The Explanation Machine

In Thinking Fast and Slow Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman devastates the idea that people are rational. We constantly make instant decisions based on the very little information. We let ourselves be led by motives which we know are wrong and ­– what’s worse – our ratio creates reasons for these irrational decisions. Our brains are hardwired to invent logical explanations for our impulsive decisions. Kahneman calls the mind an explanation machine; we are constantly trying to create a logical, coherent story about the world and ourselves.

The implications are far-reaching. Market research is worthless if you ask people why. People will always give you a very logical answer, explaining why they think or do a certain thing. But in fact, they are only fooling themselves ­– as well as many listeners in the backroom. Their explanation machine will automatically spit out a coherent story.

This bizarre truth is hard to accept. Yet you see it at work everywhere. The Dutch ´Black Pete´ discussion – about the Dutch Santa Claus who has dark-skinned servants – was and is nothing more than a riot that got out of hand. But it went on in the media so much that it made us think it was a problem. And so we found an explanation: what we were actually doing was showing our deep-rooted racism. A more recent example: Belgium was so unlucky as to host a handful of charismatic Muslim men who were very successful in recruiting youth for IS. Since the world needed a coherent story to understand the horror of the Paris attacks, there came an eager market for the story that Belgium is a failed state and a logical breeding-ground for Jihadists. As a Belgian, I find this new perspective on my country too ridiculous for words. As a behavioural economist, I find it a very clear example of the explanation machine that never sleeps.


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