Are People Rational?

Possibly a controversial psychology opinion– I think psychology and press accounts of psychology too often overlook the role of reasoning– using facts (as we know them) in a mostly logical way to guide beliefs and behaviors.


Is There Such a Thing as a Rational Person?  “The short answer is no.”  2017

Decisions are Emotional Not Logical  2012

Irresistibly Irrational (We Are Not As Rational As We Think) 2018

Why Humans Are The Most Irrational Animals 2019

(but also see: The Irrational Idea That Humans Are Mostly Irrational, 2016)

When the key facts change, most often so do our conclusions.  If this were not the case, we would not be able to make bread, write articles that others can understand, drive cars, etc.

We can even see this with more ambiguous issues like moral judgments.  Example 1: When you change the information about whether people consent to a cultural practice (e.g. scarification), it changes judgments of that practice (Conry-Murray & Shaw, 2017).  We found that American college student were more likely than African (Beninese) college students to assume that people in West Africa consent to harmful cultural practices. But both groups required that those involved consent. Changing whether there was consent, changed judgments.

Example 2: Many views are based on facts. When you ask people to consider “alternative facts” (and assume they are actually true), it changes their judgments. For example, Wainryb (1991) told participants to assume either that spanking harms children OR actually works to teach children to behave better (the opposite of their previous view), and the change in the relevant facts changed their view of spanking (Wainryb, 1991 on informational assumptions).  

It’s not always easy to get people to believe that new information is more factual, but that is not illogical.  If you’ve heard something from a trusted authority and found it to be true as far as you know so far, it makes sense that you might resist new information until you can be sure it’s true. 

Which authorities we choose to trust is important.  We don’t always have time to dig into all the facts to evaluate every piece of evidence. (Personally, I just trust the climate change researchers because I don’t know climate science).  But we tend to act and make judgments consistent with the facts we believe to be true.

Logical decision making is probably found more when we encounter a new situation that we haven’t already thought through.  Once we’re thought something through, we tend to react more quickly the next time we see a similar problem—because we already did the thinking. 

We tend to easily accept evidence that supports the views we already have and we’re more critical of evidence that doesn’t fit our views.  But again, that is logical.  Since we’re already thought the issue through, the bar for changing our views should be somewhat high. Changing our views too often could lead to paralysis. 

Why is human rationality underappreciated? Part of the problem is that when research shows people being logical or rational– considering the specific features of each situation–it is harder to publish compared to things showing we’re illogical. There are at least two reasons for this:

(1) People being mostly logical is boring and will not attract a lot of clicks

(2) Showing that people use specific facts to reason about specific situations requires looking at lots and lots of very specific situations—which takes a ton of resources and makes it harder to generalize, and our goal as psychology researchers is to generalize, (and often, to generalize quickly). 

The human capability to be logical can and often does go wrong when authorities we rely on are untrustworthy or when we set the bar too high for changing our views or when we don’t want to think about something difficult, or when we are motivated to stick with old views because they benefit us financially, etc.  

But we also use logic every day to make our lives easier and to connect with others. Ignoring the ways that we are logical skews psychological research. It also means attempts to improve our human condition that are based on psychological research do not use all the tools at our command.  

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