“The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think,” by Douglas T. Kenrick & Vladas Griskevicius


“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.”

– Bertrand Russell

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity,
and I’m not sure about the former. “

– Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

“He who dies with the most toys, is, nonetheless, still dead.”
– Unknown

When it comes to making decisions, the classic view is that humans are eminently rational. But growing evidence suggests instead that our choices are often irrational, biased, and occasionally even moronic. Which view is right—or is there another possibility?

Discussion Questions:

1. Throughout the book the authors offer a series of public and personal seemingly deprecating anecdotes demonstrating that what may seem irrational may in fact be sound from an ancestral evolutionary perspective.

What is your favorite example of such an anecdote? Did reading this book change how you perceive or judge individuals such as the building superintendent, Ray Otero, who “invested” $30,000 a year in lottery tickets?

2. The book takes an evolutionary look at our irrational biases. The underlying hypothesis is that, rather than being design flaws of the mind, our biases are actual design features.

Do you agree with the hypothesis’ underlying premise that human decision making serves evolutionary goals? That underlying conscious proximate decisions are subconscious ultimate behavior reasons as determined by the current subself in control of the mind at that particular moment?

3. Human evolution is designed not just to ensure survival and reproduction but to achieve several very different goals. Further, unlike the standard rational consumer economics model, humans do not seek just to feel good or to “maximize benefits.” Decisions alter based on what cognitive subself is dominate at the moment of decisoin.

Did you find the author’s characterization of the seven subselfs of human minds convincing? Were you surprised at how easy it is to activate the dominance of a particular subtype? For instance, the mate-acquisition subself (“The Swinging Single”) can be activated, and thereby placed in the dominating decision-making role, by reading a romantic short story.
4. Contrary to what many psychologists and economists used to believe, market economics is the wrong way to approach most of the decisions you make on a day-to-day basis. Your workday life will be a lot more livable if you do not deal with your bosses, peers, and spouses like you would deal with a stranger haggling over the price of a used car.

Is mainstream economic theory fundamentally flawed because it is based on the presumption that people seek to maximize utility given limited means? Could it be that economic models still have robust predictive values even though the underlying assumptions do not always mirror reality (the model is valued for its simplicity, not its descriptive accuracy)?

5. Last, and most important, what did you think of this book? Would you recommend it to friends?

Which is the Rational Animal?

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