Decision Making: What We Can (Not) Learn from Plato

                  “An early management training on rational decision making(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When I started this blog, I was determined to write some posts on decision making. I am fascinated with the fact that humans think we are rational beings, while all the latest research (on moral psychology, neuroscience, etc) clearly contradicts this. I have tried to write about what I ‘discovered’ to be true (by reading other people’s books that is): that we suffer from a number of ‘errors’ that keep us from taking rational decisions. See for example my posts ‘morality binds and blinds and ‘three tools to overcome conformation bias.

How we came to worship reason: enter Plato

As interesting as new research on these topics is, how we came to think of ourselves as rational decision-makers in the first place, seems a relevant topic in itself. In an – undoubtedly futile – attempt to work through the entire list of Great Books, I managed to make it through a number of works by Plato. As everybody who enjoyed the classical education will surely know, Plato is considered the high priest of ratio. Two quotes from Republic (Plato’s attempt to describe the ideal state) show just how high his regard for reason was:

‘.. when one tries to get at what each thing is in itself by the exercise of dialectic, relying on reason without any aid from the senses, and refuses to give up until one has grasped by pure thought what the good is in itself, one is at the summit of the intellectual realm.’

.. reason ought to rule, having the wisdom and foresight to act for the whole, and the spirit ought to obey and support it.’ [Italics added.]

I often found it hard not to be dragged along by Plato’s arguments. He writes with such passion and comes up with many wonderful stories that are still known today. Think about the myth of Atlantis (to be found in the Timaeus), the metaphor of the cave (see Republic), and the famous comparison of the soul to a charioteer with two horses (read Phaedrus). It all makes for fantastic literature actually.

Plato’s unrelenting belief in reason, however, turns him into an enemy of anything that distracts us from pure thought. Poetry, art, passion, emotion, he will have nothing of it. Why? What follows takes quite some effort to grasp (and likely some leaps of faith):  Plato argues that reason leads to pure knowledge, and only pure knowledge can lead to what’s truly good, and what’s truly good ultimately leads to happiness. He then argues (in Republic) that everything that is in the realm outside pure thought – like impressions, appearances, beliefs, emotions, and opinions – could thus never lead to a happy life. In short, using rational thought is the only way to go about your life; emotions and the senses do not have a place in leading a good life or making the right judgments or decisions. This was a defining moment in history: reason won, emotions were out. Or as Jonathan Haidt puts in The Righteous Mind:

‘Western philosophy has been worshiping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to [20th century psychology].’

Evidence why Plato is wrong: enter ‘moral reasoning’

Plato beliefs that we use (should use) rational thinking because it will lead us to the truth. Plato believes that we argue to get to the truth. In fact, most of his dialogues feature Socrates engaging in arguments about all kinds of topics with the aim of getting  to the truth of the matter. An opposing view would be that we do not argue to get to the truth, but we argue to win the argument: we have a sense or intuition for the right course of action, and we use our reasoning to justify our intuition. This is exactly what the field of moral psychology is proposing, and there’s overwhelming evidence that our decision making is highly influenced by emotions (or gut feelings if you will) instead of pure reason. As journalist Stephen Hall puts it in his highly readable Wisdom:

‘What if moral judgment, so central a notion to all schools of philosophy and the centrepiece of every major religion, is not the conscious, deliberate, reasoned discernment of right or wrong we’ve all been led to believe, but is, rather, a subterranean biological reckoning, fed by an underwater spring of hidden emotions, mischievously tickled and swayed by extraneous feelings like disgust, virtually beyond the touch of what we customarily think of as conscience? What if Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were nothing but a bunch of two-bit, fork-tongued, post hoc rationalizers? What if, every time we decide what is the “right” or “good” thing to do, we are merely responding, like dogs, to the otherwise inaudible whistling of the emotional brain? That is where moral philosophy is headed these days, and it’s being driven by a new generation of philosophers and social psychologists, who have adopted the uniform of the lab coat.’

One of these social psychologists is Jonathan Haidt, who did a lot of ground breaking work on understanding where our moral reasoning comes from. One of his catch phrases is ‘intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second’. To buttress this claim, he finds indications in research that shows that ‘moral thinking is more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth’. Some disturbing conclusions he draws about our thinking are:

  • We are obsessively concerned about what others think of us, although much of the concern is unconscious and invisible to us.
  • Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.
  • With the help of our press secretary, we are able to lie and cheat often, and then cover it up so effectively that we convince even ourselves.
  • Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach.
  • In moral and political matters we are often groupish, rather than selfish. We deploy our reasoning skills to support our team, and to demonstrate commitment to our team.

Why should you care? Or: how can you improve your decision making?

Why should you care about what the latest research has to say about reasoning? You may think you always make use of rational thinking and never engage in moral reasoning, especially not in the workplace. Think again. There are very few domains that are immune to moral reasoning. The exception might be science. But science obviously does not include the business environment, which is highly politically motivated and thus vulnerable to moral reasoning.

To improve your business decision making, you might ask yourself these two questions prior to making decisions:

  1. Am I trying to get to the truth (and set my ego aside) or am I trying to win the argument?
  2. Am I tackling this problem logically or am I caught in moral reasoning to try to justify a position I intuitively feel is right (also known as post hoc rationalization)?

Whenever the answer points into the direction of argumentative reasoning or post hoc rationalization, seek the advice of others. Others that have opposing views that is. Because the research I have been discussing also shows that we are very well equipped with coming up with my-side arguments, but terrible in coming up with other-side arguments. Reading Plato is still recommended – especially to learn where and how our adulation of reason came about –, but to improve your decision making you had better stick to the latest insights from psychology and neuroscience.

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