Can Rationality Be Learned?
May 20, 2019
Jamie Hale
The Rationality of Science

Learning is conceptualized as a relatively permanent change in thinking or behavior. Innate (natural) skills are those you are born with; no experience is necessary to display these qualities. Innate skills vary tremendously among the animal kingdom, and much of human life is dependent on learning. High-level learners have an advantage in life. Learning is important and valued tremendously in society.

Rationality is not natural. There are many components of rationality, and their interactions vary depending on context. Humans have a tremendous capacity to learn. The majority of thinking and motor behaviors displayed by humans are learned.

Rational actions (thinking and behaviors) are important, and their importance is evident as seen across a range of everyday occurrences. When asking if rationality can be learned, we are asking if exposure to certain experiences can lead to changes in behavior and cognition. If provided the appropriate environment and given the correct strategies, can rationality improve?

Rationality Defined
Rationality, in philosophical terms, involves putting forth reason for essentially any behavior or thought. Rationality is an ambiguous term when conceptualized in this sense and can mean almost anything.

Most people are rational, if rational merely means an ability to provide some form of reason for their behavior or actions. Often, people are deemed irrational only because they are in disagreement with the position held by the individual calling them irrational. This usage isn’t consistent with what cognitive scientists are talking about when they are discussing rationality. Cognitive science provides a different conceptualization of rationality—one that is derived from converging evidence is consistently defined and is subject to measurement.

Rationality, in terms of cognitive science, consists of two primary types of rationality: instrumental and epistemic (Stanovich 2009). Instrumental rationality can be defined as setting appropriate goals and behaving in a manner that optimizes one’s ability to achieve goals. Epistemic rationality is defined as holding beliefs that are in line with evidence. This type of rationality is concerned with beliefs and how they fit onto the structure of the world. Epistemic rationality is sometimes called evidential rationality or theoretical rationality. There is overlap between instrumental and epistemic rationality. To optimize rationality knowledge that enhances scientific thinking is needed. It is important to avoid some types of knowledge structures (mindware) that are detrimental to rationality. These knowledge structures are referred to as contaminated mindware; they include superstitious thinking, conspiracy beliefs, antiscience attitudes, and dysfunctional personal beliefs (Stanovich 2016). To maximize rationality, it is also essential that reflective processing (overriding fast thinking that leads to incorrect responses) occur at appropriate times. A wide variety of cognitive skills fall within these areas of knowledge. Essentially, rationality reflects what is true and what to do (Manktelow 2004). Rational thinking is critical thinking.

Rationality Can Be Learned
The following is an excerpt from an interview with the Stanovich Lab (Hale 2013): “Tell our readers how they can improve their rational thinking skills. A good first start is education, which readers have already started here by reading this. Having an understanding of how cognitive scientists have expanded what is meant by rationality is important, namely that rationality is about two critical things: What is true and what to do. There are numerous books that deal with rational thinking. Some of the chapters and books in our own research lab have contributed to this, and we will list them at the bottom of this entry.”

The scientific mindware necessary for rationality includes knowledge in the areas of philosophy of science, research methodology, logic, and probabilistic/statistical reasoning. There is a large body of research indicating education leads to improvement in these and other areas involving scientific mindware (Hale, Sloss, and Lawson 2017). In one study, using an analytical reading method derived from the “Learning Paradigm,” students showed strong improvements in their ability to evaluate primary scientific research (Jones and Hale 2019). This method focuses the attention on learning outcomes using many different types of teaching—lecture, discussion, reading, and writing. It allows students to engage the material directly and interact with both their classmates and the instructor.

Humans are cognitive misers (we don’t like to think harder than necessary), and often that tendency leads to incorrect responses. Acquiring the right mindware prevents this sort of undesired outcome. Fully disjunctive reasoning—the tendency to consider all possible states of the world when deciding among options or when choosing a problem solution in a reasoning task—is a rational thinking strategy that can be taught (Reyna and Farley 2006). The teaching of considering alternative hypotheses is a relatively easy strategy that promotes rationality. To perpetuate the idea of thinking about alternative hypotheses a simple instruction of “think of the opposite” is given. Studies have demonstrated this strategy can help prevent the occurrence of various thinking errors (Sanna and Schwartz 2006). Probabilistic thinking (thinking in terms of likelihoods and possible outcomes) has been shown to be more difficult to teach than the previously mentioned strategies, yet still teachable (Stanovich 2009). Causal reasoning, another important element in achieving rationality, is also teachable. Causal reasoning involves establishing criteria needed to determine cause and effect and considering multiple causes and their interactions.

Avoiding contaminated mindware is important in an effort to enhance rationality. To reiterate, contaminated mindware consists of superstitious thinking, conspiracy beliefs, antiscience attitudes, and dysfunctional personal beliefs; it impedes rationality. “[T]he principle of falsifiability provides a wonderful inoculation against many kinds of [contaminated mindware]” (Stanovich 2009). Avoid mindware that persuades against evaluation; why shouldn’t you evaluate?

Avoid mindware that involves unrealistic goals and decreases the chances of obtaining current goals. Apply the cognitive strategies that underpin scientific thinking to your everyday life. “In saying that a person is irrational, we are not accusing him of any irremediable flaw, but, rather, just urging him and people who think like him to reform” (Jonathan Baron, Rationality and Intelligence, 1985, as cited from Stanovich 2009).

Society is complex and requires complex thinking. Rationality is learnable; being more rational will assist humans in navigating the world much better. Higher levels of rationality ensures better judgments and better decisions—in sum, better critical thinking.

Hale, J. 2013. In Evidence We Trust: The need for science, rationality & statistics. Winchester, KY: MaxCondition Publishing.

Hale, J. P., Sloss, S., and Lawson, A. 2017. Association between Scientific Cognition and Scientific Literacy (Brief Review). Knowledge Summit, October, 1–20. Online

Jones, N., and Hale, J. 2019. Analytical Reading: Primary Scientific Literature. Kentucky Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 56(2), 8–15.

Manktelow, K. I. 2004. Reasoning and rationality: The pure and the practical. In K. I. Manktelow and M. C. Chung (Eds.), Psychology of reasoning: Theoretical and historical perspectives (pp. 157–177). Hove, England: Psychology Press.

Reyna, V. F., and Farley, F. 2006. Risk and rationality in adolescent decision making. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7, 1–44.

Sanna, L., and Schwartz, N. 2006. Metacognitive experiences and human judgment: The case of hindsight bias and its debiasing. Current Directions in Psychological Science 15, 172–176.

Stanovich, K. 2009. What Intelligence Tests Miss: the psychology of rational thought. London: Yale University Press.

Stanovich, K., West, R., and Toplak, M. 2016. The Rationality Quotient: Toward A Test of Rational Thinking. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.