Sunday, June 22, 2008

When times are tough, jump around

There is nothing quite like addiction for escaping the drab modern cult of being rational.
People who have never been properly chemically dependent on something tend towards the smug assumption that beating addiction is a matter of reason triumphing over unreason. You know for a fact that smoking will kill you. So every time you smoke, you must be following some irrational urge that could be stubbed out with just a bit more enlightened effort.

The problem, as smokers know, is that the armies of reason and unreason are not ranged in tidy rows ready to do chivalric battle for control of your behaviour. They have spies and fifth columns. When you try to quit, you find that unreason sneaks into the enemy camp in Trojan horses festooned with logic. 'I have not smoked for three days,' you think. 'Everyone says that is the hardest part, so I have proved I am capable of kicking this habit whenever I want. In fact, what better way could there be to demonstrate the completeness of my liberation than by having just one solitary cigarette and then resuming abstention?' Nonsense, of course, but strangely convincing in the thralls of a craving.

People like to think of themselves as little democracies, governed by microcosmic parliaments. Different courses of action are mooted and your reasonable mind goes with the best arguments. But the only way to beat addiction is to declare a state of mental emergency. You decide that not smoking is the law and you send a posse of jack-booted bullyboys to thrash with bars of iron will any thought that even contains the image of smoking, before it becomes fully conscious.

Amazingly, economists have taken a long time to realise that rationality is crippled with infiltration by irrationality. Models of behaviour have generally relied on Homo economicus, the hypothetical one-man democracy who measures his interests reasonably and then pursues them.
But thanks to the work of psychologists in the 1970s, reinforced by neuroscientists today, we know that Homo sapiens likes nothing more than getting one over the hapless economicus, even when it means acting against self-interest.
We are Captain Kirks feeling our way through space, grateful for the counsel of our inner Spocks - 'To have that extra pint instead of going home for an early night is illogical, Captain' - but always ready to overrule them.

A splendid example of the phenomenon is found in statistics published last week showing the biggest single monthly spike in retail sales since records began. It cannot have escaped the nation's notice that the economy is wobbly.

With house prices falling, petrol prices soaring and credit crunching, what, in May 2008, do you think the Great British public did with their dwindling cash reserves?
They blew them on toys. Next month's mortgage repayment went on giant flat-screen TVs, barbecues and iPods. Asda alone shifted 25,000 8ft bouncy castles. The best explanation economists came up with to explain the surge was May's mini-heat wave. The sun makes people optimistic and spendthrift.

When it comes to deciding a course of action, the contradictory impulses created by cosmic rays and glances at a bank statement do not compete evenly. They do not even come from the same part of our heads. In crude physiological terms, the contest is between our troglodyte selves - the recesses of the brain that haven't evolved in the last 100,000 years - and our modern selves - the bits of the brain where we calmly process data. There is a wealth of research proving that the caveman is adept at clubbing his 21st-century counterpart into submission. Stone Age man buys the HDTV ('Ugg! Shiny!), Digital Age man foots the bill.

Addiction, meanwhile, works by hijacking the primitive brain, making it send out frantic demands for gratification in defiance of what we rationally know to be good for us.

Since unreasonable behaviour (or perhaps we should call it pre-reasonable behaviour) is such an essential part of our being, I find it peculiar how little celebration it gets. In public debate, irrationality is always an insult. The Richard Dawkins school of militant atheism hurls it at clergymen and they, affronted, deny it. Faith, they usually say, offers transcendent truth, above the squalid materialist bickering between reason and instinct.

Or sometimes, like the Rev Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath, co-author of The Dawkins Delusion, they argue that the human brain is hard-wired by evolution to make order of chaos, to create systems to explain the universe, of which God is the best. So faith, in that view, is either rational or, like the craving for a cigarette, a conspiracy of neurotransmitters which to our gullible consciousness feels rational.

Although science, theology and philosophy have furnished ammunition for arguments on each side, the options haven't changed for a good couple of centuries. On the one hand, irrational behaviour is cowardly surrender, a retreat from scientific truth into the arms of a make-believe Fairy King God. On the other hand, it is a misnomer, a slur by grumpy materialists on the unfathomable wondrousness of divine creation.

If neither the Dawkinsites nor the theists want irrationality on their side, I'll claim it for another, much larger, tribe: godless, confused, inconsistent, in awe of science, aspiring to be swayed only by evidence but often guided by hunch (or, if we're honest with ourselves, prejudice), scornful of organised religion, but capable of stubborn superstition, bumbling through the cosmos trying to be principled, bound to end up sometimes looking stupid - Homo modernus secularis.

This creature is, despite his unpredictability and his struggles with addiction, capable of profound wisdom when at his most irrational. Take the example of last month's spending spree. When the headlines are full of economic doom, when the bills are piling up and the piggy bank rattles near empty, when the future is desperately uncertain, what reaction could be more magnificently human, more inclined to make us celebrate our imperfect species, than the urge to stuff reason and spend our last pennies on an 8ft bouncy castle?

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