3. What is “Rational” Behavior?

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

By C J Oakes, May 13, 2017

The word “rational” refers to logic and reason. When speaking of behavior, rational describes actions that make sense to most people. For instance, if a person were to run around naked clucking like a chicken, most people would say the person was not acting in a rational way.

Mental health is often associated with rationality; the opposite meaning that irrational behavior and thinking is associated with mental illness, whether temporary or sustained (Philos, 1981). In this article, it will be argued that this view is wrong.

What IS Rational Behavior?

Thank God for Mental Illness
Thank God for Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Psychologists have for decades claimed that rationality is a measure of mental health; that those who act in very irrational ways are mentally ill or that one sign of mental illness is behavior which is irrational. Certainly, getting naked and behaving like a chicken appears irrational and most would assume the person doing so to be mentally unstable. Yet, assuming that rational is the measurement of mental health assumes that every action must have a logical motive. Is this true?

Consider first, logic.

Most of us know someone who does not use logic in their life. They act on impulse or previous experience, but logic fails them. They often make strange statements which are illogical and when they engage in circular reasoning they believe they are being perfectly reasonable. They are the kind of people that baffle Mr. Spock on Star Trek. Yet, do we call them insane?

Maybe nuts. Maybe wacked. Maybe silly. But seldom do we call a friend with this inability to reason logically, insane.

NOTE: In the pages numbered 11, 12, 13, and 39 more information related to the role of logic in human (and criminal) behavior will be presented. For now, consider that logic is but one method humans use to make sense of the world, so as a tool for assessing mental health, logic or reason is not suitable for everyone.

So, why is it that when someone clucks like a chicken they get the insane label?

The answer lay in relativity. No, not the Einsteinian kind.

English: Image for mental health stubs, uses t...
English: Image for mental health stubs, uses two psych images – psychiatry (medicine) and psychology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humans tend to think in terms of relativity when assessing just how different they will allow their fellow man to be from them. If someone falls outside of their “acceptable” range of rational, only then does the person earn the label insane. Yet, that attitude is insane.

There is no sound reason, no logical explanation for creating an “acceptable” range of rationality because such a line changes with each generation. Mental health simply cannot fall to the whims of generational values but must be constant throughout time. Too, the “acceptable” range of rationality differs from person to person. So, rationality simply cannot be the measure of sanity.

For instance, at one time women were considered insane if they talked back to their husband, if they failed to be obedient in every way, if they deigned to raise their voice in public beyond a delighted squeal. It was also noted that women tended to suffer from this ailment in align with their monthly cycles. The name for this mental illness which was first described more than 4000 years ago and continued to be considered a valid mental disorder until as late as 1980 was…hysteria (Tasca, Rapetti, Carta, & Fadda, 2012).

In fact, it is still possible to find people who believe hysteria to be a valid mental illness, that when women have their period, they become insane.

Yet, today we say otherwise and 100 years from now hysteria may make a comeback. How so?

Rethink Mental Illness
Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Logically speaking, IF psychology continues to use rationality as a means of gauging mental health, then anything can happen. What is considered “rational” from one generation to the next changes. Social mores or norms change with time.

For instance, women commonly wear blue jeans yet there are people alive today who remember when doing so was scandalous. Just a little over 10 years ago it was perfectly normal to smoke a cigarette in a restaurant. And lest we forget, it was only very recently that gay marriage was permitted in the United States. Will polygamy be legal a decade from now?

Think about how such changes will alter perceptions of social norms 10, 20, 30 or more years from now. Whereas many currently view gay marriage as irrational (at minimum), decades from now it will be considered normal. In other words, what society views as rational will change. Which way the changes flow we cannot say. 100 years from now gay marriage may be the norm and heterosexuality may be considered strange. Hysteria may return. We just don’t know.

What we do know, however, is that mental illness can no longer be left to the whims of ever-shifting social standards of what is or is not “rational.”

Every Action is Rational to the Individual

My wife reading in bed. And it wasn't because ...
My wife reading in bed. And it wasn’t because she was trying to get to sleep. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The simple fact is that every action a person performs is rational TO THEM. It need not be rational to everyone, nor even to anyone else. The only person an action needs to be rational to is the person doing the act. And it is.

Where the problem lay, where too many well-intentioned Psychologists, social workers, law enforcement officials, and others in related fields fail is in understanding the rationale behind the action. In many cases, the person doing the seemingly irrational act cannot for some reason explain why they did what they did. Does this make them abnormal? Does this make them less-than-sane?

If that were the case then everyone at some time in their life would be insane. Everyone does something from time to time which makes someone else ask, “Why did you do that?” to which they may answer, “I don’t know.”

Just remember that most children do things which seem irrational, largely because they do not know better or sometimes because they simply do not have the mental constraints adults have. They may not be able to express themselves well enough to explain their reasoning, but this does not mean there is not a reason. Some adults never learn to express what they are thinking or feeling very well and this translates to an inability to explain or be willing to explain their actions, especially if they perceive that their actions are met with disapproval or disdain.

As we progress through the next few sections, keep this in mind and keep an open mind. All will become much clearer by Section 12 for nearly all, earlier for some.

Return to 2. Understanding the Role of Motive in Human (and Criminal) Behavior