke of couples who had broken up. Dave shared with us his central philosophy on sex.

“Monogamy isn’t natural. It’s what we have because of economic concerns and social concerns. But it isn’t rational. What would be rational is people saying what they really want and negotiating their personal boundaries. Without fear. Just honesty. There is absolutely no need for us to be bound by convention. Rather, we need to figure out what is really important to us, and then pursue that, step by step, in a rational way, an almost scientific way, till we have what we really want.”

Sarah nodded in agreement at Dave’s little treatise, which surprised me a little. Then I thought, Wow, how honest they are! They have such a unique, healthy openness with each other. They must be an incredibly strong couple.

Alas, I heard about their breakup this year, in 2018. Again the news came via Silk, who was a mutual friend. Evidently Dave was craving a new life, something that would stimulate him. He wanted mental rebirth, intellectual challenge, sexual adventure, spiritual awakening — and he fell for a 33 year-old woman who promised all of it. Vera was into polyamory, which she described as the most rational of all sexual arrangements. Why not say what you want, have your partner say what they want, and then each grant the other the freedom to achieve all they crave? Why get hung up on convention or morality? Why not instead discuss one’s desires and boundaries, clearly and honestly?

He was sold. So he left Sarah after 25 years of marriage. Of their three children, one had graduated from college and two were still attending. Perhaps he felt free because all of the kids had left the nest.

I have no information regarding how Sarah felt about this. I don’t know if she was angry at him, or happy to see him go. I’ve no idea if she felt betrayed, or if she felt relief, or some complicated mix of the two. In every couple, at all times, there is one who is more committed to the relationship than the other, and since he left, I would assume she was the one who was more willing to work on the marriage over the long-term. But I’m only guessing.

Among her many plans, Vera hoped to start a farm someday. She’d done some WWOOFing (via wwoof.net). Eager to learn more, and perhaps to socialize too, she signed up for a three-month summer workshop in North Carolina. She begged him to come with her, and he agreed.

At first he thought he was in heaven: plenty of sun, vegetables fresh from the ground, surrounded by other seekers of life and music and good food, late-night jam sessions smoking weed, easy conversations with people in touch with the Earth, no more talk about tech. But there was another aspect to this that he hadn’t considered. She’d spend one night with him, then the next night with someone else, and the night after that with someone else, and maybe he’d see her the night after that, or the next night, or the next. Dave was an out-of-shape 53 year-old man. Vera was an attractive 33 year-old woman. She drew more sexual interest than he did. If he’d imagined that every night would be an orgy, he was disappointed. And he found that he was miserable with jealousy. His emotions oscillated between rage and acceptance. Working in the garden kept his hands busy, but it also gave his mind plenty of time to churn over the injustice of it all.

Let me interrupt the narrative for a moment to clarify my meaning. I can admire a person who wants to reinvent themselves during their 50s. And a craving for sexual novelty is a craving I can understand. I would never judge any man or woman for indulging their legal sexual hungers, and I would ask that you not get distracted by that part of the story. What is interesting however, and worthy of discussion, is the question of why he was unable to live up to his own ideals. He felt certain that he could negotiate each situation in a rational manner, balancing his desires with her desires; instead he found himself struggling with jealousy, the least rational of all human emotions.

He’d misunderstood himself. Diving into his new relationship, he was confident that they would be able to discuss everything freely and reach a rational agreement that maximized the happiness of each of them. Instead, he found himself sick with the rage of possessiveness. This might be understandable, this might be forgivable, this might be human, but there is nothing here that would justify a confidence in rationality as a universal tool for solving human problems.

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One more story — not mine this time.

There is a problem people face when they are very intelligent: their intelligence helps them argue against ideas that they do not want to face. This trait is perhaps exaggerated if the people belong to a subculture that valorizes rational thinking. An excellent personal anecdote was provided by Philip Greenspun, after he went sea diving and got sick. He had been very careful to avoid getting the bends, and so, when a doctor first suggested that he had the bends, he was able to summon a dozen good arguments, very rational and scientific, for why that possibility should be dismissed. He exhausted his doctor with carefully-reasoned defenses. Since no rational argument could work against him, the doctor had to appeal to common sense. Greenspun summarizes the denouement:

Finally he crushed my resistance by saying “You don’t feel right, do you?”

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In the four stories I’ve shared, I see these four mistakes, respectively:

1. Employing the language of rationalism to justify doing whatever you feel like doing, or hating whoever you want to hate

2. Building a simplified model of complex human emotions, and then insisting that a real-life human should live according to that simplified model, because that’s easier than dealing with the complexity of real life

3. Possessing overconfidence in one’s own rationality, and then being surprised to discover one has irrational emotions that go against one’s own stated ideals

4. Using one’s intelligence, and the scientific method, to avoid facing a truth which you would rather avoid

All kinds of people make these mistakes, but the culture of the tech industry actively encourages these mistakes by raising rationalism to a high ideal, and then failing to call out the many cases where people abuse the rhetoric of rationalism for non-rational ends.

(On a related note, see my essay When companies make a fetish of being data driven they reward a passive aggressive style)

The tech industry, as a subculture, tends to idealize rational thought. I don’t just mean places like Less Wrong, that are explicit in their commitment to rationalism. The attitude comes across in the articles written about the industry. The journalists absorb some of the culture pushed by the technologists, at least at first. So we get wave after wave of rational sounding fads, followed a few years later by inevitable pushback when the fad fails. Various slogans rise and fall, in different decades, to help express the attitude. In recent years, we’ve seen phrases such as “data driven” rise to prominence.

First we get articles like this:

Marissa Mayer’s Data-Driven Sales Revamp At Yahoo

And a few years later we get articles like this:

Lessons Regarding Marissa Mayer’s Inflexibility

And it is these later articles that reveal the human factors that cannot deal with simply being “data driven”:

When Yahoo! started bleeding major talents (Kathy Savitt, Jackie Reses, Dawn Airey, etc.), Mayer tossed them all under the bus and implied that they weren’t good enough for Yahoo! Why on earth would she do that? What good does burning bridges do for her? Does she know that most of them left because they no longer have faith in her turnaround plan?

First we get articles like this:

The Data-Driven Approach to Performance Management

and then we get articles like this:

The Terrible Management Technique That Cost Microsoft Its Creativity

And in terms of how selfish motivations can twist people’s reasoning, consider that someone with a data service they want to sell to you writes articles like this:

Big Data: Becoming data-driven helps startups succeed and scale

while a more neutral person writes articles like this:

Which is better? Data-driven or data-informed?

This overconfidence regarding their rationalism leads people to make mistakes, both personal and political. In particular, the tendency to predict utopias arises from a naive rationalism, which is then undermined by all the factors that were too wide to fit into the narrow models that the tech industry seems to rely on when selling ideas to the public.

What would be better? There is no easy fix for ingrained habits. But the first step is challenging those habits. Challenge the abuse of rational sounding rhetoric for irrational purposes. Call out the dishonesty of those who pulling some manipulative power move for selfish ends. That would be a start.

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