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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage