The Rational Animal

"Our choices today reflect a deep seated evolutionary wisdom, honed by our ancestors’ past successes and failures."

- The Rational Animal, page xii

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines rational as relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason.

When faced with the question ‘Do you make rational decisions?’ the man on the street would emphatically answer yes. The vast majority of people see themselves as rational and upright citizens making everyday decisions in a very sober and reasonable manner.

But wait, let’s lift the lid on this. Is this really the case?

How then do we explain the following ‘irrational’ situations?

  • Dr Martin Luther King, the iconic religious leader, despite being a married man with four young children, was a prolific womanizer.
  • JK Rowling, author of the wildly successful Harry Potter book series, rose from poverty as an unemployed single mother then proceeded to give away much of her hard-earned money, including writing a cheque for $15 million.
  • Bernard Madoff, the former chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange, orchestrated the largest financial fraud in US history, swindling otherwise shrewd and intelligent investors out of a record-breaking $18 billion.
  • With three million Zambians on the verge of starvation, Zambia’s president Levy Mwanawasa, with full support from the government and much of the population, rejected 35,000 tonnes of donated food from American farmers asserting ‘We would rather starve than get genetically modified foods’.
  • In 1990, Forbes magazine estimated the flamboyant rapper MC Hammer (Stanley Burrell) was worth $33 million. Just 6 years later, in 1996, Burrell was forced to file for bankruptcy and was $13 million in debt.

Why do people do the things they do, especially when they make ill-advised choices?

What are the underlying reasons for people’s seemingly inexplicable behaviour?

The Rational Animal helps us unlock these secrets and find out whether this ‘rational animal’ exists in reality or whether it can simply be consigned to mythology.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Who we are is determined by which subself is in charge

"Instead of having just one self, we are really a collection of selves – a group of subselves. Like different personalities, each of your subselves has peculiar quirks and preferences. And each comes out only when you are in a particular situation. At any one time, only one subself is in charge, which is the current you at that moment"
- The Rational Animal, page 26

Yes it’s official, we all have multiple personalities lurking within us. Depending on what situation you find yourself in, any one of up to 7 different personalities, also known as subselves, will present themselves.

These 7 subselves came about as a result of our ancestors having to face a set of crucial evolutionary challenges including evading physical harm, avoiding disease, making friends, gaining status, attracting a mate, keeping that mate, and caring for family.

Solving these different problems required our ancestors to make decisions in different – and sometimes completely incompatible – ways. What is effective when you are taking care of a child is different than what is effective when you are negotiating a business deal with distant acquaintances.

So depending on which evolutionary goal or challenge is on your mind, the subself relevant to that area will take over and guide your decisions.

Let’s meet the subselves.

  • Self-Protection Subself: The Night Watchman who wants to be safe from any potential physical danger.
  • Disease-Avoidance Subself: The Compulsive Hypochondriac who wants to be safe from anything associated with pathogens.
  • Affiliation Subself: The Team Player who wants to be liked and treated as a friend.
  • Status Subself: The Go-Getter who wants to be respected and needs to have reason to respect others.
  • Mate-Acquisition Subself: The Swinging Single who seeks to behave in ways that makes them more desirable to potential romantic partners.
  • Mate-Retention Subself: The Good Spouse who seeks to ensure that a long-term romantic relationship is going smoothly.
  • Kin-Care Subself: The Nurturing Parent who seeks to ensure that vulnerable youngsters in need receive proper care and attention.

This is not to say that subselves provide an excuse or a justification for immoral behaviour. But they can explain why humans often behave like hypocrites: we have only one body, but our brains are inherently divided.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Know thy situation

"If you are feeling compelled to spend a lot of money, sign on the dotted line, or make some big decision, ask yourself, have I been primed to feel this way right now?"
- The Rational Animal, page 26

If you are feeling compelled to spend a lot of money, sign on the dotted line, or make some big decision, ask yourself, have I been primed to feel this way right now?

When making a pitch, experienced exploiters will often prime their target by preying on the specific subself most vulnerable to the presentation or sales patter.

For example, by manipulating perceived scarcity, the De Beers parasite could now draw people in like flies to a neon light, extracting ever-more money from its human hosts.

After making its product artificially scarce, its marketing strategy perpetually activated the subself most vulnerable to scarcity: the mate-acquisition subself.

The best advice in this situation is to wait and sleep on it before making a decision. This allows the other subselves an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process and make what seems like a no-brainer look like an unwise or even foolish decision.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Know thyself

"If you find yourself really wanting something you can’t afford, ask yourself a deeper question; What evolutionary need is this purchase attempting to fulfil?"
- The Rational Animal, page 204

The answer lies within one of our 7 subselves.

Our yearning for those ultra-expensive designer shoes likely reflects a need to make ourselves attractive to the opposite sex.

That desire for the expensive watch likely reflects a need to have status and show off to our peers.

Realizing that our material desires reflect deeper evolutionary needs provides an important insight; before maxing out your credit card, consider alternative ways to achieve the same evolutionary need.

Draining our bank accounts is not the only way to fulfil our evolutionary needs.


So the next time someone accuses you of being irrational, agree with them and smile sweetly safe in the knowledge that by consulting the right subself in the right situation, you can exercise more control over the important decisions in your life.

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