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Myths about Rationality

rationality mythsRationality has been a popular topic of discussion for many years.  There is a huge body of literature, popular and scholarly, that addresses rational thinking skills.  It seems as if everyone has an opinion on rationality.  Rationality is often misunderstood, and the word loses its importance when it is defined in terms so broad or ambiguous that it can mean virtually anything.  This confusion has contributed to myths concerning rationality.

In a recent interview I asked cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich:

What are the two most common myths about rationality? I am aware there are more than a few, but if you were limited to discussing two, what would they be and how do we combat these erroneous thoughts?

Here is Dr. Stanovich’s answer:

I discuss many of these in all my books, but most specifically at the beginning of my book Decision Making and Rationality in the Modern World (Oxford University Press).  There, I discussed two common misconceptions about rational thinking:

1. That there is not much more to rational thinking than logical thinking

2. That emotions are inherently irrational

Here is the essence of the point—intertwining these two issues.  In my books, I argue that rationality is one of the most important human values.  It is important for a person’s happiness and well being that they think and act rationally.  The high status accorded rationality in my books may seem at odds with other characterizations that deem rationality either trivial (little more than the ability to solve textbook-type logic problems) or in fact antithetical to human fulfillment (as an impairment to an enjoyable emotional life, for instance).  These ideas about rationality derive from a restricted and mistaken view of rational thought — one not in accord with the study of rationality in modern cognitive science.

Dictionary definitions of rationality tend to be rather lame and unspecific (“the state or quality of being in accord with reason”), and some critics who wish to downplay the importance of rationality have promulgated a caricature of rationality that involves restricting its definition to not more than the ability to do the syllogistic reasoning problems that are encountered in Philosophy 101.  The meaning of rationality in modern cognitive science is, in contrast, much more robust and important.

Cognitive scientists recognize two types of rationality:  instrumental and epistemic.  The simplest definition of instrumental rationality, the one that emphasizes most that it is grounded in the practical world, is:  Behaving in the world so that you get exactly what you most want, given the resources (physical and mental) available to you. The other aspect of rationality studied by cognitive scientists is termed epistemic rationality.  This aspect of rationality concerns how well beliefs map onto the actual structure of the world. The two types of rationality are related.  In order to take actions that fulfill our goals, we need to base those actions on beliefs that are properly calibrated to the world.

Although many people feel (mistakenly or not) that they could do without the ability to solve textbook logic problems (which is why the caricatured view of rationality works to undercut its status), virtually no person wishes to eschew epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality, properly defined.  Virtually all people want their beliefs to be in some correspondence with reality, and they also want to act to maximize the achievement of their goals.  Psychologist Ken Manktelow has emphasized the practicality of both types of rationality by noting that they concern two critical things:  What is true and what to do.  Epistemic rationality is about what is true and instrumental rationality is about what to do.  For our beliefs to be rational they must correspond to the way the world is—they must be true.  For our actions to be rational they must be the best means toward our goals—they must be the best things to do.

Nothing could be more practical or useful for a person’s life than the thinking processes that help them find out what is true and what is best to do.  Such a view of rational thinking—as an eminently practical endeavor — stands in marked contrast to some restricted views of what rationality is (for example, the rationality = logic view that I mentioned above).

The second mistaken view that one often hears is that emotion is antithetical to rationality.  The absence of emotion is seen as purifying thinking into purely rational form.  This idea is not consistent with the definition of rationality in modern cognitive science.  Instrumental rationality is behavior consistent with maximizing goal satisfaction, not a particular psychological process.  It is perfectly possible for the emotions to facilitate instrumental rationality as well as to impede it.  In fact, conceptions of emotions in cognitive science stress the adaptive regulatory powers of the emotions.  The basic idea is that emotions serve to stop the combinatorial explosion of possibilities that would occur if an intelligent system tried to calculate the utility of all possible future outcomes.  Emotions are thought to constrain the possibilities to a manageable number based on similar situations in the past.

In short, emotions get us “in the right ballpark” of the correct response.  If more accuracy than that is required, then a more precise type of analytic cognition will be required.  Of course, we can rely too much on the emotions.  We can base responses on a “ballpark” solution in situations that really require a more precise type of analytic thought.  More often than not, however, processes of emotional regulation facilitate rational thought and action.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book Blink, adopts the folk psychological view of the relation between emotion and rationality that is at odds with the way those concepts are discussed in cognitive science.  Gladwell discusses the famous cases of cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio where damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex caused nonfunctional behavior without impairing intelligence.  Gladwell argues that “people with damage to their ventromedial area are perfectly rational.  They can be highly intelligent and functional, but they lack judgment” (2005, p. 59).

This is not the right way to describe these cases.  But in the view of modern cognitive science, someone who lacks judgment cannot be rational.  According to Gladwell’s lay definition, people in these cases have lost emotion, so they must be rational thinkers.  In the view of modern cognitive science, this is not the case.  People with ventromedial damage are in fact less rational because their processes of emotional regulation—which work in concert with more analytic cognition to support optimal responding—are deficient.  As logic itself is one of many tools of rational thought, so is emotion.

About Keith Stanovich:

Dr. Stanovich is Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the the University of Toronto.  He is the author of several books including, Who is Rational? Studies of Individual Differences in Reasoning and How to Think Straight about Psychology.

Photo by Jimmie, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Myths about Rationality

Jamie Hale, M.S.

Jamie Hale, MS., is a researcher specializing in eating behavior, cognitive science (various aspects) and scientific reasoning. Jamie has written seven books and co-authored one. He is a member of the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame (recognition of my strength and conditioning work with martial artists), college instructor, learning / memory consultant and board member of Kentucky Council Against Health Fraud.

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APA Reference
Hale, J. (2018). Myths about Rationality. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 May 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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