April 11, 2010

iPad Envy and the Pursuit of Rationality

iPad.jpgI've read a number of iPad reviews, so I feel like I have a generally accurate idea of what it can do and what it cannot do. I've read several expert opinions converging on the recommendation that people generally avoid buying a first-generation iPad. I've also asked myself what I would do with an iPad given that it does not run OS X, given that I already have a Mac laptop that does everything I need and much more, and given that I generally detest touch screen input. For me, buying an iPad would clearly be an exercise in irrationality. And yet, that doesn't mean I don't still kind of want one.

I have no plans to buy an iPad, and I am usually able to control myself fairly well in the face of impulsive shopping urges. I bring this up because I want to make the point that all of us - no matter how much we might value rationality - are irrational at times. All of us have irrational beliefs. All of us do things that we have a difficult time supporting by reason. All of us are, after all, human.

I think that there is an important difference between striving to be more rational and knowingly choosing to wallow in irrationality. Moreover, when we go so far as to consider irrationality virtuous (e.g., religious faith), we make a serious mistake. But these differences are not always easy to spot.

If I were to buy an iPad in a moment of weakness, it is fairly easy to imagine how I would justify it to myself and to others. I might write follow up posts here in which I explained that I was wrong to doubt the genius of the device, that the experts were mistaken, and that I had found it to be a real game-changer. I might even become overly committed to extolling the virtues of the device, telling others that they should buy one too.

This is how the human mind functions - we attempt to resolve inconsistencies between our beliefs and our behaviors by modifying our beliefs. Psychologists refer to this as cognitive dissonance. The idea is that if I am on record saying that buying a first generation iPad is foolish and then I go out and buy one, I will change my initial attitude to bring it in line with my behavior.

I don't think we have to look very hard to find parallels among religious believers and even de-converts. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for those door-to-door proselytizers to get you to come to their church. Once you see yourself attending, you may modify your beliefs.