FLASHPOINTS #3: How can we tell if a leader is irrational?
An interview with the psychologist Tom Stafford
FLASHPOINTS is a series of e-mail conversations with experts on complex or contentious topics. In each edition we pick a knotty question and talk it through with someone who knows their way around it. The aim isn’t to persuade you of anything, but to help you think about it: to understand the relevant evidence, hypotheses and arguments. So far, we’ve investigated the gender gap in mental health and the rise of crypto. This week we’re looking at a question that recent events have brought to the forefront of our minds: when can we say a world leader is acting irrationally? There’s been a lot of discussion about whether Putin is acting rationally or whether he’s just mad. I wanted to get a perspective on this from psychology, and Tom Stafford is the perfect person to ask. Tom is a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield. I’ve followed him on Twitter and elsewhere for years because of his expertise in the science of reasoning, persuasion and deliberation. He now covers these topics in a newsletter called Reasonable People, which I recommend.
Hi Tom. When people say that Putin is acting irrationally, it seems to mean different things. Sometimes it seems to mean 'making choices we wouldn't make in his position'. Other times it seems to mean something like 'self-destructive', sometimes 'acting in ways that we can't predict'. Others say no, he's acting perfectly rationally, we've just misunderstood him. How can we tell when a leader - or any decision-maker - is acting irrationally? What's the test?
Labelling someone irrational assumes we agree on the definition of rational, which we almost certainly don’t. So it’s an accusation which can smuggle in a lot of complex definitional work. You see this in the field I know best: research by psychologists, economists and other behavioural scientists into human reasoning. Often this work recruits a particular definition of rationality, observes human behaviour that deviates from it, and then is celebrated as showing that “humans are irrational” - that we have some deep flaws built into our psyches which mean we can never make good decisions. This is how the study of heuristics and biases which Daniel Kahnemann popularised in “Thinking Fast and Slow”, is often read. But this is only one possible reading of a discrepancy between your model of rationality and human behaviour. The other approach is to interrogate your model - maybe the model is wrong, or incomplete.
Let me try and put some flesh on this with an example. Karen Douglas and colleagues did a study focussing on conspiracy theories around the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Ruffian to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.