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October 16, 2009

A Closer Look at Rationality

As I wrote about yesterday, Keith Stanovich explains in his new book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought that IQ tests are incomplete measures of cognitive functioning. Although many laymen and psychologists seem to think IQ tests do measure rationality, they actually don’t. In fact, intelligence, as measure by IQ tests correlates only low to moderately with rational thinking skills. According to Stanovich, this explains why it is not strange to see intelligent people behave irrationally and hold false and unsupported beliefs. Some real world examples are: intelligent people who fall prey to Ponzi scheme swindlers like Bernie Madoff, a highly educated person who denies the evidence for evolution, a United States president who consults an astrologist, and so forth. Below, I will try to summarize how Stanovich explains rationality and lack of rationality.

What is rationality? Cognitive scientists distinguish two basic forms: 1) INSTRUMENTAL RATIONALITY, behaving in such a way that you achieve what you want, and 2) EPISTEMIC RATIONALITY, taking care that your beliefs correspond with the actual structure of the world. Irrational thinking and behaving is associated with three things.

The first is an overreliance on the autonomous mind which subconsciously and automatically uses all kinds of heuristic to come to conclusions and solve problems. The autonomous mind is fast and very valuable but also very imprecise. It is prone to all kinds of biases. Thinking deliberately instead of letting the autonomous mind make judgments cost much more time and energy which is why it is temping no resist.

The second thing which is associated with irrationality is what is called a mindware gap. The term ‘mindware ‘ refers to the rules, knowledge, procedures, and strategies that a person has available for making judgments, decisions and solving problems. Lack of such knowledge, etc hinders rationality.

The third thing which is associated with irrationality is something called contaminated mindware, beliefs, rules, strategies, etc that are not grounded in evidence and that are not good for the one who holds them (the host) but which can still spread easily throughout a population. There are several reasons why they can spread easily: 1) they are often packaged in an appealing narrative which promises some kind of benefit to the host, 2) they sometimes ride on the back of other popular mindware which may be more valid by copying superficial characteristics from that mindware, 3) they contain self-replication instructions (‘send this mail on to 10 different people’), 4) they may have evaluation-disabling properties (for instance by claiming that evidence is not relevant or possible, by making belief which is unsupported by evidence into a virtue, by encouraging adherents to attack non-believers, etc). You might think that intelligence would guarantee a good protection against contaminated mindware but this turns out to be wrong. By making narratives complex, highly intelligent people can even become extra attracted to them. Further, studies have demonstrated that intelligent people may be more capable of creating ‘islands of false beliefs’ or ’webs of falsity’ by using their considerable computational power to rationalize their beliefs and to ward off the arguments of skeptics.

In a next post I will try reflect on what all of this may imply.