We are not always rational

SEPT 6 — The human mind works in mysterious ways. When we are told that we only use about 10 per cent of our brain for academic pursuits, it does not mean that the remaining 90 per cent remains idle. Most of our brain functions are used to keep our bodies alive and we are often not even aware of this.

We see this happening sometimes in our reflex actions. I am sure that many have experienced a scenario such as walking through a path and then suddenly recoil upon seeing something that looks like a snake. The so called “snake” actually turns out to be a dead branch covered in mud but our mind tells our body to get away from a potential threat even when we have not clearly identified the threat.

It is a split second decision and that is when our unconscious mind often takes over. It is a defence mechanism that our species have inherited which may have served our caveman forefathers well.

Our emotions too are controlled by our brain. We can laugh or cry when a movie is showing, though we know that it is actually all make-believe. We know that our brain is not always rational but we expect people to behave rationally.

It is this expectation that a large population of humans would always act rationally that has befuddled policymakers throughout the world. People can and do act irrationally and the history books are littered with examples of irrational wars, genocide and even irrational economic bubbles.

The US invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was supposed to apprehend or kill those who were the masterminds, especially Osama Bin Laden. The US-declared war on Al-Qaeda which at that time was a small group of terrorists. They even invaded Iraq in 2003 with one of the pretexts being that Al-Qaeda was operating there.

The US actions actually strengthened Al-Qaeda and created a lot more enemies for them. The US saw every dead branch as a potential snake. Many poor, dispossessed and ignorant Muslims were actually pushed to sympathise with Al-Qaeda as a result of the US actions. After all if you were a lamb and thought that you were about to be slaughtered, wouldn’t you turn into a lion?

Of course, the US now has a more rational president in Obama who wants to pull out the US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Under his watch, the US actually found and killed Osama Bin Laden, the main mastermind of the September 11 attacks. One would think that the “rational” US electorate must surely vote him in for another term as he has done what George W. Bush had for two terms failed to do (i.e. get Osama).

That remains to be seen but the US Congress, especially the Republicans, seems bent on thwarting Obama, especially with the latest fight on increasing the US debt ceiling.

Of course, we Malaysians too are not always rational. Issues that come to the fore in our country tend to split us up rather than unite us. Issues regarding religion and race are certainly testing our social cohesion when they have actually been settled long ago with our acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1946 (UDHR) as well as what is written in our own Constitution.

Up until 1985, the Privy Council in Britain was the highest court in Malaysia. While I am not advocating that we should return to that state of affairs, I would certainly hope that our Federal Court would act with the same impartiality and follow the generally accepted legal interpretations of our Constitution. Where laws are passed that are inconsistent with our Constitution, they should be declared unconstitutional by the Federal Court.

If we Malaysians are to be more rational, we should focus on issues that improve our economic and political well-being as a whole. For example, when we take in immigrants, we should prioritise the brightest and wealthiest and not just take everyone that slips through our borders. We should worry more about how we increase the economic pie and not how we divide it.

If we think rationally, the diversity of our people is a great asset as it allows us easier access to many parts of the world. We Malaysians are all supposed to subscribe to the UDHR. If we all really did, this would be a wonderful country indeed.

Expecting Malaysians to act rationally while our brains may not always be wired to do so is a big ask. However, when we have time to reflect, we should certainly be able to make more rational choices if we consciously tune out our irrational emotions.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


Please refrain from nicknames or comments of a racist, sexist, personal, vulgar or derogatory nature, or you may risk being blocked from commenting in our website. We encourage commenters to use their real names as their username. As comments are moderated, they may not appear immediately or even on the same day you posted them. We also reserve the right to delete off-topic comments