Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Time and Irrationality

Written by johnleemk on 1:10:24 pm Jul 17, 2007.

One thing I realise continually haunts my reflections, whether they are on things of interest to me alone (e.g. my personal life), or of broader problems (e.g. the economy, etc.), is the dimension of time.

Since young, I have always been fascinated by the possibility of time travel and teleportation. Both obviously have to do with manipulating time in a physical sense.

Of course, both inventions remain in the realm of the imagination, and this may be for the best. After all, what use is it to manipulate a dimension we barely understand?

Time is an interesting variable that I think the social sciences often overlook. In economics, for example, time is often treated as something peripheral, as an aside. We study how the market behaves differently in the short and long run, but we never look at how, for example, the passage of time influences human behaviour.

One thing I've always found interesting is how a particular situation can be totally different at a different time, even if everything else is unchanged.

I am not necessarily speaking of what would happen if you suddenly froze everything physically for a million years, and suddenly reanimated it. Time directly affects a certain number of human activities, most of them linked to the less-understood irrational aspects of behaviour.

Emotions are probably a good example. I think there is a direct correlation between how you feel and the passage of time, or at least the intensity of your emotions. If you are angry at someone today, the intensity of your fury will probably dwindle the next day even if nothing changes.

This is the sort of odd inexplicable irrationality that shows up in the bigger picture of the social sciences. For example, it is often thought that the individual and collective are at odds — that seeking what is best for ourselves as individuals will bring us into conflict with what is best for ourselves as a collective.

Someone I know once insisted that the exact opposite is true — that the interests of the individual and the collective do not diverge. I think both stands are true — in the short run, individual self-interest collides with the collective's interest, but in the long run, it is in the individual's self-interest to advance the collective good.

The reason should be obvious — the irrational man is often short-sighted and unable to see that in the long run, little is zero-sum; we literally all can be winners. We are often inclined to see things as a fixed pie to be divvied up, and as a result, choose to bring others down (even if we do not rise).

Economics, and I think most social sciences, holds that the individual does whatever is in his best interest. But even when we can ignore the collective, sometimes the individual inexplicably hurts himself. A study of Americans picking pension plans found that they often make poorer choices when given a wider variety of options, simply because they do not want to devote the time to understanding several different plans — some call it the paradox of choice.

This can be neatly explained away by arguing that the individual gains more benefit from devoting themselves to other activities than to picking a pension plan. But there remain cases where the individual inexplicably injures himself — energy-saving bulbs save the individual a non-negligible sum of money, and are often not that difficult to find, but why does the individual still stick to the more expensive traditional light bulbs?

Simply put, nothing is simple once time is in the equation. That the consequences of time travel are mind-bogglingly non-trivial is evident enough, but even studying everyday human behaviour becomes insanely difficult once you look at the impact of time.

I find it surprising that there does not seem to be much research out there related to time and irrationality. What little there is is often piecemeal — the social sciences dance around the problems of irrationality and time without ever addressing them.

In the end, I think this is because boiling down the problem of time into a few words makes the challenge seem insurmountably difficult: how do you convince the usually short-term-minded individual to look to the long run, and make their choices accordingly?

It's a difficult question that may have no answer. But it seems to be a question worth looking at — the strange behaviour of people when time is involved is something that does not seem to have been significantly addressed before.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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