We cannot make decisions rationally

As I write these words I’m considering what to say and how to say it. I want you to be convinced by what I tell you, and I want it to seem well-informed and reliable. I try to make it thought-provoking. I vary the length of my sentences because I read somewhere that it adds impact to your writing. And all of this stuff, these writing ‘tricks’, affect what you think far more than what I write. They do even if you don’t notice it. Even if you don’t want to admit it.

Everything we say, read and write, in fact any message we convey or consume, has two essential elements; the factual content and the emotional construction. Rationally, we tell ourselves that we consider the factual content most when deciding what to think and how to act. But we make our decisions emotionally. This is known as the Russell Conjugation, from the work of Bertrand Russell over seventy years ago. It says that not only do we make decisions emotionally, but that our rational minds don’t realise we are and so convince us that we’re making rational decisions.

For decades, psychologists have been performing experiments that show that we are not as rational as we think we are. Some of this work demonstrates how we react to unexpected or uncomfortable truths, but the Russell Conjugation suggests that the facts presented to us don’t even need to be uncomfortable, and certainly don’t need to be false, in order for us to be manipulated, they just need to be presented emotionally. Our actions are based not on what we know but upon how we feel about what we know.

Our rationality is a myth that came out of the Age of Enlightenment. What seemed like a good idea in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became dogma for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But in the twenty-first century, that myth has become dangerous. The idea that we can make rational decisions in an internet age, faced with mass media and social media messaging, all presented with varying emotions, all affecting us in different and contradictory ways, is nonsensical. But we’re unable to see it’s affect on us. Our rational minds continue to tell us we’re being rational.