Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Adaptive Rationality and Individual Differences

My name is Andrea Polonioli and I am a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. My primary research interests concern the philosophy of biological and cognitive sciences. The unifying theme of my research is the investigation of rational behavior and cognition.
Andrea Polonioli

Scholars in the field of judgement and decision-making have described a variety of heuristics that reasoners seem to deploy. Yet little attention had been paid to individual differences in the use of these heuristics, until Stanovich and his co-workers conducted a stream of individual differences studies involving reasoning and decision-making (e.g. Stanovich and West 1998; Stanovich 1999; and Stanovich and West, 2011).

They found a remarkable heterogeneity in the use of reasoning strategies and that a sizeable number of people do not deploy heuristics. But they also discovered important correlations between the use of heuristics and measures of cognitive ability. In one of my current projects I explore the implications of research on individual differences for the so-called 'rationality debate'.

In particular, in a paper I published recently, I assess the framework of adaptive rationality (henceforth AR) in light of Stanovich and colleagues' research. AR is a perspective on rational behaviour and cognition recently articulated by Gigerenzer and his colleagues (e.g. Gigerenzer et al. 1999; Todd et al. 2012). An important element of AR is the theory of the 'adaptive toolbox', which describes the psychological adaptations that humans use when making decisions. Yet, on the background of this descriptive view, AR theorists also make some controversial normative claims. Specifically, they argue for a replacement of the so-called 'standard picture of rationality' (Stein 1996: 4) and emphasise that what really matters for the assessment of reasoning strategies is whether they lead to successful behaviour in the real world.

In a series of publications, Stanovich and his co-workers have argued that their reported findings ultimately undermine the AR project (e.g. Stanovich 2011). To examine whether this is really the case, I discuss two arguments that Stanovich seems to offer against AR. First, heterogeneity in the use of heuristics seems to be at odds with the adaptationist background of the AR project. Second, the existence of correlations between cognitive ability and susceptibility to bias suggests that the 'standard picture of rationality' is normatively adequate.

I challenge Stanovich’s criticism of the AR project by showing that none of his arguments are compelling. First, I argue that the actual heterogeneity of reasoning performance is not incompatible with an adaptationist account. It is in fact quite compatible, and perhaps even necessary for some plausible evolutionary stories. Second, it seems that Stanovich has not shown that the 'standard picture of rationality' should be upheld, since compliance with its rules is more common in those who are more intelligent or possess higher cognitive abilities. In particular, I carefully assess the claim that people who score higher in tests of cognitive ability achieve better life outcomes because they do not reason heuristically, and conclude that such a claim is not well supported empirically.

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