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4 Reasons Why Irrationality Isn’t Seen as a Problem

Critically thinking about "the problem with the problem of human irrationality."

A primary focus of this ongoing blog has been the importance of critical thinking in our daily lives and the positive effects it yields. However, just as important to consider as the positive effects of critical thinking (CT) are the negative effects of irrationality. One manner of considering how to overcome the latter is that of as an impetus to get people to think critically. That is, in many ways, CT is a solution to a problem. However, recommending CT enhancement may not be enough to adequately deal with the problem.

A recent paper, The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality, written by my colleague and friend, John Eigenauer, investigates this issue in a particularly "meta" way. That is, his paper addresses the issue that “Despite the widespread negative effects on society…human irrationality has never been a matter of social concern.” (2018, p. 341). In his paper, Eigenauer highlights four key considerations for why this might be the case.

1. People don’t recognise their own irrationality.

Consistent with ongoing standpoints presented in this blog, Eigenauer notes that the problem of irrationality is exacerbated by cognitive-based issues that make it difficult for individuals to recognise their own irrationality. People’s failure to recognise their own cognitive biases, as well as their over-reliance on heuristic-based thinking and logical fallacies is largely due to, as often argued in this blog, a lack of "a critical thinking module to assess inconsistent or emotionally menacing ideas objectively" (Eigenauer, 2018; Kurzweil, 2012); thus, “lacking this capacity, people have a tendency to ignore evidence that conflicts with their prior beliefs and even to believe more firmly in the face of evidence or arguments that contradict their beliefs” (Anderson, 1983; Nissani & Hoefler-Nissani, 1992; Savion, 2009; in Eigenauer, 201, p. 346). He also makes reference to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a bias in which people mistakenly evaluate their cognitive abilities as greater than they are, as discussed in a previous post on this blog regarding 12 Common Biases that Affect How We Make Everyday Decisions.

2. The notion that advances in A.I. may render human irrationality irrelevant.

According to Eigenauer, the possibility that current technological advances in machine intelligence may create the impression that there is no need to deal with the problem on a social level because it is being dealt with on a technological level. He exemplifies research that indicates that machine learning systems may be able to facilitate enhanced accuracy of medical diagnoses, counter-terrorism security and financial decision-making—many of which are currently negatively influenced by human emotion.

3. The incorrect assumption of theoretical overlap between rationality and intelligence.

Eigenauer correctly argues that educational theory and practice has an unfortunate tendency to combine two distinct cognitive traits, intelligence and rationality—a mistake which has eluded public attention, even going unnoticed by educators and policymakers (Stanovich, 1993; 2011). This distinction is requisite in order to make progress toward increased rationality on a broader scale.

4. Irrationality is a different kind of social problem.

Though presented first for consideration in Eigenauer’s piece, I saved this particular consideration until the end because I think it may be the most important of the four. Irrationality is “different enough from traditional social problems that it is not viewed as a social problem—even though it may qualify objectively as one” (Eigenauer, 2018, p. 342). Eigenauer conceptualises a social problem as a situation or condition requiring change or solution in order to benefit some segment of the population, such as those involving politics, economics, technological advancement or injustice. Generally, such social problems only affect specific subsets of the population and rarely, if ever, affect all or nearly all of society, such as in the case of irrationality. This is potentially one reason why irrationality is not often viewed as a social problem. Furthermore, because ‘so many societal problems are competing for the public attention and resources at any given time’, those which are presented through dramatic, emotive means are those which generally succeed in gaining attention. It is worth noting that the reliance on drama and emotion are the antithesis of rationality and, indeed, critical thinking. Eigenauer further reinforces this standpoint by exemplifying how it’s not exactly feasible for the ‘problem of irrationality’ to do this—the closest one might see are the trials and tribulations faced in the comic strip Dilbert. Even in cases where a specific example of irrationality can be identified, such as in a political speech, irrationality comes across as the fault of the individual speaking (or at most their party), rather than society as a whole.

In my reading of John’s paper, I found myself agreeing with the sentiment, even though I found it disheartening and frustrating—in particular, the line “The consequence of these numerous impediments is that it is extraordinarily unlikely that rationality will ever be a primary object of social concern” (p. 342). However, this does not mean that we should stop striving to make things better—to try and infuse rationality into society and our daily lives. So, where do we go from here and what steps can we take? John presents a number of possible methodologies for overcoming these barriers to rationality. For example, with respect to distinguishing intelligence and rationality, he asserts that education should ‘target each entity individually in order to increase intelligence (a primary object of education) and increase rationality (an ignored aspect of education)’; and with respect to people not recognising their own rationality, that appropriate training (e.g. CT) and/or objective assessment of ‘inconsistent or emotionally menacing ideas’ is requisite.

Moving forward, perhaps development of disposition towards CT will facilitate recognition that machines may not be able to 'think' to a standard that many envisage and/or that it’s potentially dangerous to depend on an entity outside of ourselves (be it a machine or even another person) to make important decisions for both ourselves and society. Perhaps the same can be said about disposition development regarding the acknowledgment that irrationality even is a social problem; however, I think this consideration is more complex than that—I’m left uncertain as to how best we can overcome this problem. I think the fourth consideration truly is what is referred to as a wicked problem (Horn, 1999; 2003; Horn & Weber, 2003). However, with respect to the remainder of the considerations, I think there is hope for overcoming these barriers, but it will require work—we need to work to research and adopt established CT frameworks to teach rationality that distinguish it from intelligence. Better operational definitions of what intelligence, rationality and CT are and how we can best nourish them are also requisite. We need to learn that we, as a society, need to think better and we need to develop the disposition to want to think better. We must strive to overcome irrationality.


Anderson, C. A. (1983). Abstract and concrete data in the perseverance of social theories: When weak data lead to unshakable beliefs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19(2), 93–108. https ://do /10.1 016/0 022-1 031(8 3)900 31-8

Eigenauer, J. D. (2018). The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality. International Journal of Educational Reform, 27(4), 341-358.

Horn, R. E. (1999). Can Computers Think? Bainbrigde, WA: MacroVU, Inc.

Horn, R. E. (2003). Infrastructure for navigating interdisciplinary debates: Critical decisions for representing argumentation. In Kirschner, P., Buckingham- Shum, S., Carr, C. (Eds.), Visualizing Argumentation: Software Tools for Collaborative and Educational Sense-Making, 165-184, London: Springer-Verlag.

Horn, R. E., & Weber, R. P. (2007). New tools for resolving wicked problems: Mess mapping and resolution mapping processes. Bainbrigde Island, WA: MacroVU, Inc. and Strategy Kinetics, LLC.

Kurzweil, R. (2012). How to create a mind: The secret of human thought revealed. London: Viking Penguin.

Nissani, M. & Hoefler-Nissani, D. (1992). Experimental studies of belief-dependence of observations and of resistance to conceptual change. Cognition and Instruction, 9(2), 97–111.

Savion, L. (2009). Clinging to discredited beliefs: The larger cognitive story. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(1), 81–92.

Stanovich, K. E. (1993). Dysrationalia: A new specific learning disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26, 501–515.

Stanovich, K. E. (2011). Rationality and the reflective mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.