The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think


Why do three out of four professional football players go bankrupt? How can illiterate jungle dwellers pass a test that tricks Harvard philosophers? And why do billionaires work so hard—only to give their hard-earned money away?

When it comes to making decisions, the classic view is that humans are eminently rational. But growing evidence suggests instead that our choices are often irrational, biased, and occasionally even moronic. Which view ...

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The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think

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Why do three out of four professional football players go bankrupt? How can illiterate jungle dwellers pass a test that tricks Harvard philosophers? And why do billionaires work so hard—only to give their hard-earned money away?

When it comes to making decisions, the classic view is that humans are eminently rational. But growing evidence suggests instead that our choices are often irrational, biased, and occasionally even moronic. Which view is right—or is there another possibility?

In this animated tour of the inner workings of the mind, psychologist Douglas T. Kenrick and business professor Vladas Griskevicius challenge the prevailing views of decision making, and present a new alternative grounded in evolutionary science. By connecting our modern behaviors to their ancestral roots, they reveal that underneath our seemingly foolish tendencies is an exceptionally wise system of decision making.

From investing money to choosing a job, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, our choices are driven by deep-seated evolutionary goals. Because each of us has multiple evolutionary goals, though, new research reveals something radical—there’s more than one “you” making decisions. Although it feels as if there is just one single “self” inside your head, your mind actually contains several different subselves, each one steering you in a different direction when it takes its turn at the controls.

The Rational Animal will transform the way you think about decision making. And along the way, you’ll discover the intimate connections between ovulating strippers, Wall Street financiers, testosterone-crazed skateboarders, Steve Jobs, Elvis Presley, and you.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Did you just do something stupid? Don’t worry—psychology prof Kenrick (Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life) and “decision scientist” Griskevicius have some good news: even your worst decisions are rational—at least as far as evolution is concerned. The authors structure their argument around two key “insights”: “human decision making serves evolutionary goals,” and “human decision making is designed to achieve several very different evolutionary goals.” They assert that each person has seven “subselves” (the “self-protection,” “disease-avoidance,” “affiliation,” “status,” “mate-acquisition,” “mate-retention,” and the “kin-care subself”), each of which can be forced to react to environmental conditions in ways that are honed by evolutionary pressures to increase the chances of biological reproduction. Kenrick and Griskevicius present some interesting psychological studies to support their thesis, but their near-Panglossian view of human decision-making—one that could be marshaled to justify nearly any action according to an evolutionary standard that fails to take ethics into account—is distressing. They posit, for example, that overconfidence is favored by evolution to ensure that people “persist in the face of failure”—never mind the fact that this attitude “has been blamed for World War I, the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq.” Ultimately, their study is as readable as it is simplistic. 4 b&w illus. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

The Rational Animal is a fun romp through the comedy of human errors. Again and again, the authors find, evolutionary urges and hardwired brains explain behaviors rational economists cannot. Humans just don't make sense, it seems, unless you expect them not to.”
Mother Jones

“[An] entertaining and informative book.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A persuasive—and entertaining—look at the Darwinian dynamics of decision making.”

“Vigorously investigated… Sharp, piquant science/behavioral-economics writing.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Why do we overspend, underinvest, and make seemingly poor decisions? The Rational Animal shows that the answer comes from a simple, but often overlooked place: Our animal ancestors. Whether we like it or not, evolution has shaped who we are today. But rather than making us foolishly irrational, looking deeper inside ourselves reveals a surprisingly brilliant beast.”
—Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On

“Kenrick is one of evolutionary psychology's alpha males, a grizzled veteran of many battles against the Blank Slate dogma. Griskevicius is the field's most brilliant and productive young star, whose ingenious research proved the transformative power of Darwinism for understanding business and marketing. Together, they make a fascinating, compelling, and fun case that people's decision-making embodies a deep evolutionary rationality rather than a superficial economic rationality. It you want to take the Red Pill and really understand what is going on in modern consumerist capitalism—if you want to dive deeper into our paleo-rationality than Dan Ariely or Daniel Kahneman have dared to go, you must read this book.”
—Geoffrey Miller, University of New Mexico, and author of The Mating Mind and Spent

“Do you want to understand all kinds of human judgment errors that seemed inexplicable before? And do you want to be able to profit handsomely from that new and deep form of understanding? Then don’t miss the profound insights of this groundbreaking book.”
—Robert B. Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

The Rational Animal is so persuasive that it could convince an ardent Wall Street economist to throw away his copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and replace it with Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species."
—Noah J. Goldstein, UCLA Anderson School of Management, and coauthor of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive

Kirkus Reviews
How do people make decisions, and how has the brain evolved to make the choices that it does? Kenrick (Psychology/Arizona State Univ.; Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Human Nature, 2011) and Griskevicius (Marketing and Psychology/Univ. of Minnesota) argue that our choices reflect a deep evolutionary wisdom. "Although it feels as if there is just one single self inside your head," they write, "your mind actually contains several different sub-selves, each with a specific evolutionary goal and a completely different set of priorities." For the most part, the authors avoid scientific jargon and touch on game theory only when it enters into their popular bailiwick. They vigorously investigate the subselves that readers may be wary of from the outset, since it is so much more comfortable to think of ourselves as a single creature. They lay out the subselves' interests--roughly: kin care, mate retention, mate acquisition, status, affiliation, disease avoidance and self-protection--and give evident examples of how they make us appear to be inconsistent decision-makers. But not so: Each is in service to reproduction, and if dead ends are a hearty part of the mix, then "[m]any of our seemingly irrational biases in judgment and decision making turn out to be pretty smart on closer examination." They account for why an African president turned down food assistance that was labeled GMO and why the peacock strategy works--also why Don Juan looks good at first flush, but canny females know that he has trouble with commitment. Sharp, piquant science/behavioral-economics writing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465032426
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 9/10/2013
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 786,319
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Douglas T. Kenrick is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University and the author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life. He lives in Tempe, Arizona. Vladas Griskevicius is McKnight Professor of Marketing and Psychology at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. He lives in Edina, Minnesota.
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