A Logic Limit Ahead road sign in front of mountains

In what disciplines does logic come up short? When does unreason triumph over logic?

To be clear, Rory Sutherland doesn’t attack logic as a tool for scientific understanding, but he warns against using pure rationalism as the only method for guiding policy and business decisions. Humans are illogical beings, so any solution to human-centered problems must factor unreason into the equation.

Continue reading to understand the limitations of logic.

The Limitations of Logic

Sutherland discusses the limitations of logic in his book Alchemy. He looks at the fallacies that commonly occur when applying strict logic to human behavior, why modern economics gets on the wrong track, how human perception differs from objective reality, and why the creation of meaning governs human behavior more than statistics or logical facts.

When we rely on classical logic, we use well-defined data points to reach conclusions and achieve clear-cut objectives. Sutherland points out that the world our brains evolved in is more uncertain than that process allows for. Rationalists like to reduce problems to simple approximations that logic can deal with, but, in practice, our minds make judgments based on trade-offs, nuance, and a hazy, big-picture understanding of the world. 

The Problem With Simplification

Though Sutherland decries how rationalists simplify issues to fit in logical boxes, simplification is also a tool used by the irrational mind to filter information from chaos. Humans instinctively simplify our experiences using labels, categories, and streamlined narratives that serve to give the world a sense of order and ourselves a sense of control. Just like the approximations used in formal logic, these instinctive simplifications can blind us to important nuance and information, leading to conclusions and decisions that are just as erroneous as those of faulty reasoning. One common example is political party identification, via which we often make broad assumptions about others without consciously realizing how far off the mark we are.

Even in the physical sciences, oversimplification has its dangers, especially when it comes to communicating scientific concepts to laypeople. Though physics, engineering, and chemistry rely on strict logic to draw their conclusions, there’s much scientific complexity and nuance that gets swept aside in the popular press. Presenting simplified scientific explanations has been shown to increase laypeople’s overconfidence in their understanding of scientific facts, leading them to trust their own judgment over experts’—doubling down on the distortions caused by simplifying the world into a logical box.

The irrational ideas and behaviors that our minds come up with aren’t meant to be perfect or even correct—the purpose of the unconscious mind is not to determine the truth of the world but to promote our survival as a species. It often does so using unfair bias, faulty heuristics, and magical thinking. Sutherland argues that, instead of treating these reactions as defects in the human psyche, our unconscious logic is a lever that we can use to persuade people and influence behavior that’s more powerful than reason alone. Ignoring the unconscious blinds us to potential pitfalls as well as unexpected, “irrational” solutions.

Another issue with using logic to solve problems is that it’s such an effective tool that any commonplace problems that have logical solutions have already been solved. If new problems arise that yield to logic and reason, we’re able to solve them remarkably quickly. As a logical result, the problems we’re left with are the ones that don’t yield to simple logic—from enticing consumers to buy a new brand of hot dog to convincing voters to support a vital government initiative. Unfortunately, says Sutherland, many of our leading economic and political decision-makers are so invested in logic and reason, they’ve blinded themselves to unconventional solutions that don’t fit into the tidy box of assumptions their logic is based on.

(Shortform note: That logic can’t solve every problem was a common theme on the classic TV series Star Trek. In the episode “The Galileo Seven,” a shuttle crew led by the ultra-logical Mr. Spock crashes on a hostile alien planet. Spock attempts to use pure reason to devise a plan to save his crew, but his efforts routinely fall short because he fails to account for irrational factors—such as the motives of the hostile aliens or his crewmates’ personalities. In the end, recognizing that his logical approach has failed, Spock makes an irrational gamble—burning all the shuttle’s fuel to send a flare—that ultimately saves his crew. It’s this willingness to see where logic fails and reach outside the rational toolbox that Sutherland argues for in this book.)

The Fallacies of Logic

When applying conventional logic to any situation, your results are only as valid as the assumptions on which your logic is based. Sutherland argues that this is where CEOs, economists, and politicians fail—by misunderstanding where logic fits in the knowledge-generation process and by underestimating the complexity of people and their social interactions.

The first mistake that business leaders and social scientists make is in thinking that logic and reason come before finding solutions when, in fact, the opposite is often true. In the physical sciences—those most associated with hard logic—the most important discoveries are often happy accidents, for which scientists use logic after the fact to explain their observations. Discovery and logical explanation are two separate facets of scientific understanding, and either one can come before the other.

Logic and Discovery in the Sciences

One field that thrives on discovery by luck is the oldest science of all—astronomy. Since you can’t conduct astronomical “experiments” under controlled laboratory conditions, observation has often come before logic, and sometimes they happen independently of each other. In Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson illustrates this with the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the universal echo of the Big Bang. Though its existence had been theorized in 1948, it wasn’t until 1964 that researchers at AT&T stumbled across it while cleaning up “interference” in their microwave antenna.

However, the physical sciences’ interplay between reason and chance is perhaps more nuanced than Sutherland suggests. The experimentalists who conduct practical tests and the theorists who study their underlying logic usually work hand-in-hand. Theorists offer guidance as to what scientific questions should be studied, while experimentalists validate or disprove theoretical hypotheses rather than performing experiments at random. The relationship between theorists and experimentalists is crucial to scientific progress, and though Sutherland disparages logical theorists in the social and political sciences, the problem with conducting reproducible experiments may also contribute to those fields’ alleged shortcomings. 

Despite the role that blind luck often plays in advancing our understanding of the world, experts in fields like economics and political theory routinely devalue the importance of random chance and counterintuitive discovery. Sutherland suggests that it’s a common mistake in the social sciences to demand that rational explanations come first, thereby closing the door on counterintuitive discoveries and solutions to problems that sound crazy on the surface.

