Mindfulness and Mindlessness
By Bryan Caplan
One common objection to my theory of rational irrationality is that it is psychologically implausible. Am I really saying that people first figure out the truth, then decide whether the material consequences of disregarding the truth outweigh the psychic costs of accepting it?
There are several ways to make my model more psychologically plausible. But only after my book was in press did I discover a large psychological literature on “mindfulness” and “mindlessness” that is right on point. Mihnea Moldoveanu and Ellen Langer have a great chapter on this topic in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid. Highlights:
When we are mindless we are responding to the present situation based on a “frozen” previous understanding of it…
People who learned to drive many years ago were taught that if they needed to stop the car on a slippery surface, the safest way was to slowly, gently pump the brake. Today most cars have anti-lock brakes. To stop on a slippery surface, now the safest thing to do is to step on the brake firmly and hold it down. Most of us caught on the ice still gently pump the brakes. What was once a safety measure is now a dangerous act.
The authors later explain:
The mindful individual, in contrast, is one who “shapes reality by identifying several possible perspectives from which any situation may be viewed…
One simple interpretation of my rational irrationality model, then, is that mindfulness increases as the cost of error increases. When error is cheap, people just go with their automatic, “knee-jerk” reaction. As error grows more expensive, people are more likely to take the trouble to double-check whether their knee-jerk reactions make sense – or at least to listen when others explain why their knee-jerk reactions are inappropriate.
I, for one, plan to start putting my foot firmly on the brakes next winter!