The Rationality Project

Part of my Sunday morning responsibilities at the church include getting the donuts and bagels and kolaches for the media team. I have probably done this task a hundred times now, but today was different. Before I can load up a box to take back, I have to empty one and set the donuts out on the table. Today I was doing this and looked down to discover that I had emptied the box from left to right instead of from right to left. I had never done this before. I now tried to refill the box from the opposite side to discover that I almost… couldn’t. My natural inclination to put each item in the exact space I always had was overpowering. An easy task had suddenly become bewilderingly difficult.

This reminded me of a piece by AJ Jacobs I had recently read called “The Rationality Project” about how Jacobs was trying to force himself to go against his natural grain and break all of his cognitive biases, a project he started after realizing the vast illogic of his daily life:

"Your brain is programmed to be bigoted and confirm stereotypes. It’s easily fooled by anecdotal evidence. Or a pretty face. Or a guy in a uniform. It’s a master of rationalization. It believes what it hears. It overreacts. It’s hopelessly incompetent at distinguishing fact from fiction.

I’ve had enough. I’m going to try to revamp my brain. Bring it into the modern era. I’m going to root out all the irrational biases and Darwinian anachronisms and retrain my brain to be a perfectly rational machine. I will be the most logical man alive, unswayed by unconscious impulses.”

Jacobs, naturally, fails wildly at this, but of course that’s the point. Jacobs is a man of near-paralyzing obsessive-compulsive disorder, and as a reaction to this, he enjoys messing with his neuroses by channeling them outward. His two best sellers, The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically, are both nothing more than carefully documented experiments into the living lives other than his own – lives free of his own obsessions as he tries on the obsessions of others.

Having read both books – and in case you hadn’t gathered, this is all a roundabout way of getting to a requested post from my brother - I’m entranced by the concept. Jacobs throws himself into each yearlong project with unforced enthusiasm, with the knowledge that his weaknesses are ultimately his strengths. His compulsions keep his nose to the grindstone because work feels less like work when it becomes an obsession. He enjoys seeing what it’s like to experience something to its ultimate degree: a lesser writer would read all of the A’s in the encyclopedia in order to write a magazine piece, but Jacobs spends a year reading the whole encyclopedia in order to see how his life changes.

I enjoyed both The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically, but I preferred Living Biblically because it of course hits closer to home for me. It’s hard to see concepts inscribed in ancient times have any effect in the modern world, so its cathartic to see someone else try to transpose those questions (“who is my neighbor?”) into a modern setting (“who is my neighbor when I’m stuck behind the Loud Phone Talker at Starbucks? What if I were to cut him into 13 pieces and send him to every cell phone service in America? Would that be acceptable?”). Plus, Jacobs has a fine sense of his own ridiculousness, so when discussing his own foibles, nothing seems off-limits. For example, in this latest article he puts duct tape over his glasses in order to avoid seeing the his waitress so that how attractive she is doesn’t affect how he tips. Now, picture this guy trying to obey every rule in Leviticus.

10-4GB Recommends: The Know-It-All and The Year Of Living Biblically.