Aspects of rationality

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Aspects of Rationality
Reflections on What It Means to Be Rational and Whether We Are

Raymond S. Nickerson

Psychology Press Taylor & Francis Group 270 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016 © 2008 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

Psychology Press Taylor & Francis Group 27 Church Road Hove, East Sussex BN3 2FA

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1International Standard Book Number-13: 978-1-84169-487-0 (Hardcover) Except as permitted under U.S. Copyright Law, no part of this book may be reprinted, reproduced, transmitted, or utilized in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying, microfilming, and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, withoutwritten permission from the publishers. Trademark Notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Nickerson, Raymond S. Aspects of rationality : reflections on what it means to be rational and whether we are / Raymond S. Nickerson. p. cm.Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 978-1-84169-487-0 (alk. paper) 1. Rationalism--Psychological aspects. 2. Psychology--Philosophy. I. Title. BF441.N49 2007 153.4’3--dc22 Visit the Taylor & Francis Web site at and the Psychology Press Web site at



7 1



What Is Rationality?



TheSearch for Standards of Rationality



Intelligence and Knowledge






Goals, Values, and Affect








7 8

Preference and Judgment


Decision and Choice



Understanding and Wisdom



The Relativity of Rationality



Conclusions and a View ReferencesIndex

389 421 489


I suspect that everyone who reads these words considers himself or herself to be rational. But all of us probably can think of people whom we consider to be irrational, or at least to behave irrationally on occasion. These surmises imply the existence of some concept of rationality in terms of which such judgments are made, but that does not mean that we would find it easy to articulate that concept precisely, if asked. What does it mean to be rational—to reason well and effectively? How does rationality, broadly conceived, relate to the knowledge one acquires, the beliefs one forms, the explanations one constructs or appropriates, the judgments and decisions one makes, the values one adopts? If you fi nd the question of what it means to be rationaldifficult to answer precisely, you are in good company. Philosophers, among others, have debated it for many centuries. A closely related question is: What is the character of human reasoning, and, in particular, does it tend to be rational? The second question presupposes an answer to the fi rst. If we cannot say what rationality is, or what we intend to mean when we use the word, we cannot hope todetermine whether any particular instance of reasoning or behavior is rational or not. Much has been written about human rationality—or lack thereof. In recent years, some psychologists have focused attention on numerous ways in which people appear not to be rational, at least if being rational is taken to mean thinking or behaving in accordance with some normative standard. Others have argued that ifhuman reasoning is as flawed as this work suggests, it is a wonder that we, as a species, are still around to notice the fact. In this book, I discuss much of the experimental research on reasoning as it relates to the question of human rationality, in the context of a variety of conceptions of rationality, not limited to conformity of thought and behavior to the dictates of one or another...