Is Your Rationality on Standby?

Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter (p.126) on irrationality:

There is no need to posit that people start with a clear perception of the truth, then throw it away.  The only requirement is that rationality remain on "standby," ready to emerge when error is dangerous.

Bryan’s hypothesized "process of irrationality":

  1. Be rational on topics where you have no emotional attachment to a particular answer.
  2. On topics where you have an emotional attachment to a particular answer, keep a "lookout" for questions where false beliefs imply a substantial material cost for you.
  3. If you pay not substantial material costs of error, go with the flow; believe whatever makes you feel best.
  4. If there are substantial material costs of error, raise your level of intellectual self-discipline in order to become more objective. 
  5. Balance the emotional trauma of heightened objectivity – the progressive shattering of your comforting illusions – against the material costs of error. 

Bryan’s theory suggests we might make ourselves more rational on a topic by imagining that our beliefs actually had large personal costs, and then checking to see how tempted we are to reconsider those beliefs.  Unfortunately, I suspect our imaginations are especially unreliable about such things.  This is why I want more betting markets on important topics, where large personal costs to being wrong could tell us what we really think. 

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