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Sat, May 25

Column: Rational or irrational?

Remember Bertrand Russell’s statement? “It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence that could support this.”

Well, I’ve just finished reading a book (for the second time) that says the choices we make in life are characterized by deep rationality. And most fascinating is the argument that there is more than one “you” making decisions.

In fact, inside of you are seven sub-selves, each with a specific evolutionary goal, a completely different set of priorities and each competing for attention. And, the book authors tell us, the decisions we make, while often appearing foolish, are often deeply rational. They reflect “a deep-seated evolutionary wisdom, honed by our ancestors’ past successes and failures.”

In other words, there is more than one “you” making the decisions that impact your life and the lives of others. And we must not underestimate the fact that we are part of the animal kingdom.

So, what—or who—are these seven selves which emerge when we are in a particular situation and change our priorities and preferences when we take charge? It might help if you think of each sub-self coming on line as you moved from childhood and adolescence to your current age.

First, your Self-Protection sub-self which arrives on the scene around age one. The major purpose is to help you be safe from any physical danger.

Second, the Disease-Avoidance sub-self which wants you to be safe from anything associated with pathogens. This comes on line in the early years and is activated by the sound of people sneezing or coughing.

Third, the Affiliation sub-self which begins to develop in your pre-school years when you start seeking out new little friends.

Fourth, the Status sub-self which copes with the challenge of gaining and maintaining status within groups. This develops in the first or second grade when you begin to feel dissed by other kids.

Fifth, the Mate-Acquisition sub-self which emerges in the early teens when the surges of hormones begin to develop.

Sixth, the Mate-Retention sub-self when one begins to understand that keeping a mate is different than finding one.

Seventh, the Kin-Care sub-self which matures when we live with a mate and produce a child.

The authors emphasize that the sub-selves are not roles, but “real you’s.” The you with your friends, the you on a date, the you with your family, and the you striving for a promotion are all equally the real you. When one “you” is in charge, it doesn’t much matter what the other “off-duty” sub-selves might normally desire.

A major point is that our decision-making embodies a deep evolutionary rationality rather than a superficial economic rationality. Our animal ancestors clearly shape who we are and why we do what we do.

The above is a much too brief and incomplete summation of this fascinating book. To acknowledge that each of us has seven sub-selves within us, each steering us in different directions when it is in control, is worth exploring. I hope you do! The book THE RATIONAL ANIMAL by Douglas Kendrick and Vladas Griskevicius, is a fun and exciting read.


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