Man the Jury-rigged

or man the jerry-rigged. When I chose the title of this post I had no idea how interesting the jury/jerry rigged thing would be, but in determining which one was correct I came across this fascinating article at World-Wide Words. The jury-jerry complex has got WW2-era Germans, tall sailing ships, biblical references and medieval Liverpudlian building practices all wrapped up in it, and is certainly worth a look.
Anyway, the actual point of the post is this abstract of a research project about human decision making. The project is based on the well-known fact that human decision making is not perfectly rational. Specifically, people are more averse to risk involving loss than risk involving gain. Typically the chance and scale of gain must be much higher than the corresponding chance and scale of loss, all of which is not, strictly speaking, rational. The really interesting thing about this project is that they both affected a change in the degree of subjects’ loss aversion as well as predicting levels of loss aversion by observing the brain.
It immediately reminded me of the excellent Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, by Max Bazerman, in which Bazerman lays out the various ways in which human behavior defy rationality and represent a liability to personal and organizational success. Certainly worth a look, although at $50, if you don’t have to buy the book I’m sure you could find the information, perhaps a touch less eloquently stated, for free somewhere on the web.
Not having done the reserarch that I’m about to do, there are two obvious possible reasons for this lack of rationality in humans (and presumably other animals) that immediately spring to mind. One, the risk in many cases (death or loss of reproductive opportunity) is so high that few possible gains warrant it. If a contest was run in which contestants had a 50-50 chance of dying or winning $10,000,000, how many people would enter? How about for $100,000,000? That’s a toughy. The other possibility that springs to mind, the one that sent me off searching for jerry-rigged and finding jury-rigged, is that the limitations inherent in our senses and our thought processes present limits to rational thought, because we are just as good as we have to be in order to survive and defeat our similarly adequate rivals, and nothing more. Anything above and beyond that baseline capability is a windfall. Although I suspect the first one is true, and that in biological organisms pure rationality is a bad strategy, the second one is both more intellectually satisfying and more interesting, and I’m quite sure would cause the former situation to some extent.

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~ by Joshing on January 27, 2007.

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