by Chris_Leong1 min read6th Feb 201818 comments


Pitfalls of Rationality

Pseudo-rationality is the social performance of rationality, as opposed to actual rationality. Here are some examples:

  • Being overly skeptical to demonstrate how skeptical you are
  • Always fighting for the truth, even when you’re burning more social capital than the argument is worth
  • Optimising for charitability in discussions to the point where you are consistently being exploited
  • Refusing to do any social signalling or ever bow to social norms to signal that you're above them
  • Spending too much time reading rationality content or the kinds of things rationalists are interested in
  • Adopting techniques like pomodoros or TAPs merely because all the cool (rationalist) kids are using them, instead of asking if they are really helping you
  • Hating things like post-modernism because other rationalists hate them and not because you've actually thought about it for yourself (but yes, post-modernism is mostly incoherent)
  • Over-analysing unimportant decisions so that you can prove you made the rational decision

Why does this happen? Status and social norms distort the way we see the world. Even if it doesn't fool everyone, it will fool some people. Or if it fools no-one, you'll at least fool yourself. Here are some thought patterns:

  • All the other rationalists think I’m a good rationalist, surely I must be (all social incentive systems have loopholes)
  • All the other rationalists do this, so it must be rational (can be applied even if you are doing it to a much higher degree)
  • I am so much more rational than those other people who are wrong/bow to social norms/aren’t at all skeptical (more rational does not equal rational)

Why did I write this post? Well, it seems the next thing you need after becoming a rationalist, is something to help you figure out if you're doing any of it wrong. I hope this helps, but let me know if I should add anything else to the list.

Reflection based on comments:

Where this gets complex is when you desire the successful social performance of rationality as a goal that holds up after reflection. Some people may value this to a level that seems excessive to most people and so may not be acting irrationally. More generally, it seems that every rationalist should value successfully performing rationality to some degree, even if only instrumentally. These considerations complicate discussions of what is or is not pseudo-rational, but do not invalidate the general concept as most often they are not in line with someone's considered values. Further, this concept has utility as identifying a pattern of behaviour that we might want to discourage as a community.


This is very similar to Straw Vulcans except that Straw Vulcans are about how the media represents being logical/rational, while pseudo-rationality is broader and includes misconceptions that may not be prevalent in the media. Another difference is that Straw Vulcans are about defending rationality/logic from being straw-manned, while pseudo-rationality is encouraging rationalitists to consider whether they are really as rational as they think they are.

Also see: Mythic values vs. folk values. Pseudo-rationality is very similar to folk values, pseudo-rationality is not about impressing other people, but about fooling yourself.