Rational Irrationality

Every now and then, I realize that some of my thought processes are deeply, deeply irrational.

For example: I have a modestly long streak in Duolingo. (178 days as of this writing. I’m hoping to nuture this streak and grow it to beat my previous best of 780 days.) This streak is precious to me. I go out of my way to make sure it continues to grow.

I’ve also been in the Diamond league — the highest league in the Duolingo leaderboards — for the past 8 weeks, and I’m terrified that if I start coasting and start doing the bare minimum to extend my streak each day, I’ll find myself demoted. So I spend more time in the app.

Caring about these things makes no sense. Nobody else knows how long my Duolingo streak is, much less cares about it. I’m not going to have them engrave “Achieved a 780 day Duolingo streak” on my tombstone. I can’t put “Duolingo Diamond League” on my resumé.

When one part of my brain realizes that another part of my brain is essentially malfunctioning by caring about something meaningless, what should I do?

One option: I can try to correct my irrational thinking.1 Like most people I have loss aversion, but loss aversion for something meaningless like a Duolingo Streak is just silly.2 I’m sure with a little bit of work, I can get myself to stop caring about these trifles.

Or… maybe I realize I need to be grateful for this irrationality. I’m a fundamentally lazy person. If I didn’t have nudges from loss aversion kicking in, there’d be many days my laziness would triumph over my good intentions. I can’t reason with “I don’t feel like doing that today.” I need to turn to something powerful, primal, and — yes — irrational to overcome that feeling. Without Duolingo streaks and leaderboards, I’d practice languages less.

Maybe keeping a little bit of irrationality can be rational. The thing I hope I can learn is how to tell when it’s good to learn to identify and fight my faulty thinking versus channel it towards something useful.

  1. I pasted a draft of my essay up to the “what should I do?” question into ChatGPT, and it helpfully suggested that I try to practice “cognitive restructuring.”
  2. I winced inside when I described my Duolingo Streak as “meaningless.” That’s how strongly it’s grabbed me.