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Rationality and the Reflective Mind 6: A Taxonomy of Rational Thinking Problems


This chapter pretty much weaves together the whole book up to this point. Page 118 has an awesome figure of the taxonomy of irrationality. Encompassed in the figure is basically the most up to date answer to the question of why humans are irrational.

The cognitive problems are the most typical examples of irrationality. Humans are cognitive misers, which means we tend to default to the least mentally difficult way of thinking that we can get away with. We often default to the autonomous mind when system 2 thinking would be more likely to help us achieve our goals. This includes things like the vividness effect, where something is more persuasive or thought true because it is mentally vivid.

We also perform serial associative cognition with a focal bias, instead of more exhaustive option weighing. This is like solving problems by following the most vivid, attention grabbing line of thought, and not spending time imagining what alternatives exist (should I buy an Xbox? I do like that one game. Where should I get the money from? Maybe my mom will lend me some). There’s no explicit weighing of options. Just a series of associated thoughts.

Next is override failure in which one process the correct answer with the type 2 mind, but this knowledge does not succeed in overriding the autonomous reaction. This includes will-power problems.

Those are the three cognitive miser effects. There are also mindware problems, which have to do with knowledge that is lacking, a mindware gap, or knowledge that is counterproductive to rationality, or contaminated mindware.  A mindware gap might be a lack of understanding of probability theory, or a naive understanding of how the human mind works (e.g. memory is like a recorder).

Contaminated mindware may include things like cultural prohibitions against questioning certain ideas, or more folk psychology beliefs.

All the above are failures in type 2 processing, but type 1 processing problems can lead to irrationality as well. This is called the Mr. Spock problem. Without an autonomous mind to aid in fast, emotional evaluations, an actor may become paralyzed. Also, in tasks where implicit associations can be built and aid in choices, autonomous systems can help make the right decision, even when explicit knowledge is lacking. I think this is the sort of thing in Antonio Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error. It’s also why emotion and reason are both necessary for rationality (which I suppose is precisely Descartes’ error.

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