The Irrational Expectation of Rational Behavior

What do debates about “no zero” policies in schools and the presidential run of Donald Trump have in common?

They expose the irrational expectation of rational behavior.

Several years ago, I was having a casual conversation with an economics professor, and during that exchange, it hit me that his entire premise was based on a belief that consumers are rational — a faith that the market hinges on a careful analysis of Consumer Report before each purchase.

I have since seen some critiques of economics because of the use of rationality in the models, but I also witness this daily: people adamant that zeroes teach children lessons, forcing them to comply; people who call for the death penalty and tougher laws as deterrents; and now seemingly reasonable people espousing a series of reasons for supporting Trump.

And that brings me to the somewhat baffling fact that John Oliver has once again posed through comedy an incredibly rational deconstruction of those pro-Trump claims:

But here is the problem — from demanding we continue to give students zeroes to calls for tougher laws and the death penalty to dispassionately dismantling the lunacy that is Trump — rational has no impact on the irrational, and most people are irrational.

Purchases are often impulse buys, children and teens do not see school or the future in rational ways, crimes are often crimes of passion or desperation, and people supporting Trump are the very embodiments of irrational.

This realization is an ironic gift of having been born and raised in the South where there is no rational connection between what the self-defeating South believes and the reality of the world around us: the Bible-belt is anything but Christian, and our region is crippled by racism and poverty, but we wallow in hating “government.”

None of this makes any rational sense.

Now sitting before us is the Trump phenomenon to make all this desperately clear — Trump is the ultimate Teflon candidate who makes Reagan seem in hindsight less of a cartoon than he was.

If direct associations between the KKK and Trump had no impact on his appeal Super Tuesday, there is no hope that Oliver’s very careful and detailed dismantling of the facade of Trump will resonate — even if the anemic mainstream media would do its job.

Despite what religious texts or science fiction seems to show, the apocalypse is a slow unveiling, something only recognized well past its fruition.

The U.S. has always been an irrational belief culture, and now we are witnessing Trump cashing in on that in a way that makes reality TV, reality.

Originally published at on March 3, 2016.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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