Absurd Irrational Human: Smoking

Rational Johnny: I found information that I trust which shows that smoking is harmful in the long term, so I stopped smoking

Human Johnny: I found the same information and I ignored it to continue smoking

Unconscious of Human Johnny: smoking is pleasant because it over-activates my dopamine, dopamine is good because it signals this behaviour improves survival. The long-term future does not matter to me. Continue smoking regardless of abstract information.

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The characters

Rational Johnny is Homo Economicus. He is how we imagine we act: rational, conscious, intentional. He always maximizes his gain in the short and long-term while minimizing the risks and costs.

Human Johnny is Homo Sapiens. He is how we act in reality, often irrational. He often does things which are self-harmful. He is us.

Unconscious of Human Johnny is his unconscious mind. It evolved to maximize our evolutionary fitness in the Paleolithic. As such it has deep algorithms that worked great to predict the immediate future in that time. Often they lead to apparently irrational and self-harmful behaviours now. It explains why Human Johnny differs from Rational Johnny. This unconscious is the PaleoRobot because it has algorithms evolved for the Paleolithic.

Rational Johnny smokes.

He sees an ad against smoking. One of those public service announcement types that says how smoking gives you cancer or heart disease. The type that almost all smokers ignore.

Rational Johnny does not ignore it because it is logical to take into consideration any information that affects his future. But he does not take it at face value either. He goes and researches the effects of smoking.

You might imagine what he finds. Smoking is exceptionally damaging on most systems of the body. The evidence is incontestable that it shortens lifespan and makes it more miserable.

Rational Johnny makes the logical decision. He stop smoking. The momentary pleasure gained is nowhere near sufficient enough to offset the catastrophic long-term damage.

Human Johnny smokes.

He sees the same ad. It does not make him consider quitting smoking. Rather it triggers him to smoke. Like such ads do in general.

A non-smoker friend tries to get him to quit. He tells him every time they meet about another ill effect of smoking. Human Johnny changes the subjects and gets irritated. He lights a cigarette to calm down.

He goes on a date that goes great until they kiss. She is a non-smoker and is disgusted by the tobacco taste of Johnny’s mouth. He is mortified and ashamed. So he lights a cigarette to calm his anxiety.

At one point Human Johnny tries to quit. He does it in secret and half-heartedly because he is afraid of doing it. He is afraid of the anxious unpleasant feeling that grows in him when he is not smoking. The dreadful feeling that is quelled only by lighting a cigarette.

He does not research any techniques or strategies. He relies on willpower. After 25 miserable hours, he gives in and smokes. Every time he thinks about quitting in the future, he is reminded of this failure and discouraged from attempting to quit again.

Why does Human Johnny not quit? The PaleoRobot

His actions are not decided consciously and rationally like (imaginary) Rational Johnny. They are unconscious. They are driven by algorithms evolved in the Paleolithic to maximize human survival in that period. I call the collection of these unconscious algorithms the PaleoRobot.

Algorithm 3 of the PaleoRobot: Avoid pain and pursue pleasure

In the Paleolithic man had not other sources of information than his own senses. Indeed perception evolved to maximize survival and reproduction, not to obtain the most accurate view of the world.

Pain and pleasure are not random. They are evolved signals for behaviours that are detrimental or beneficial to survival and reproduction. The PaleoRobot knows that whatever feels good is good and should be pursued.

This algorithm supersedes any conscious abstract knowledge. So the PaleoRobot chooses smoking, which provides pleasure. Especially as not smoking provides pain and so it avoids it.

Algorithm 5 of the PaleoRobot: There is no future

All relevant risks in the Paleolithic were immediate. For natural selection it mattered whether Human Johnny survived or died in the next hours. Long-term was irrelevant. Chronic illnesses were negligible. Both because they were rare. And because they had much lower likelihood and impact than immediate risks.

Thus all long-term effects are ignored by the PaleoRobot. It does not matter what smoking does in the long term. So it choose to smoke.



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Victor Rotariu

Victor Rotariu


Polymath. Curious. Writing a book on how to create an ideal life for our Paleolithic mind and body