You're NOT Being Irrational!

Rationality is easy. The hard part is getting the right ratios.

Posted May 07, 2015

Rationality is hard to pin down. What is it and who has it? Sometimes we define it as applying the exacting laws of logic; sometimes as making choices that succeed, and sometimes as both, as though by applying those logical laws you’ll always succeed.

We’re quick to deem others irrational when we doubt that their decisions will turn out well. Still, rationality comes from ratio, a numerator and denominator, a comparison of this to that. One half is one compared to two, a simple rational decision about which number is larger and by how much.

If rationality is comparison, who isn’t rational? Perhaps people in comas or the severely mentally ill. The rest of us make comparisons all the time.

When we say that someone is being irrational, we really mean that they’re making the wrong comparison. They’re holding things to an inappropriate standard.

A more apt description is that from our perspective they’re being mis-denominational.

Maybe you beat yourself up for not being as successful as you could be. Maybe you compare yourself to some winner, or some composite idealized self-image--you, but with this person’s waistline, that person’s talent and that other person’s money.

Is it a fair comparison or are you being mis-denominational, holding yourself to the wrong standard, expecting things of yourself that you can’t achieve, beating yourself up for nothing?

Or maybe you’re disappointed in others because you expect too much of them, or they’re disappointed in you because they hold you to an inappropriate standard. If rationality means comparing, these are all fully rational possibilities, but they could still be mis-denomenational.

The laws of logic are fine but inconclusive because they don’t tell you how to slot things into their variables. Aristotle set down the basics of logic, declaring Deduction to be the iron-clad source of truths. He used this example:

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is a mortal.

Applied to beating ourselves up for failing here’s another example:

All people who aren’t as rich as Donald Trump are losers.

I’m not as rich as Donald Trump.

Therefore, I’m a loser.

If the two premises in either of these deductive syllogisms are true then the conclusion follows inescapably. But how do we know whether the premises are true?

The logician Charles Peirce noticed an interesting thing about deduction. Reverse the order and you can see how we derive the premises:

We get the first premise through Induction:

Socrates is a man.

Socrates is mortal.

Therefore, all men are mortal.


I’m not as rich as Donald Trump.

I’m a loser.

Therefore, all people who aren’t as rich as Donald Trump are losers.

In other words, we use instances to draw generalizations. Obviously, one instance doesn’t give you much ground for a generalization. How many instances do you need before you can claim to really know for sure?

Induction is guesswork. We won’t wait until all men are dead before concluding that they’re all mortal. Even if we did, by then, the generalization would be of no use, since we want general rules mostly for prediction.

How about that second premise? For that we use what Peirce called Abduction:

Socrates is mortal

Men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.


I’m a loser.

People who aren’t as rich as Donald Trump are losers.

Therefore, I’m not as rich as Donald Trump.

In other words, we use common attributes to categorize and compare things. Abduction is how we decide on our denominators.

How many attributes does it take before you can conclude that the two things--Socrates and man, me and people poorer than Donald Trump--are the same in all respects? This too is open-ended guesswork.

You know the open-endedness of abduction if, after looking for your car in the parking lot, you end up trying to open the wrong car door. It’s white like yours, same make, same model but, oops, this one has a baby carrier and yours doesn’t.

One attribute not in common is enough to throw off your comparison. You know this problem too if you watch or read murder mysteries:

The murderer had red hair.

John has red hair.

Therefore, John is the murder.

One attribute isn’t enough to charge John, so they add more attributes:

The murderer had a motive.

John had a motive.

The murderer was in town.

John was in town.


Therefore John is the murderer.

And still you discover that the murderer wasn’t John but the butler.

Jokes often tease us with false abductions:

“Darling would you come up to the bedroom?” the wife calls to her husband out mowing the front lawn.

He comes up.

“Would you take off my blouse?”

He takes off her blouse.

“Would you take off my skirt?”

He takes off her skirt.

“Would you take off my stockings?”

He takes off her stockings.

“I don’t ever want to see you wearing my clothes again,” she says.

The old bait and switch. We’re enticed into a mis-denominational comparison to a seduction.

Abduction goes on all the time without us even noticing. When you see your co-worker, Dave on Tuesday, by abduction you assume he’s the same guy you saw on Monday. Why? Because MonDave and TuesDave have enough traits in common. Most of the time we get our abductions right, or maybe it’s Dave’s twin brother.

More often than not, what people call irrational or illogical is just a different bet on what to slot into logic’s variables. We’re all plenty logical but logic is guesswork, and often motivated guesswork.

Climate change deniers compare today’s situation to weather as usual. Yes, it has things in common but enough to say they’re equivalent? Perhaps not, if they don’t want to be oil company donation and election losers.

Some say the solution to all this confusion is to not make comparisons. You’ll be 50% happier if you just don’t compare at all. Of course, that’s a comparison too. Rational, though perhaps mis-denominational.

Motivated as we are to do our best, the upshot is to predict whether your comparisons will pay off for you. I’m glad to beat myself up about falling short—well not glad, but accepting when I think it will motivate me to get better than I am.

Pick your rational comparisons well. Feel it when your glass is one half full if that ratio will motivate you to fill it higher. If you bet you’re beating yourself up in ways that won’t yield you more glass-filling, just get a shorter glass. Self-motivation is all about expectation management, getting the right glass to compare to what you’ve got and can get to fill it.

Oh, and Trump? Money isn’t everything. Lots of alternative comparsions for richness.

I wish the multi-billionaires knew it. I’m guessing many waste their lives and our prospects for a better future on mis-denomenatial comparisons, keeping up with the uber-rich Jones.

One guy I knew had $150 million he spent down to $40 million. He fretted with me once about his friend who had $200 million.

“I don’t know if I can get by,” he said.

Image public domain modified by author
Source: Image public domain modified by author