With my dogmatic capture by the ideas of natural selection, embodied cognition, and the neuropyschology of game theory, I am partial to the view that a lot of irrational behavior is actually pre-rational behavior, that it is a highly calculated set of actions that we would take rationally if we had complete information and time. This sensing and processing happens at much faster speeds in the intuitive subconscious, and we call it irrational before we know its reasons. This is the Chesterton Fence of Irrationality, that these pre-rational behaviors (call them heuristics) are actually the Nash Equilibrium solutions to most of the games we play.
The problem with Nash Equilibrium is of course information asymmetry, and thence we get the superior strategy of the Mediated Nash Equilibrium. Information available only to the PFC, and processed cognitively, that we call rationality, can be a powerful mediator that accelerates a more efficient journey towards the Nash Equilibrium. Looking at various irrational behaviors through this lens of mediated Nash Equilibrium, I had a very different reaction towards a specific irrational behavior seen in a news item this morning that is usually a strong pet peeve.
Consider a mother who is constantly berating her son about high-risk low-probability outcome, like falling off the banisters as he so coolly slides down them to get down the stairs faster and, like, more, like totally rad and stuff. This is a high utility-activity for him, and he has chosen to undertake it, at least according to him. Her berating is consistent and constant, as is her concern and empathy. The day arrives when he slips off the banister and breaks his arm. He is in great pain. The mother is livid, and screams at him ‘I told you so, didn’t I told you so, I told you, Nathan (the father) didn’t I told him so, yes I did, don’t you nod along with me, this is all your fault too, why didn’t you told him so too, in fact you told him it was, like, totally rad and stuff!”
I always found this obnoxious. Surely this isn’t the time to establish your wisdom, virtue-signal your concern, and distance yourself from the responsibility for the event. As the broken-arm-kid, I would be in a lot of pain and really pissed off that I’m being berated. It is the worst feeling and I’ve felt nothing positive come out of these situations. Is this irrational behavior from the mother? Everyone knows where she stands on the issue of sliding down the banister, everyone knows her concern and empathy, everyone knows she was right all along and that her words should now forever carry a lot more weight especially on issues related to this. So what is this berating accomplishing? Irrational or pre-rational? Would she pre-rationally gladly accept the resentment where it has an equilibrium with the highest chance of getting her message across and securing a small increase in the future safety of the child? But could she mediate this equilibrium by the PFC forcing her to focus on the victim first and then reinforce the learning later?
There was another mass shooting in the US yesterday. Everyone followed the script. Trump and the Republicans denounced the individual, the wicked murderer, and expressed empathy and solidarity with those affected. The Democrats, with soundbytes obviously specifically solicited from the presidential front-runners, said ‘I told you so, didn’t I told you so, I told you guns were evil, now die, didn’t I told them so Donald, no wait you don’t get to nod, you told them guns were rad!”
It’s just annoying. Everyone knows where they stand on the issue of guns, and it seems so easy for someone to come off as hugely mature by simply leaving out all mention of guns and lessons and cries for attention and validation while offering empathy. By omission, it becomes that much more powerful a statement, that this is truly a time for pure sadness and compassion, and that the time for lessons and lecturing and politics and directed change will come later. So is it irrational behavior to indulge so unanimously in this vitriolic politicizing and badgering? Or is it just the Nash Equilibrium.
This is where the analogy with the mother disappears and enters a much darker more cynical place. The mother is part of a parent-group of other mothers. They all feel that kids shouldn’t slide down banisters. A particularly clumsy kid falls off the banister. She can choose to react with compassion and nothing else. The anti-banister club though will question her commitment to solving the underlying problem rather than just treating the injury. Everyone can see the kid was clumsy, and that different rules apply to him. When the club chooses to focus on the inherently dangerous banister and leave out the clumsiness altogether, everyone rolls their eyes. But that doesn’t matter, because this is an equilibrium where she gets validation and acceptance in the club, and she escapes the club’s criticism.
This has always been my big problem with parenthood. Parents are far more horrible to other people with their kids than without. The world owes them for their mental suffering, lack of sleep, 10-handed carry of 5000 different objects, frayed nerves from noise pollution, smelly clothes from a child’s vomit, and the murderous torture of listening to annoyingly bubbly cartoon animals singing saccharine nursery rhymes all day. They are less decent, considerate, and rational people. And politicians are the same way, for all the wrong reasons. When responsibility is the mediator in mediated Nash equilibria across all the games we play in a single day, the strategy appears to me far worse, with more negative externality, and a lower overall payoff.