24 Oct Irrationality
For almost two centuries, rationality has been a central postulate of social sciences. There are various ways to determine whether a certain behavior is “rational”, but, in general and at least since Enlightenment, we think one is acting “rationally” if one tries to maximize one’s own “utility”.
Like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, this highly rational being, the homo economicus, free from the unsteady influences of emotion or irrationality, given a choice would take the option with the highest “expected utility”. When confronted with multiple options, he would be consistent in choices. Whenever he fails to maximize utility, it is because of incomplete or faulty information. Given the right information, homo economicus will always do the “right” thing (i.e. maximize utility).
Yet, irrationality is part of our daily life. Some of us might be like Mr. Spock, but most are, well, just human (indeed Spock is a Vulcan, not a Human!). Everyone knows that feelings, “irrationality”, play a big role in decision-making. Even when given perfect information human beings might fail to take the right decision. We can all come up with countless examples of “irrationality” at play from the micro to the macro level.
Rationality has been a fundamental postulate of economics for long, but now economists are starting to abandon the assumption and are finally coming to grips with the fact that human beings are not Mr. Spock. Since the end of the nineties, after yet another stock exchange crash that could not be logically explained, economists have recognized the essential flaw in the postulate. Today there is a growing school of economists who are drawing on a vast range of behavioral traits identified by experimental psychologists to correct their models to take into account irrationality.
This development did not go completely unnoticed in the international relations/political science/international law field, but, a few pioneers aside, in our field “rationality” is still everyone’s core assumption. While we have no problem admitting that one single individual might behave irrationally, we cannot accept that a government (usually made of a group of highly skilled individuals), or even a whole nation, or even the whole world at once, might act irrationally. Thus, if we cannot take decisive action against climate change is because we lack full information on the dynamics, costs and benefits of climate control. If Iran tinkers with nuclear material it is because it appreciates costs/benefits differently than us, and because Iran knows something we do not know. Any rational being in the same position and with the same information of Iran would do the same. If the US invades Iraq it is because it does not have full information on the lack of WMD or because it has no information, or wrong information, about the reaction of the local population to the occupation. Kim Jong-il is acting perfectly rationally. We just need to put ourselves in his shoes, have the information he has, and then we will do the same (morality has no role in all of this).
Let’s instead assume Kim Jong-il is just a psychopath in need of treatment, and that the US government has taken decisions on the basis of irrational arguments. Scary? Yes, irrationality is always scary. But even irrationality is predictable, if we understand how it works.
It is high time we adjust our international relations theories to take into account “irrationality”. If we do that, instead of creating international law to cope with problems after they emerge, which is what we invariably do right now, we might be able to create international law that can prevent problems in the first place. That would bring international governance to a far superior level.