Health and Behavior

Professor to put rational thinking to the test

by James Heffernan

Rational thinking test

Pop quiz:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Many people will answer quickly and confidently: 10 cents. But that’s wrong. If the ball costs 10 cents, the bat would then have to cost $1.10, for total of $1.20. The correct answer is 5 cents (and $1.05 for the bat).

Question 2:

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of it?

Twenty-four days, you say? Nope. The correct answer is 47 days. (On the 48th day, the patch would double in size to cover all of the lake.)

If you missed both questions, don’t feel bad. The vast majority of us, it turns out, are cognitive misers, employing mental shortcuts that sometimes lead to incorrect conclusions or even foolish decisions. Rather than carefully evaluating the information presented, we skip to the solution that requires the least mental effort.

“For most of us, really hard thinking is something we like to avoid as much as possible. And yet a lot of rational thinking profits from this type of information processing,” says Dr. Richard F. West, professor emeritus of graduate psychology at James Madison University.

West and his longtime research partner, Dr. Keith E. Stanovich, recently received a $1 million grant to develop an assessment of rational thinking. The funding from the John Templeton Foundation runs through 2015.

“We’ve been working toward a test of rational thinking for over 15 years now, but it has been a piecemeal effort and something we have had to juggle along with other projects in research and teaching and consulting activities,” said Stanovich, a professor at the University of Toronto. “We have already collected an enormous amount of data relevant to the project, but much of this data has been lying unanalyzed. Now we will have time to go back and work and look into data sets that we have been collecting for about a decade now.”

West and Stanovich’s career-defining collaboration began as idle conversation between fellow graduate students at the University of Michigan.

“We were making some important contributions at the time to the field of reading,” West recalls, “but we found we were spending more and more of our free time engaging in this sort of nerdy gossip, which centered around questions of rationality and how people, even very bright people, would sometimes make poor decisions.”

Human cognition is characterized by two types of processing. Type 1, whether innate or acquired through extensive practice, is autonomous — looking both ways before crossing the street, for example — and can be executed at the same time as other higher levels of processing. Type 2 requires conscious mental effort. Although either type of processing may underlie decisions that are rational, many of the most important individual differences in rational thinking involve problems with Type 2 processing. 

Traditional philosophy equates rational thinking with logic, but most cognitive scientists consider rational thinking in terms of how well our beliefs map onto the real world and whether our decisions help us fulfill our goals — in essence, “what is true” and “what to do,” respectively. “If you think in a way that brings you closer to a true understanding of the world and helps you get what you want, that’s rational,” West says.

We are all compelled to engage in rational thinking every day, whether deciding which foods to eat, where to invest our money or how to deal with a difficult client.

Yet humans are often highly susceptible to cognitive illusions and thinking biases that can hinder good judgment and decision-making, West says. These biases have been linked to everything from Ponzi schemes to medical error.

In addition to being cognitive misers, many people simply lack the knowledge and strategies needed to think rationally in certain situations — what psychologists have termed “mindware gaps.” Others, when choosing between two similar options, tend to rely on the personal testimony of an individual or small group over a larger sample that may include extensive research and expert opinion. Still others allow their emotions or prior knowledge of a subject to cloud their judgment.

We may assume that intelligence and rationality go hand in hand. But even smart people do foolish things. According to Stanovich, author of the 2009 book “What Intelligence Tests Miss,” IQ tests are very good at measuring certain mental faculties, but they often fall short in their assessment of an individual’s ability to think rationally or override cognitive biases. In fact, numerous studies by West and Stanovich have shown that so-called intelligent people may be no less susceptible to many of these pitfalls than those with lower IQs.

West believes that humans need to be good rational thinkers to be able to navigate an increasingly complex world. Granted, our culture has developed tools, such as statistics and probability, to help govern decision-making. But most people are not natural statisticians, he says.

And that’s where a rational thinking test like the one West and Stanovich are working on can help.

“If you’re going to train people to become more rational thinkers, you’re going to need ways to assess whether your efforts are successful,” West says. “Our hope is to point these things out to people and help them make better decisions.” 


By James Heffernan ('96), JMU Public Affairs

Feb. 11, 2013

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Published: Monday, February 11, 2013

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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