Inside the Mind of the Irrational Racer

Dr. Stuart Walker explains why we sometimes do foolish things.

Walker Sept Story

Dave Reed

Example No. 1: “I think we’ve got him.”

We are to the left of the rhumb line and our opponent, who had been a boat length ahead at the leeward mark, is approaching on starboard.

“He’s tacking.”


He recognizes that we have gained, that he cannot cross us, that we are closer to the port layline than he is, and that the wind has shifted slightly to the left. Tacking is the smart thing to do-for many reasons: He wants to dig back in toward the rhumb line when he is already to its left; he wants to hold the same tack as his opponent when he has lost; he doesn’t want to let us cross him; he wants to sail the lifted tack.

Example No. 2: “I think we’ve got him now.”

Our opponent, who had been a boat length ahead at the leeward mark, is approaching on starboard.


“He’s continuing on starboard.”

Why isn’t he tacking? He must be intending to cross our stern and tack in front of the two boats that are on our hip. But he’s too far back; he won’t be able to tack in front of them. He’s continuing; he’s crossing astern of Joe, and he’s going to duck Bill. He’s not stupid. Why would be do that?

In the middle of the leg in an oscillating wind, he’s sailing on toward the layline, sailing the headed tack away from the coming veer so as to be the boat farthest to the left, and he’s consolidated the gains of three boats by letting them cross him. Why would he do that?


That this irrational behavior is irrational is rarely recognized. We assume that competitors want to win, that they intend to defeat their opponents, and that they are able to respond rationally to the vicissitudes of competition, despite the obvious evidence that they often do not. Irrationality is ubiquitous, but it is taboo. We cannot admit to it and we cannot accuse our competitors of it. And because we know that everyone resents being informed of their irrationality, we deny its existence, assist our competitors in disguising it, and ignore it even when it is obvious. It is the courteous thing to do. We do not examine our motivations before we decide to become competitors. We feel competitive so we compete. And during competition we often behave similarly-impulsively, with little conscious thought, and sometimes in opposition to our conscious interests.

Competition induces irrationality because opposition characterizes competition-one man against his fellows-because it takes place in an artificial world (absent the usual social constraints) and, most of all, because it arouses important dogmas and taboos that are inconsistent with winning a game. Indeed, the format of modern competition is in many ways a replica of primitive life and was probably instituted so as to provide opportunities for modern man to comply with the dogmas and taboos inherited from his primitive past.

Competitors are driven to belong to and be loyal to small groups, to compete, to control themselves and others, to advance in their group’s hierarchy, to fight and defeat outsiders, to display their prowess and courage. They are impelled to sense the powerful, courageous, god-like feeling that accompanies victory. Instincts require them to resent those who prevent them from complying-those who impede their acceptance in small groups, who control them, who usurp their position in the hierarchy, who defeat them, who “show-off” their prowess, and to resent particularly those who display their success. We recognize and fear that our opponents will resent us when we prevent them from complying with their dogmas and that that they will particularly resent our hubris. We feel driven to comply with these dogmas by our fear of not complying and simultaneously driven to avoid complying by our fear of the resentment we will arouse when we do comply, when we displace or control or defeat or dishonor our competitors. We feel that we should comply, and we feel that we shouldn’t. We fear not complying and we fear the resentment that complying will arouse. These fears are profound and irrational; we fear we may arouse the resentment of our competitors. We delight in victory in part because it satisfies our sense of courageousness-we have dared to win!


The competitor is frequently required to comply with a dogma that opposes his immediate competitive interest, and he may be unable to resist. Individual variations in the intensity and the direction of the inherited dogmas, and of the competitor’s mental toughness, result in varying degrees of rationality. When stressed and preoccupied, or abruptly confronted by an unexpected challenge, or involved with a particular opponent, or winning, even the toughest may be unable to act in his own best interests and may respond impulsively and inappropriately in accordance with an inherited dogma. These are powerful forces and they occasionally drive us to do foolish things.

A second cause of irrational behavior is our need to avoid the guilt that results from our fear of resentment. Seeking control or demonstrating prowess, displaying courage, or achieving victory-doing what competitors do-is perceived semi-consciously as flaunting superiority. This is a flaunting that we know will be resented. And guilt-like an admission of irrationality is intolerable; we will use any means to avoid it or resolve it.

Initially we apply the criterion of deservedness: did we deserve our success? If our compliance with a dogma-our acquisition of control or advance in the hierarchy, or demonstration of prowess, or display of courage-was warranted, we presume that it will not be resented (or not be as resented).

If, however, we feel that we didn’t deserve to have achieved it, we feel guilty and immediately seek an alternative-an irrational-solution. Hubris, of course, is never felt to be deserved so that within a few moments of victory, we always begin to feel guilty and vulnerable and sense an irrational need to atone.

If we do not feel deserved and begin to feel guilt, we deny our intent. “It’s not important-just another regatta.” “It was just luck.” “I compete just for the fun of it” (although, while swearing at his crew, he does not seem to be having much fun). “I intend to win” (despite returning again and again to lose). And after doing something that was obviously irrational, defending his rationality: “It didn’t happen.” “It happened, but I was not responsible.” “It was luck (fate, destiny).”

Denying reality is clearly irrational, and it often requires an outright lie, but it is much preferred to admitting failure or a lack of power, or a fear of resentment. And even denial may fail and then we feel required to choose a truly irrational solution, which is still preferable to feeling guilt or admitting that we are unable to comply with a dogma or that we fear to arouse resentment. Responses to the dogmas of competition are integral parts of competitiveness, and of our enthusiasm for competition, but they often require us to behave irrationally in opposition to our conscious intentions. Successful competitors are those who control the dogmas, rather than being controlled by them.”The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in us.”

The Irrational Racer’s Responses

Using Divine Magic Unable to accept the limitations of our actual control, we seek total control-of ourselves, of our opponents, and of the game-and we seek to be gods (complying with the dogma to achieve control). “He didn’t force me to tack; I tacked away because I detected a wind shift.” “Even though there is insufficient room (for mortal competitors), I can force my way into this inside overlap.” “He won because I jibed away.”

Avoiding Resentment by Maintaining the Pecking Order “If I tack here instead of there, I will not affect him and he will not resent me.” “I know that I don’t deserve to be in second place; I’ll hold this tack (even though I am headed) so as to assure him that I did not mean to usurp his rank.”

Appeasing the Resentful “Yesterday, as we approached the finish line, I tacked right on him and beat him. Now I’ll jibe away so that I don’t interfere with him.” I’d better not start at the pin; someone might be offended; someone might resent my showing off.” After winning, when the winner has demonstrated that he is a god and senses that he has offended the gods, he feels endangered and vulnerable. At the trophy presentation, he announces: “I wouldn’t have won, if . . . ” “I was fortunate that . . . (I didn’t intend to win).”

Atoning for the Defeat of Others “I know that I didn’t deserve to win the last regatta (pass you, sail faster). Now I’ll go astern and out to the layline and give up three boats to make up for that effrontery. Look at me now, showing my contrition, demonstrating my repentance.