The Rational Future Institute

Rationality - Frequently Asked Questions
Is the ideal rational person emotionless?


The cultural stereotype of a rational person is Mr. Spock from Star Trek, but this is misleading. Emotion is only an impediment to reason when emotion prevents us from reasoning correctly. Indeed, reason is a tool for satisfying our values and emotions.

Much of what we reason about concerns subjective emotional value, and we would be unable to make even simple decisions without our emotions. Research shows that patients who have sustained brain injuries to their emotion centers can be very rational, but are unable to make decisions because they have no basis for valuing one conclusion over another.

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Why do I want to be rational?

If you want anything, you want to be rational. When you want something, you want to act in a fashion that is consistent with satisfying your wants. And rationality is all about being consistent. Without being rational, you will act inconsistently with your objectives.

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What is the difference between rational thinking and critical thinking?

A perfectly rational thinker would always attune his degree of belief in a statement to the degree of evidence for its truth. As we know, humans are not perfectly rational, and we sometimes find ourselves with intuitive beliefs that we could not justify if we tried.

Critical thinking is the process we use to correct or validate our automatic beliefs.

Critical thinking most commonly refers to techniques for assessing information that is given to us by others, such as news reports, political statements or advertising claims. Critical thinking also refers to honesty and consistency in checking our personal beliefs and preconceptions.

Critical thinking is a collection of techniques we can use to help us get closer to ideal rational thinking.

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Do rational thinkers always come up with the correct answer?

No, but they are always justified in their beliefs. The rational thinker makes the best assessment possible, given the evidence.

On rare occasions, the evidence is poor or misleading, and the most rational inference might turn out to give the wrong answer. However, being irrational is never to our advantage. If there was a good reason for an action, we would simply be acting rationally.

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What is the connection between philosophy and rationality?

There are many areas of philosophy, but to the extent that philosophy is about providing ultimate reasons for beliefs, philosophy is really about reasoning.

The rules of reasoning cannot be proven correct by the rules of reasoning because any proof would be circular.  That is, to prove the rules of reasoning would have to assume what we intend to prove. However, if we try to reject the rules of reasoning, then we will have to reject notions of truth and falsehood. This means that, on a technicality, the rules of reasoning cannot be false because there is no such things as "false" without rules of reasoning. If we are to hold truths and give justification for our beliefs, then we have to treat the rules of reasoning as axioms - as grounding assumptions.

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Is rational thinking a matter for psychologists?

Not in theory, but in practice.

The ideals of rational thinking are a matter for philosophy. However, the ways in which we predictably deviate from rational thinking are a function of our psychology (and our neurobiology). To be more rational, we need to understand how we are prone to think in irrational ways. These modes of irrational thinking are called cognitive biases.

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Why is it important to be rational?

Today, more than at any time in human history, we are threatened by our cognitive limitations. We live in a complex world that operates on the basis of economies and technologies that no single person can possibly understand. Yet, democracy and civic duty calls upon every one of us to decide how best to proceed into the future. Even if we rely on committees of experts or technological decision-making aids, we will need much better rational thinking skills if we are to survive the 21st century. 

Rational thinking is required in order to be a good consumer, a good citizen, and to have good relationships with others.

Sales and marketing companies make a lot of money by applying  the results of psychological research to the control your behavior. We are all vulnerable to subtle marketing messages. For example, studies show that we'll buy more soup if there's a sign saying "Limit 12 per customer."  Studies also tell us that the salesperson can control your expectations about the appropriate price for a product by naming his price first. An understanding of our cognitive biases can help us to be better consumers.

A recent study showed that judges officiating at parole hearings are significantly more likely to grant parole if the case is heard in the morning than if the case is heard in the afternoon. The suggested explanation for this is that, as the day wears on, the judges become tired and more likely to rely on their uncorrected intuitions. Research into police interrogations has revealed that suspects are likely to sign false confessions after being interrogated for many hours. Yet, jurors are unaware of this fact, and convict defendants on the basis of nothing but a confession. Clearly, the justice system can fail in its task when it fails to account for the fact that we're not ideal reasoning machines.

Interpersonal relationships can be crippled by cognitive bias. When faced with criticism, our intuition is to find a way to accomodate the facts while maintaining our self-concept. When we're told we treated someone poorly, we're likely to hang on to our self-image as a good person, and seek out reasons why the victim of our poor behavior really deserved what he or she got. This type of behavior causes needless conflict, and can tear apart relationships.

In the 1960's and 1970's, economists turned their attention to how humans actually reason about economic decisions. They discovered that real people don't behave like the ideal reasoners they had assumed in their simplified economic models. Humans are not completely rational.

However, it turns out that humans are quite predictable in their irrationality. Over the last few decades, economists and psychologists have identified about a hundred ways that humans leap to incorrect beliefs instead of reasoning to correct ones. Intuitive leaps to belief are not always wrong, but they sacrifice accuracy for speed.

Though psychological experiments provide us with amusing anecdotes about the quirks of human reasoning, they also warn us of the real dangers we face if we ignore our cognitive deficiencies. For example, studies show that we have an irrational fear of loss which causes us to value things we already own far more than we would be willing to pay to acquire them anew. When this bias causes us to hoard junk, it's fairly harmless. When it causes us to fight expensive court battles over minor property disputes, or to sacrifice a beneficial career move to safeguard a boring job, this bias can be very costly.

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