Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works" Quotes 16

On how the evolutionary adaptiveness of being irrational

It is 1962, and you are the president of the United States. You have just learned that the Soviet Union has dropped an atomic bomb on New York. You know they will not attack again. In front of you is the phone to the Pentagon, the proverbial button, with which you can retaliate by bombing Moscow.

You are about to press the button. The nation’s policy is to retaliate in kind against a nuclear attack. The policy was designed to deter attackers; if you don’t follow through, the deterrent would have been a sham.

On the other hand, you are thinking, the damage has been done. Killing millions of Russians will not bring millions of dead Americans back to life. The bomb will add radioactive fallout to the atmosphere, harming your own citizens. And you will go down in history as one of the worst mass murderers of all time. Retaliation now would be sheer spite.

But then, it is precisely this line of thinking that emboldened the Soviets to attack. They knew that once the bomb fell you would have nothing to gain and much to lose by retaliating. They thought they were calling your bluff. So you had better retaliate to show them it wasn’t a bluff.

But then again, what’s the point of proving now that you weren’t bluffing then? The present cannot affect the past. The fact remains that if you push the button, you will snuff out millions of lives for no reason.

But wait—the Soviets knew you would think it pointless to prove you weren’t bluffing after they tried to call your bluff. That’s why they called your bluff. The very fact that you are thinking this way brought on the catastrophe—so you shouldn’t think this way.

But not thinking this way now is too late…

You curse your freedom. Your predicament is that you have the choice to retaliate, and since retaliating is not in your interests, you may decide not to do it, exactly as the Soviets anticipated. If only you didn’t have the choice! If only your missiles had been wired to a reliable nuclear-fireball detector and went off automatically. The soviets would not have dared to attack, because they would have known retaliation was certain.


But the unsettling paradoxes of nuclear strategy apply to any conflict between parties whose interests are partly competing and partly shared. Common sense says that victory goes to the side with the most intelligence, self-interest, coolness, options, power, and clear lines of communication. Common sense is wrong. Each of these assets can be a liability in contest of strategy (as opposed to contests of chance, skill, or strength) […]

Schelling points out that the trick to coming out ahead is “a voluntary but irreversible sacrifice of freedom of choice.” How do you persuade someone that you will not pay more than $16,000 for a car that is really worth $20,000 to you? You can make a public, enforceable $5,000 bet with a third party that you won’t pay more than $16,000. As long as $16,000 gives the dealer a profit, he has no choice but to accept. Persuasion would be futile; it’s against your interests to compromise. By tying your own hands, you improve your bargaining position. The example is fanciful, but real ones abound. The dealer appoints a salesperson who is not authorized to sell at less than a certain price even if he says he wants to. A homeowner cannot get a mortgage if the bank’s appraiser says he paid too much. The homebuyer exploits that powerlessness to get a better price from the seller.

Not only can power be a liability in conflicts of strategy, communication can be, too. When you are haggling from a pay phone with a friend about where to meet for dinner, you can simply announce that you will be at Ming’s at six-thirty and hang up. The friend has to accede if she wants to meet you at all.


A good way to win the teenagers’ game of chicken, in which two cars approach each other at high speed and the first driver to swerve loses face, is to conspicuously remove your own steering wheel and throw it away.

With threats, as with promises, communication can be a liability. The kidnapper remains incommunicado after making the ransom demand so he cannot be persuaded to give up the hostage for a smaller ransom or a safe escape. Rationality is also a liability. Schelling points out that “if a man knocks at the back door and says that he will stab himself unless you give him $10, he is more likely to get the $10 if his eyes are bloodshot.” Terrorists, kidnappers, hijackers, and dictators of small countries have an interest in appearing mentally unbalanced. An absence of self-interest is also an advantage. Suicide bombers re almost impossible to stop.

To defend yourself against threats, make it impossible or the threatener to make you an offer you can’t refuse. […] “Driver does not know combination to safe,” says the sticker on the delivery truck. […]

In these examples, many of them from Schelling, the paradoxical power comes from a physical constraint like handcuffs or an institutional constraint like the police. But strong passions can do the same thing. Say a bargainer publicly announces that he will not pay more than $16,000 for the car, and everyone knows he could not tolerate the shame of going back on his word. The unavoidable shame is as effective as the enforceable bet […]

People consumed by pride, love, or rage have lost control. They may be irrational. They may act against their interests. They may be deaf to appeals. (The man running amok calls to mind a doomsday machine that has been set off.) But through this madness, yet there is method in it. Precisely these sacrifices of will and reason are effective tactics in the countless bargains, promises, and threats that make up our social relations.

[…] The passions are no vestige of an animal past, no wellspring of creativity, no enemy of the intellect. The intellect is designed to relinquish control to the passions […] The apparent firewall between passion and reason is not an ineluctable part of the architecture of the brain; it has been programmed in deliberately […]

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