(Shortform note: Contrary to Sutherland’s lambasting of the social sciences, some investors have long recognized the irrational behavior of economic systems. In The Intelligent Investor, published in 1949, Benjamin Graham argued that to invest wisely in the stock market, you have to assume the market is irrational. Graham’s recommended strategy for determined, full-time investors is to go against the grain of the market’s current “wisdom” and invest in businesses that, for one reason or another, the market has irrationally undervalued. In essence, Graham advises using reason to exploit other investors’ unreason, an approach to solving problems that’s similar to Sutherland’s, though Graham arrives there from a reason-first direction.)

The next common error Sutherland mentions is when people try to shoehorn the social sciences and business decision-making into the strictly logical framework of the physical sciences and engineering. The latter disciplines rely on universal laws, but Sutherland asserts that human systems are so incredibly complex that universal laws don’t apply. So much of human behavior depends on context cues, selective perception, and unconscious, evolutionary responses that any attempt to use absolute rules to determine how and why humans act the way they do is certain to produce erroneous results. Nevertheless, the idea that human behavior can be explained by simple statistical models is the underlying basis of much economic theory. 

(Shortform note: Sutherland credits Daniel Kahneman for his pioneering work in applying behavioral science to prove that humans are irrational creatures. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman establishes a host of irrational “rules of thumb” that human minds employ, only a few of which Sutherland touches on, such as our propensity to overvalue data that draws our attention and our desire to force unconnected events into a sense-making narrative. Kahneman takes aim at traditional economics’ “expected utility theory,” which asserts that people use reason to calculate the best possible outcome of any decision. Kahneman’s work is the cornerstone on which most of Sutherland’s arguments are built.)

Economics Is Wrong

Sutherland insists that, for the most part, the study of economics is completely detached from the realities of human behavior. Instead, economists simplify human interactions so that they’ll fit into mathematical models, then use those models to make logical predictions that don’t account for the underlying messiness of human behavior. Despite the work of scientists such as Kahneman to debunk traditional economics, Sutherland contends that economists and business leaders still rely on two long-disproven ideas—that people are consciously aware of their motivations and that they make rational decisions based on achieving their stated desires.

Faulty “rational” assumptions don’t just harm the public, they do a disservice to the businesses that make them. For instance, many industries rely on market research to determine what products and services to offer, but market research rests on the assumption that people know the reasons behind their decisions. To find the real reasons for consumer behavior, Sutherland argues that businesses need to drill deeper than superficial market questionnaires, sometimes asking questions to which consumers and businesses think they already know the answers. Sutherland argues that unconscious motivations are consumers’ real driving factors, and any logical explanations they give for their choices are rationalizations provided after the fact. 

Despite the documented power of the unconscious, many economic models are based on the assumption that people make conscious, rational decisions to maximize the chances of achieving what they want. Sutherland writes that nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the choices people make seem completely irrational on the conscious level—it’s only when we understand our unconscious drives that human behavior starts to make sense. Unfortunately for economists, we can’t jot down our unconscious motives on a survey or enter them as data points into a spreadsheet, which is why unconscious factors are largely ignored by decision-makers in business and government.

Perception Versus Reality

According to Sutherland, the key to leveraging the unconscious mind is to manipulate people’s perception of events, much like a magician performing sleight of hand. This works because, as neuroscience has shown, human perception can differ greatly from objective reality. Sutherland discusses the importance of understanding human perception, the functions that psychological biases serve, and how meaning and language are vital tools for engaging perception to positive advantage.

From an economic standpoint, understanding human perception is key because, in many cases, it’s cheaper to employ psychological solutions than to engineer costly “practical” fixes. In Sutherland’s words, it’s simpler to change people’s perception of reality than to change reality itself. To do this requires identifying the psychological causes at the root of human issues and desires, then creating the perception that a need has been addressed. The flipside of this coin is that “logical” solutions to real-world issues won’t be effective if they don’t also create the right perception. Right or wrong, how people see a problem has to be dealt with before the problem itself. 

Sutherland says that, as annoying as the difference between human perception and objective reality can be, our cognitive biases evolved for a reason. For example, our brains place disproportionate importance on anything that stands out as unusual. This derives from our survival instincts—in the wild, any unexpected sound, movement, color, or smell might signify danger, and our minds reflexively focus and ramp up our attention on that particular thing. Even if our conscious reason might say there is no threat, our unconscious mind says, “Better safe than sorry.” Sutherland says that it’s a waste of time to argue with the unconscious—it’s far more productive to engage with it instead.

Why Meaning Matters

The key to understanding human perception is to recognize that our minds focus on what objects and events mean to us much more than their physical details. Sutherland writes that this particularly applies to how we value and react to things. The magic in engaging the unconscious mind lies in using the most unlikely, illogical, and sometimes outright silly tactics to alter how people perceive something’s value, and thereby change their behavior. This is where unreason triumphs over logic—by making an object or event seem outlandish, you instinctively draw the mind’s attention to it and trick people into reframing their perception.

There are many ways to perform this magic trick, but Sutherland argues that the main ones involve language. Language is what we use to convey meaning—for instance, by drawing attention to specific details of a product, to highlight one aspect of a political candidate over others, or to reframe a negative experience into a positive. Even the most glaringly illogical uses of language and meaning can have an outsized effect on how people perceive the world, and by extension, the experienced reality that our perceptions create.

The Limitations of Logic: How It Fails to Decode Human Behavior

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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