Self-deceptive Rationalization

Self-Deceptive Rationalization

I don’t like doing online personality quizzes. Part of the reason why I dislike them is because I believe that three of the cognitive errors and biases identified by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow are at play when we take online quizzes.
First, we are influenced by the availability heuristic. Our perception of how common or how accurate something is can be greatly influenced by whether we have an easy or hard time remembering the thing. This can influence how we answer questions about things we normally prefer or normally like to do. We might be answering based on how quickly we remember something, not on how we actually feel about something.
Second, we might substitute the questions being asked with easier to answer questions. In reality, this is what is happening with the availability heuristic. A difficult self-reflection question might not be answered directly. We might switch the question out and instead answer a simpler question. In the case of the availability heuristic, we are answering how easily something came to mind rather than the original question, but this can happen outside of the availability heuristic as well. The result is that we are not really measuring what the question purports to measure.
Third, Kahneman argues that we can think of ourselves as having two operating systems for how we act and feel in the present moment versus how we reflect back and remember previous experiences. The remembering self has different perceptions than the experiencing self, as Kahneman terms the two systems. The remembering self doesn’t have an accurate memory for how much we liked or disliked certain experiences. Think about a vacation. You may be feeling burnt out with work and life, and all you want to do, what you would enjoy the most in the world, is to sit on a familiar beach doing absolutely nothing. But your remembering self won’t take any exciting and novel memories from a week sitting on a beach doing nothing. Your remembering self would much rather have you go on an exciting yet stressful vacation to a new foreign country. This tension between your experiencing and remembering selves makes the reliability of online personality quizzes questionable. Your remembering self answers the questions, not your experiencing self, and they don’t always have the same opinions.
What this means, is that the kind of reflection that goes into online personality quizzes, or really any reflective activity, can potentially be self-deceptive. Quassim Cassam writes about these dangers in his book Vices of  the Mind. He writes, “there is always the danger that what critical reflection produces is not self-knowledge, but self-deceptive rationalization.” Our biases and cognitive errors can lead us to incorrect answers about ourselves during self-reflection. This process can feel honest and insightful, but it can often be nothing more than a rationalization for behaviors and actions that we want to believe are true about ourselves. The only way through, Cassam continues to explain, is to cultivate real epistemic virtues, to see the world more clearly, and to recognize our epistemic vices to become better thinkers.

An Illusion of Security, Stability, and Control

The online world is a very interesting place. While we frequently say that we have concerns about privacy, about how our data is being used, and about what information is publicly available to us, very few people delete their social media accounts or take real action when a data breach occurs. We have been moving more and more of our life online, and we have been more accepting of devices connected to the internet that can either be hacked or be used to tacitly spy on us than we would expect given the amount of time we spend expressing concern for our privacy.


A quick line from Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class may explain the contradiction. “A lot of our contentment or even enthrallment with online practices may be based on an illusion of security, stability, and control.”


I just read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and in it he writes about a common logical fallacy, the substitution principle. When we are asked difficult questions, we often substitute a simpler question that we can answer. However, we rarely realize that we do this. Cowen’s insight suggests that we are using this substitution fallacy when we are evaluating online practices.


Instead of thinking deeply and critically about our privacy, safety, and the security of our personal or financial information in a given context, we substitute. We ask ourselves, does this website intuitively feel legitimate and well put together? If the answer is yes, we are more likely to enter our personal information, allow our online movements to be tracked, enter our preferences, and save our credit card number.


If matching technology works well, if our order is fulfilled, and if we are provided with more content that we can continue to enjoy, we will again substitute. Instead of asking whether our data is safe or whether the value we receive exceeds the risk of having our information available, we will ask if we are satisfied with what was provided to us and if we liked the look and feel of what we received. We can pretend to answer the hard questions with illusory answers to easier questions.


In the end, we land in a place where the companies and organizations operating on the internet have little incentive to improve their systems, to innovate in ways that create disruptive changes, or to pursue big leaps forward. We are already content and we are not actually asking the hard questions which may push innovation forward. This contentment builds stagnation and prevents us from seeing the risks that exist behind the curtain. We live in our illusion that we control our information online, that we know how the internet works, and that things are stable and will continue to work, even if the outside world is chaotic. This could be a recipe for a long-term disaster that we won’t see coming because we believe we are safely in control when we are not.