Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Friday, May 18, 2018

Negative Consequences of Irrationality

Rationality is rooted in good decision making; it reflects what is true (epistemic rationality) and what to do (instrumental rationality). Rationality, in terms of cognitive science, reflects appropriate goal setting, maximizing goal attainment and acquiring evidence based beliefs: beliefs congruent with reality. (Stanovich, West & Toplak, 2016). On occasion, someone asks "what is reality?." This is a rhetorical question used when ones belief or assertion is unlikely, unrealistic; it drastically deviates from evidence, is refuted with evidence, etc.. . Most have some sense of reality, that is they refer to a model-dependent reality (mental representation of reality, conceptualization) to live their lives (Hawking & Mlodiknow, 2010).  They only pose the reality question in times of need (when they are likely wrong). If no sense of reality can be achieved a structured, meaningful life will be hard to live.  Many individuals are inconsistent with the criteria needed in order to label a belief, claim or phenomenon as real. That type of inconsistently is not the focus of this article; I will address this later.

Irrationality may lead to an array of negative outcomes: using the ineffective medical treatments because of failure to think of alternative causes; poor financial decisions because of overconfidence; misjudging environmental risks because of vividness, acquisition of contaminated mindware of Ponzi and pyramid schemes, be wrongly influenced in their jury decisions by incorrect testimony about probabilities, damage to intellectual vales and continue making many other of the poor decisions.

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:

Toplak, M. E., West, R. F., & Stanovich, K. E. (2011). Education for rational thought. In M. J. Lawson & J. R. Kirby (Eds.), The quality of learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.”