On Human Rationale: Why We Don’t Do a Good Job of Taking Care of Ourselves

Humans exhibit the highest levels of self-awareness and pragmatism of any species on earth– that’s no secret. It’s clear that without such unparalleled mental faculties, we wouldn’t be where we are today. But I would also argue that humans are eternally flawed.

I’m not exactly sure what that flaw is, however. It’s not ignorance, laziness, or lack of foresight, although in some cases it’s one or more of these things, but it almost seems as if we humans consistently fail to do what’s in our best interest. I don’t mean this in the sacrificial sense where we prioritize the well-being of others over ourselves, which is also true a lot of the time, but when it comes to making decisions that unilaterally affect ourselves, we still don’t always choose the best option. We seem to act so irrationally as individuals despite our extraordinary capacity for rationality.

What’s even more surprising is that if we were one-step removed from the situation and asked to provide advice to close family and friends on the course of action that might be best for them, we would probably give practical advice, but when it comes to ourselves, all rationality and practicality goes out the window. In fact, we are far better at taking care of our pets and loved ones than ourselves. At the slightest cough or fever, we advise our loved ones to go easy on themselves or go see a doctor to err on the side of caution, but when it comes to taking care of ourselves, 1/3 of us don’t even get our prescriptions filled and more choose to abandon their medication midway through (more on this later).

At this point, you might be trying to come up with examples of when we might act in a way that is not in our best interest and also not in the best interest of anyone else for that matter.

Here are some examples that I have come across:

  1. The coronavirus has been circulating for at least 3 months now, and still people refuse to wear masks in public. I’m sure they are well aware of the facts and the risks, and no one willingly wishes to get the virus, so why won’t they do the rational thing and just wear the mask? It’s the best thing they can do for themselves.

The scope of the problem isn’t limited to serious life-threatening instances however.

4. Procrastination is a big one. We have all been in that position before– sometimes doing work just looks so unappealing. But we ultimately know how things always end up if we keep pushing things off, so why do so many continue to repeat the vicious cycle of waiting until the last minute?

To the outside observer, it seems so stupid. All of these problems seem to have such rational, straight-forward solutions, and we know the right thing to do, but once again, when it comes to making these decisions for ourselves, rationality doesn’t seem to be convincing enough.

Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping

Jordan Peterson touches upon this concept when he introduces his second rule in 12 Rules of Life. After briefly lamenting on how people often fail to take their medication, he goes on to try to find a an explanation for such kind of a behavior.

I find his explanation pretty inadequate for two reasons, which I will elaborate on after I explain the argument.

Here’s a summary of what he says:

Eve is approached by a serpent in the Garden of Eden and is told that eating the forbidden fruit will not result in death but in some sort of awakening. Out of innate curiosity, she eats the fruit and is now self-conscious. She also convinces Adam to eat the fruit. Immediately after their eyes were opened, Adam and Eve realized they were naked– standing upright, exposed, vulnerable, utterly naked. Now that they are self-conscious, they cover up their vulnerability, and now fully realized, they felt unworthy to stand in front of God. In fact, when God came to the garden and called out to Adam, “Where are you?” Adam confesses that he heard him, but that he was naked and hid. Peterson explains how the capacity for self-consciousness, the ability to know our faults, our vulnerabilities, our “nakedness”, renders the feeling of unworthiness in the individual, which prevents them from acting in their own best interest.

Like I said earlier, there are two reasons why I think this way of looking at it is not the right way.

  1. Personally speaking, when I decide to not take my medicine, my line of thinking is more along the lines of “I’ll be fine without it” rather than “I’m not worthy of it.” I’m not quite sure that those doctors or people that refuse to wear masks feel less worthy than those around them, and I’m certainly sure that those that procrastination is not a result of feeling worthless. Peterson only brings up the medication example, but I think this trend of not doing what is best for us has a broader scope, and this sort of explanation is too limited for such a wide spectrum.

After a lot of back and forth with my friends about this, here is what we ultimately realized.

There are two fundamental questions:

  1. Why would anyone not want to act in their best interest?

Let’s look at the first one

From an individual perspective, I think the most likely explanation is that we underestimate the risks and consequences of our decisions on ourselves in comparison to others. In other words, it’s an overly optimistic bias where we underestimate the probability of negative events in our lives and the consequences they will bring. No matter the statistics, the science, and the reasoning, there is overarching psychological bias that makes us think we are the exception to the trend, leading us to make conclusions like these:

“I’ll be fine without a mask”

“I don’t smoke as much compared to those people that actually die because of it”

“…but I always manage to get my work done on time anyway so it’s not a big deal”

It seems like everyone seems to think that they are the exception, but logically this can’t be true.

So that brings us to our second question: Why does everyone act this way?

The fact that this psychological bias is so universal prompted us to go down the evolutionary line of reasoning: there must be evolutionary benefit to this line of thinking otherwise it would have been weeded out by now.

Well, the way I see it, this arrogant, “I’m the exception” line of thinking is what has allowed us as a species to take unparalleled risks in the first place. From intentionally injecting viruses in the body to develop vaccines to the first flight to space, the fact that we underestimate the risks and consequences of actions that unilaterally affect ourselves allows us to overcome our sense of rationality, which has historically proven to be a barrier to innovation.

We are the most advanced species on the planet, and we thrive on crazy ideas, because it is through those breakthroughs where we can gain an advantage over other species.

So where does this leave us now?

There are two sides to every coin. This particular trait of not always doing what is in our best interest has clearly lent itself to people taking extraordinary risks with extraordinary results. With that we will also inevitably have people doing seemingly stupid and irrational things which not yield any productive result.

Of course, you can also argue that one can be rational enough to avoid doing the stupid things and only take risks that seem to be worth it. After all, smoking and testing out new parachute technology might both result in death, but one is more productive than the other.

This is the result of my own thought experiment on this topic, but I’m sure there are more explanations. Feel free to comment your own views on why we don’t always do what’s best for us.

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