Pulling an all-nighter won't help with decision-making the morning after. Photo: Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
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Asleep at the wheel: what makes us human is our irrationality

We are drawn to some types of information over others, our past experiences shape our present-day judgements and our emotional and physical states affect the choices we make.

I am 14 years old, sitting in my first economics class. We are taught that we make decisions as rational men, Homo economicus. That we objectively weigh up pros and cons and coolly evaluate information.

Rational men. Hmmm. Not only does economics in one swoop ignore my entire sex, it also assumes that we are robotic, dispassionate creatures.

We are not.

What makes us human is our irrationality – the way we are drawn to some types of information over others, the way our past experiences shape our present-day judgements, the way our emotional and physical states affect the choices we make.

Take colour. It plays a surprisingly signi­ficant role in the way we evaluate situations. Men rate women as more attractive if they see their photographs set against red backgrounds rather than white, grey, blue or green. Waitresses are tipped more when they wear red. Football referees are more likely to give penalties to teams wearing black strips than to those in other colours.

Language – the choice of words, images and metaphors used – also has a huge impact on the judgement calls we make. I may not fall for politicians’ fear-mongering, but beauty companies have at times caught me out. In my bathroom cabinet are products that “correct” dark spots, “fight” ageing and can infuse my eyes with “youth”. Really, though?

And how about the British study which revealed that when two groups of psychiatrists were told the same story of a young man who had attacked a train conductor, the only difference being the attacker’s name, they provided different diagnoses depending on what they believed him to be called? When the psychiatrists thought the attacker was called Matthew, they were more likely to diagnose him with schizophrenia. When they thought he was called Wayne, they were more likely to diagnose him with a drug problem.

Time and time again we are affected by factors of which we are not even aware. Time and time again we behave irrationally. It’s not just the way information is presented to us of which we need to be mindful. We need to be aware, too, of the impact of our physiological and psychological state on the choices we make.

If we’re anxious, we are more risk-averse. Stress makes us prone to tunnel vision, less likely to take in all the information we need. When we’re happy we take more risks, are more trusting, more generous. It’s why a country’s stock market tends to rise off the back of a national team’s win at football. (Not something England needed to worry about this year, sadly.)

If we’re tired, that messes with our decision-making. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter you will know the symptoms of sleep deprivation all too well: difficulty concentrating, brain like cotton wool, memory lapses. But did you know that if you go 24 hours without sleep or spend a week sleeping only four or five hours a night, it’s as if you’re making decisions drunk?

Are you the type who skips breakfast? If so you might want to rethink that. Fascinating research in Israel on why judges decided to grant prisoners parole showed that the main determinant wasn’t the applicant’s gender or ethnicity, nor even the type of crime, but whether the judge had recently eaten.

If you went before the judge just before they’d had their mid-morning snack . . . disaster. Zero per cent chance of getting parole. Immediately after that snack: 65 per cent. Just before lunch . . . disaster again. Only a 10 per cent chance of getting parole. Immediately after lunch: 65 per cent.

And if you’re feeling horny, well, you probably want to wait before you make that important call. When Canadian male undergraduates were given one of two images to look at – either a Victoria’s Secret model or a neutral object, a rock – and then asked to make a financial decision, the guys who’d been looking at the Victoria’s Secret model made significantly worse financial decisions than those who’d been looking at a rock.

What makes us human is our irrationality – and that the choices we make are influenced by a whole host of factors that have nothing to do with the decision at hand.

What makes us smart is our ability to acknowledge this, and then actively challenge ourselves and our immediate impulse. 

The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in partnership with the Jeremy Vine show (BBC Radio 2)

Noreena Hertz’s “Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World” is out in paperback (William Collins, £8.99)

Noreena Hertz is an academic and an author. Her most recent book is Eyes Wide Open. Other books include The Silent Takeover and I.O.U.: The Debt Threat and Why We Must Defuse It".

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.