Why do we act and behave irrationally? Two broad categories contribute to this problem: a processing problem and a content problem. When choosing the cognitive strategies to apply when solving a problem we generally choose the fast, computationally inexpensive strategy. Although we have cognitive strategies that have great power, they are more computationally expensive, are slower, and require more concentration than the faster cognitively thrifty strategies. Humans naturally default to the processing mechanisms that require less effort, even if they are less accurate. Individuals with high IQs are no less likely to be cognitive misers than those with lower IQ's. A second source of irrational thinking-content problem-can occur when we lack specific knowledge to think and behave rationally. David Perkins, Harvard cognitive scientist, refers to "mindware" as rules, strategies, and other cognitive tools that must be retrieved from memory to think rationally (Perkins, 1995; Stanovich, 2009). The absence of knowledge in areas important to rational thought creates a mindware gap. These important areas are not adequately assessed by typical intelligence tests. Mindware necessary for rational thinking is often missing from the formal education curriculum.It is not unusual for individuals to graduate from college with minimal knowledge in areas that are crucial for the development of rational thinking.
Rational thinking skills are learnable, and with the development of rational thinking skills better judgment and decision making in everyday life may follow. From an interview with the Stanovich research lab:
“Do you think a good starting point [in regards to learning of rational thinking] would be becoming educated on basic logic?
Basic logic would be part of a rational thinking skills curriculum, but not necessarily the first part. Again, rational thinking in cognitive science encompasses decision theory, epistemic rationality, and many areas beyond simply the study of basic logic in philosophy 101. It is very important to understand that rational thinking in cognitive science is rooted in good decision-making. Good decision making skills and good skills of knowledge acquisition do have logical thinking as one subcomponent. But there are many subskills that are even more important than logic. The subskills of scientific thinking, statistical thinking, and probabilistic reasoning, for example. Many of these are listed in the books that we will recommend here.
Baron, J. (2008). Thinking and deciding(Fourth Edition). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Hastie, R., & Dawes, R. M. (2001). Rational choice in an uncertain world. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (a new 2010 edition is just out)
A recent chapter of ours contains a large number of citations to successful attempts to teach the skills of rational thought: