May 20, 2015 | By

Bugs in Our Mindware – Being Rational is so Hard!

Nautilus magazine this month has provided another well-documented summary of the pitfalls to being rational, providing further confirmation of our discussion On Rationality last fall.  Richard Nesbitt, in The Bugs in our Mindware, provides a good overview and some detailed examples of where the human mind can go wrong. Among the categories of errors to which we are prone are:

“schemas”: unconsciously associating properties to things, places or events based on prior experience or patterns – these can be quite flawed.

“stereotypes”: schemas about people – in many cases they may be accurate or harmless, but they can also be tragically mistaken.

“activation effects” and “incidental stimuli”: the unconscious impacts of surroundings, placement or other factors that influence or bias choices.  We tend to choose items on the right, for example.

“heuristics”: rules of thumb that seem quite rational but may fail on closer inspection – while that “run of good luck” has no statistical validity we tend to believe in it anyway (or to bet against it) in spite of the perfectly neutral odds.

Richard also offers some sound advice for the erstwhile rational thinker. While we do have to “call things as we see them”, we should, in the process, remain humble, watch out for pitfalls in our schemas, and be aware of the risk of incidentals and misplaced heuristics. The world would be a better place if we did.


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