Widgets Magazine

The myth of the rational person

I’m always interested in the stories we tell ourselves that are about ourselves. The way we build a life, day by day. The ways we convince ourselves to get up in the morning. The ways we allow ourselves to fall asleep at night. I’m especially interested in how completely false so many of these narratives are.

How many Stanford students tell themselves that they are unintelligent on a regular basis? How many of them are completely convinced of this fact, even though they are attending school at Stanford? Even though they have decent grades. Even though their significant others and their professors and their families and their advisors and their friends and their employers tell them otherwise. Quite a few of them do so. You, reading this: You have probably done this. If you haven’t, I guarantee your friends have. Go on – go ask them. I’ll wait.

This is one of the more easily falsifiable beliefs. It even has a number attached to it: your IQ number. Sure, it’s a number that’s rife with problems, but it’s an objective number nonetheless. Does that number actually matter to anybody who believes they’re unintelligent? Absolutely not. Our life narratives, in general, are not subject to fact-checking. Outside information is used to strengthen previously held beliefs, not to challenge them.

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this: When was the last time you changed your mind about something? Even better, when was the last time you changed your mind about a moral or political belief?

If someone knows the political affiliation of a subject’s parents, they can guess the subject’s political affiliation with 70 percent accuracy. Sure, they all definitely walked through all the points of either political party and intentionally chose the one that aligned best with their values or that they thought was best for the country or whatever. It just so happened that, 70 percent of the time, they ended up in the same party as their parents. But you, dear reader, actually thought it through and made the best decision. Of course you did. Good job.

We tell ourselves what we need to hear so we can survive another day. We need to have made the right decision when it counted. Our moral stances have to be correct; what would we do with ourselves otherwise? Of course our intentions were pure; how could they be anything else?

Here’s an activity for you to do. I want you to make a list. Make a list of the characteristics of a good person. What do they do? How do they spend their time? What are their priorities? What are their relationships like? What do they do with their money? Do you have all that? Good. Now, look over your list and ask yourself: Are you a good person?



Contact Dabiyyah Agbere at bagbere ‘at’ stanford.edu.