Narrative Strategies and the New Approach to Irrationality

Enlightenment reason is dead. The final nails in the coffin are being provided by neuroscience, which has made clear that our thinking is embodied (Antonio Damasio) and not Cartesian, emotionally inspired and dependent (Daniel Goleman) and not objective, and based on pattern recognition rather than logic. Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) has debunked the premise of homo oeconomicus, or the rational, self-interested economic actor on which economic theory is based, by showing that if we can predict one thing about decision making, it is that thinking is shaped by the forces of emotion, subjective comparison and social norms far more than the other way around.

Yet what we know in advanced research is still a long way from being integrated into the way we act as a society or in business. In a Science and Democracy Lecture  given at the Harvard Graduate School on the role of emotions in politics, policy and life, David Brooks encourages listeners to learn to love the irrational mind. Colleagues attending, like Steven Pinker, were apparently skeptical, holding on to the notion that trusting irrationality could only lead to bad decisions (like voting for George W. Bush because we would like to have a beer with him!), and that quantifiable measures like IQ were clearly a better indicator of success.

Here we face a gap between what science knows, and how policy is made. I think one reason may lie in a confusion between two notions of irrationality—one pre- and the other post-rational. The one we (justifiably) fear is the pre-rational orientation to superstition, blind faith, unreflected emotion, and the reliance on untrained instinct which invariably expresses itself in the incompetence and corruption that give us poor decisions.

Post-rational thinking, by contrast, simply understands how our brains actually work, and takes this into account. A research colleague of mine here in Germany, Klaus Grochowiak, has come to view the biological functioning of our brains as simply flawed. In an article on the neurobiological aspects of compulsion disorders, he explains (in German), for example, that our dopamine system makes no distinction between sustainable and unsustainable behaviors, rewarding the intake of addictive substances and addictive behaviors as freely as success in achieving goals that improve our lives and our chances of survival. Irrationality is hardwired into the very biology of our brains. Rather than despair at the results of our biological evolution, however, we can celebrate the insights we are developing into the lack of its perfection.

Since it is our very nature, it would seem to be better to understand irrationality than to fight it. For if we can predict the ways in which our brain misleads us into poor decisions, we can design policy to deal wisely with our irrational nature. Just as there are two kinds of irrationality, there are (at least) two kinds of reason, and the two are not equally qualified to deal with irrational complexity. The first is atemporal and is expressed in logic and analysis, and is the objective reason which reached its end in the Enlightenment. The second kind of reason is subjective and narrative, and is expressed in our giving reasons for what we do.

Reasons can be understood. Motives, no matter how “irrational” from a given perspective, can be taken into account. Dealing intelligently with our irrationality is likely the highest expression of reason we are capable of. Narrative strategies show us how to deal rationally with our irrationality. Listening to stories in the context of lived experience gives us the chance to recognize patterns in the stories that make sense of what we perceive. What we can make sense of, we can deal with, though the actions we will need to take will seem counter-intuitive to those identified with pre-rational instinctual approaches to decisions, or planning approaches based on analysis. Narrative approaches to strategy require a new and different skill set:  the trust in the face of uncertainty typical of entrepreneurs, the ability to deal with ambiguity which is a mark of emotional and social intelligence, and good judgement in the face of a broad range of potential solutions to complex problems, to name a few. And it requires a network of relationships in which our stories can be told and understood, and actions be taken to respond to them intelligently.

All of this points in the direction of sense-making as becoming the key ability for developing the successful strategies we need to solve the challenges we face.