Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


What is Wrong with the Psychology of Decision-Making?

In psychology textbooks, decision-making figures most of the time in the last chapters. These chapters usually acknowledge the failure of the Homo economicus model and propose to understand human irrationality as the product of heuristics and biases, that may be rational under certain environmental conditions. In a recent article, H.A. Gintis documents this neglect:

(…) a widely used text of graduate- level readings in cognitive psychology, (Sternberg & Wagner, 1999) devotes the ninth of eleven chapters to "Reasoning, Judgment, and Decision Making," offering two papers, the first of which shows that human subjects generally fail simple logical inference tasks, and the second shows that human subjects are irrationally swayed by the way a problem is verbally "framed" by the experimenter. A leading undergraduate cognitive psychology text (Goldstein, 2005) placed "Reasoning and Decision Making" the last of twelve chapters. This includes one paragraph describing the rational actor model, followed by many pages purporting to explain why it is wrong. (…) in a leading behavioral psychology text (Mazur, 2002), choice is covered in the last of fourteen chapters, and is limited to a review of the literature on choice between concurrent reinforcement schedules and the capacity to defer gratification (Gintis, 2007, pp. 1-2)
Why? The standard conception of decision-making in psychology can be summarized by two claims, one conceptual, one empirical. Conceptually, the standard conception holds that decision-making is a separate topic: it is one of the subjects that psychologists may study, together with categorization, inference, perception, emotion, personality, etc. As Gintis showed, decision-making has its own chapters (usually the lasts) in psychology textbooks. On the empirical side, the standard conception construes decision-making is an explicit deliberative process, such as reasoning. For instance, in a special edition of Cognition on decision-making (volume 49, issues 1-2, Pages 1-187), one finds the following claims:

Reasoning and decision making are high-level cognitive skills […]
(Johnson-Laird & Shafir, 1993, p. 1)

Decisions . . . are often reached by focusing on reasons that justify the selection of one option over another

(Shafir et al., 1993, p. 34)

Hence decision-making is studied mostly by multiple-choice tests using the traditional paper and pen method, which clearly suggests that deciding is considered as an explicit process. Psychological research thus assumes that the subjects’ competence in probabilistic reasoning as revealed by these tests is a good description of their decision-making capacities.

These two claims, however, are not unrelated. Since decision-making is a central, high-level faculty that stands between perception and action, it can be studied in isolation. They constitute a coherent whole, something that philosophers of science would call a paradigm. This paradigm is built around a particular view of decision-making (and more generally, cognition) that could be called “cogitative”:

Perception is commonly cast as a process by which we receive information from the world. Cognition then comprises intelligent processes defined over some inner rendition of such information. Intentional action is glossed as the carrying out of commands that constitute the output of a cogitative, central system. (Clark, 1997, p. 51)

In another post, I'll present an alternative to the Cogitative conception, based on research in neuroeconomics, robotics and biology.

You can find Gintis's article on his page, together with other great papers.


  • Clark, A. (1997). Being There : Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Gintis, H. (2007). A Framework for the Integration of the Behavioral Sciences (with Open Commentaries and Author's Response). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 1-61.
  • Goldstein, E. B. (2005). Cognitive Psychology : Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Australia Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
  • Johnson-Laird, P. N., & Shafir, E. (1993). The Interaction between Reasoning and Decision Making: An Introduction. Cognition, 49(1-2), 1-9.
  • Mazur, J. E. (2002). Learning and Behavior (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
  • Shafir, E., Simonson, I., & Tversky, A. (1993). Reason-Based Choice. Cognition, 49(1-2), 11-36.
  • Sternberg, R. J., & Wagner, R. K. (1999). Readings in Cognitive Psychology. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.


Anibal said...

Perhaps the historical neglect relating the study of decision-making processes have been the absence a common view that unified the disparate disiplines dealing with the phenomena about how humans judge, reason and decide in order to act.

I explicitely refer to the huge amount of discipines in charge to elucidate decision making processes in humans or non-humans: AI (artifical intelligence), economics, psychology, philosophy, biology...and how elusive is the notion of rationality and intelligence before all these disciplines converge into a common view.

A great effort to resolve this, at least at the conceptual level, is the distinction made by Alex Kacelnik reflected in a article published in a superb anthology "Rational Animals? OUP,edited by Susan Hurley and Matthew Nudds, in which he identifies the following meanings of rationality: PP-rationality (the concept used by philosphers and psychologists dealing principally with normative issues or what is the best reasoned action in terms of goals and another mentalistic notions), E- rationality (the rationality of economists ussually concieved in terms os maximising utility for the individual) and B-rationality (the rationality concieved from biology,animal behavioural studies, ethology... related with how the decisions inlfuence organism´s fittness)

ndd said...

I have posted a number of your entries from time to time on the blog "Economist's View" by Prof. Mark Thoma. The two of you appear to have an overlapping area of interest. You might want to email the professor and get added to his blogroll.

Thanks for the interesting information.

Paul said...

Nice post, thanks, and I'm particularly looking forward to the next one on the 'cogitative' view of decision making.

What would you make of the view that there seems to be increasing emphasis on embodiment in the real world (am thinking particularly of cognitive robotics here), and that cognition (with decision making as a part of that concept) is then best viewed as being an extension of this rather a separate 'entity'? Thus perception, action and cognition are very much the same except for the context as defined by embodiment.

Sorry for what is probably an over-simplification of the issues involved, and if you have addressed this elsewhere, but I would appreciate your view. Thanks.