Unmasking Rational Humanity

Promoting public policy based on the assumption of rational humans is dangerous folly.

Paul Thomas
4 min readMay 5, 2020

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Photo by Anshu A on Unsplash

Many years ago, just after I moved to higher education, I was having a casual conversation with a colleague in the economics department. He joked that he was socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and that he leaned Democrat because it was easier to teach liberals economics than to make Republicans give a shit about humans.

He also made an off-hand comment about people using Consumer Report when making purchases, or similar rational approaches to being consumers. I paused and stated directly to him that virtually no one shops rationally. I recall that he looked at me as if I were from Mars.

I was reminded of this exchange — and my constant frustration at economics as a field is too often grounded in rational consumer assumptions — when a former student posted on social media about economist Daniel Kahneman, notable for contesting that assumption about rational consumers.

But I have also been thinking about assuming humans are rational in the context of calls for everyone wearing face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A good friend on social media posted this recently:

And my first thought was that it is missing the next level — two faces in masks worn below their noses while touching or adjusting the masks every few seconds.

The research on and calls for everyone wearing face masks are making the rational-assumption mistake too often found in economic theory and models, I think; for example:

A shopper during the pandemic in California (The San Diego Union-Tribune).
Gov. Ron DeSantis fumbles mask wearing (Slate).

Models for the effectiveness of face masks seem to assume not only rational wearers but also many other idealistic givens that are decontextualized from the very…

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Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/