Science Week 2017: the source of human irrationality

Professor Nicholas Keep, Executive Dean of the School of Science, writes about Professor Mike Oaksford‘s Science Week 2017 talk on Tuesday 4 April
department-sliderProfessor Oaksford, the head of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, gave a talk on the source of Human Irrationality. There are proposed to be two systems for decision making.  System 1 is the older system shared with other animals and is fast and unconscious.  System 2 is slower and uses language and working memory to form a reasoned argument. It had been argued that irrational decisions arise from System 1 and System 2 is rational. However, Professor Oaksford argued the opposite. Studies of other animals such as starlings show that they are rational using System 1 and Professor Oaksford shows studies supporting the fast, unconscious response being rational in human. It is therefore, Mike argued, System 2 that leads to irrationality. It requires conversion of the unconscious processing into language and there is limited working memory to support system 2. Further, we do not (or cannot?) fully check all steps in our unconscious inference. The use of language can override our rational response and introduce errors of rationality.

What then is the advantage of language? It is that it allows us to be social and communicate our thoughts and plans with others thus accessing a wider range of experience and to store them in written form to recover them later. These social interactions should allow correction of our imperfect System 2 leading to better outcomes than System 1. I wold not be quite sure that this social correction is yet perfect judging by recent election results. There seems to be an ability to construct contradictory and mutually exclusive ‘rational’ views through social interaction.

Watch Professor Oaksford’s lecture on the source of human irrationality:

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Decision Making at Work (Birkbeck Business Week)

This post was contributed by Patrick Lucocq.

In my work I have to bridge the gap between academia and working applications to provide relevant and effective coaching and consultancy. The impact of decisions affects all areas of the workplace and Chris’ lecture was both informative and compelling.

The combination of heuristics (mental short cuts that we use in making decisions without all the information available) and that the outcome of decisions is always in the future means we are evaluating a decision’s potential and probability of success. There is always an element of uncertainty in every decision made. How this is understood is a part of good decision making. An organisation seldom demands the best decision every time (maximising) but rather makes decisions that are good enough for now and reflect and evaluate their impact (satisficing).

Self-Regulation and Decision Making

Self-regulation theory is based on the idea that people regulate themselves and this requires the use of mental energy. It is estimated that 20% of the body’s blood glucose is required by the brain. Making decisions that resist instant gratification lead to ‘ego depletion’ reducing stamina and persistence leading to procrastination and avoidance in decision making. Was Chris saying that we would have more energy if we acted purely by heuristics? Are we by nature lazy thinkers? Is rational decision making counter intuitive? Do the great minds and decision makers use less energy by making good use of their heuristics?

It’s easy to think of decision styles in terms of a fixed trait, where in fact it is a process that is influenced by many continually changing factors. Chris broke down decision making styles into System 1- as intuitive, automatic and fast; involving heuristics and parallel processing and System 2 – which was analytic, rule-based and slow; involving sequential processing. But there were 3 decision making styles which did not fit this, brooding, avoidant and dependent. A fourth was also considered: anxiety. Emotion does effect decision making, as well as framing language used and risk avoidance bias triggering a certain way of appraising and ultimately making a decision.

If you are anxious, your brain will have a great need for energy to make a decision. It is actually tiring just thinking like this whilst I write!

Decision Making Anxiety and Consequences








System 1 and System 2 Decision Making








Cases were presented to study that appraisal theory was affected by fear and the amount of effort required to make a choice/decision. It also revealed that maximising in decision making is associated with anxiety. Chris concluded that there was evidence that an anxiety related process plays an important part in avoidant and regretful decisions and as decision making is part of the self-regulation process it is in principle possible to improve decision making with training. 

A great hour.

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Great opportunity to take part

This post was contributed byTarita Turtiainen.

When getting time away from your desk becomes increasingly more difficult, so does getting opportunities for quality continuous professional development. Therefore, I was very pleased to hear about and have the chance to attend lectures during the Birkbeck Business Week, on two topics which have become even more important during the current economic climate, ‘Perspectives on Employee Engagement’ by Richard Williams, and ‘Decision-making at Work’ by Dr Chris Dewberry.

Richard Williams gave a sound, comprehensive review on the several perspectives into employee engagement and the claims made of its impact on performance, such as return on assets and profitability. Although the measures of employee engagement have been marred by lack of clear definitions, it is easy to see how psychological meaningfulness of work, such as feeling worthwhile, useful and valuable at work can have a positive relationship with productivity and happiness at work. Whether you choose to view employee engagement from the perspective of a management instrument solely developed for improved productivity or simply as the road to happier employees, I am sure you would agree on its importance.

Dr Chris Dewberry presented on decision-making styles and on the development and empirical examination of the first structural model of decision-making style. It was great to hear first-hand about the recent findings and the research currently happening at Birkbeck and it was clear that Dr Dewberry is very passionate about his field.

Both the lectures encouraged me to the think how are we, at work, applying the huge amount of research and knowledge that is available on these topics and not to rely on human resources alone for implementation.  I could easily see the parallels between the theories and the opportunities we could take advantage of within our team.

Although my time spent at Business Week was limited, I felt that it was definitely worthwhile and what better way to get reviews of current topics and information about research taking place, both for practitioners and those interested in further study. In addition, every time my friend frets about what to order from the restaurant menu, wants me to order on her behalf and then regrets the choice she (finally!) made, I can amusingly link it all to the theory on decision-making styles.

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