International Journal of Educational Reform, Vol. 27, No. 4 / Fall 2018 341
AHuman irrationality has been found to be the source of much
societal harm. It affects medicine and healthcare via improper and
incorrect diagnoses as well as harmful patient decisions (Croskerry, 2003;
Groopman, 2007; Croskerry, 2014); it affects global finance by means such
as overly optimistic growth assessments and ill-advised lending policies
(Shiller, 2015); it affects personal finance through poor decision-making such
as susceptibility to scams (Modic & Lea, 2013) and falling prey to the sunk
cost fallacy (Garland & Newport, 1991; Arkes & Blumer, 1985); it affects
the global environment when science is ignored, leading to policy decisions
that discount the long-term dangers of matters such as global warming and
species extinction (Berger, 2009); it affects legal proceedings and decisions
by perpetuating injustice through personal prejudice and unjust sentenc-
ing (Benforado, 2015); it affects personal belief systems when people accept
superstitions, homeopathic medicine, and conspiracy theories while rejecting
scientific findings that contradict these beliefs.
Despite the widespread negative effects on society such as these, human
irrationality has never been a matter of social concern. Why is irrationality
not considered a social problem? Why is it not likely to be recognized as
such? To answer these questions, this article’s focus is necessarily limited to
the issues of epistemic rationality (rather than instrumental rationality): why
are widespread violations of normative rationality that lead to significant
JOHN D. EIGENAUER
The Problem with the Problem
of Human Irrationality
ABSTRACT: Despite the widespread social harm that human irrationality causes,
irrationality is not considered to be a social problem. This article explores why
this is so, argues why irrationality is unlikely to be considered a social problem,
and suggests that the best hope for reducing the social harms caused by human
irrationality lies with the educational system.
KEY WORDS: irrationality, social problems
342 JOHN D. EIGENAUER
The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality
social problems not addressed as problems of normative rationality? Answers
to these questions will lead to a discussion of challenges for educators to
undertake efforts to teach students to enhance their rationality.
The primary answer to the question of why irrationality is not deemed a
social problem is that it is different enough from traditional social problems
that it is not viewed as a social problem even though it may qualify objectively
as one. To demonstrate this, I will first define social problems using Hilgart-
ner and Bosk’s theoretical framework that treats social problems as problems
that compete for and gather public attention that do not necessarily align
with objective considerations such as how many people the problems affect
or the amount of suffering they cause. This framework shows that human
irrationality lacks key features that define social problems, thereby limiting
the prospects for irrationality to rise to the level of a social problem.
Next, the article argues that the problem of irrationality is exacerbated
by psychological issues that disincline individuals from recognizing human
irrationality as a problem at all. These psychological roadblocks are mir-
rored by underlying cognitive impediments to rational thought that further
enforce a kind of operative blindness toward the problem. Closely related
to these impediments are theoretical considerations such as irrationality’s
conflation with intelligence that limit the possibility that human irrational-
ity will be recognized as a significant social problem. Finally, consideration
is given to the possibility that current technological advances in machine
intelligence may create the impression that there is no need to deal with the
problem on a social level because it is being dealt with on a technological
The consequence of these numerous impediments is that it is extraordi-
narily unlikely that rationality will ever be a primary object of social concern.
These considerations lead to the question of what should be done to amelio-
rate the problem of irrationality; it is here that we run up against even more
problems that limit the likelihood that irrationality will be treated broadly
because of practical concerns such as the inadequate educational structures
and practices to deal with irrationality.
The methodology for this analysis is grounded in Chronbach and Meehl’s
concept of “construct validity” in which information from various lines of
reasoning converges on a single conclusion, lending support to that conclu-
sion through the weight of multifaceted analysis (1956, p. 187). In this case,
no single piece of evidence demonstrates definitively that irrationality will
not rise to the level of a true social problem; however, taken together, the
fact that irrationality does not fit well into the paradigm of social problems,
that psychological and cognitive factors contribute to limiting recognition of
irrationality, that conflating intelligence and irrationality limits understand-
ing of the nature of irrationality, that artificial intelligence promises to reduce
or eliminate the need to address irrationality, and that educational institutions
face a variety of barriers to implementing programs to enhance rationality
The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality 343
among students, all point to and add up to the conclusion that human irra-
tionality will probably never rise to the level of a social concern.
The Nature of Social Problems
A social problem is generally defined as a situation or condition in need of
change to benefit some segment of the population (Spector & Kitsuse, 2009,
p. ix). These situations or conditions usually require solutions such as political
remediation, economical intervention, technological implementations, or any
one of a number of other remedies aimed at decreasing injustice, increasing
efficiency, or applying technical methodologies more broadly. Some examples
include poor working conditions, lack of educational opportunities, wealth
inequality, and lack of access to healthcare. These problems invariably affect
subsets of the population (cancer patients, the homeless, college students,
auto workers) and gather public attention only irregularly; exceptionally few
social problems affect all or nearly all members of any society (Hilgartner
& Bosk, 1988, p. 57). However, one social problem affects virtually every
living person, has real and far-reaching social consequences, and yet has
gone largely unnoticed by society and unaddressed by public policy: human
Despite the undisputed ubiquity of irrationality (Brafman & Brafman,
2008; Kahneman, 2011; Sutherland, 1992; Tavris & Aronson, 2007), state-
ments about human irrationality being a social problem are nearly nonexis-
tent. Stanovich’s claim that “society has [not] weighed the consequences of its
failure to focus on irrationality as a real social problem” (2011, p. 187) is a rare
exception, as is evidenced by the fact that “irrationality is a social problem”
does not appear anywhere on the internet as of January 2018; eliminating
the word “social” in the search returns only ten results. To be fair, a number
of writers recognize that irrationality is a social problem in the sense that it
has specific social consequences resulting from voter decisions and election
As an example, Huemer claims that “the problem of political irrationality
is the greatest social problem humanity faces,” surpassing “crime, drug addic-
tion,” and “even world poverty” (2016, p. 464); Caplan claims that severe
social consequences arise from the fact that “voters are worse than ignorant;
they are, in a word, irrational” (2008, p. 2); and Brennan has argued that mov-
ing from a democracy to an epistocracy might be necessary to alleviate the
negative ramifications of voter irrationality (2016). These authors rightfully
treat human irrationality as a problem with negative social consequences for
the election of public officials and the formation of public policy.
Isolating irrationality to the political sphere, though, addresses the nar-
row question of what could be done about voter irrationality rather than the
broader question of what should be done about irrationality in general. This
focus is problematic because, even if we could circumvent the problem of
344 JOHN D. EIGENAUER
voter irrationality through an extreme measure such as the implementation
of an epistocratic voting system, we might only solve the problem of voters
being swayed by demagogues and policies being determined by emotions,
and not the root problem of human irrationality.
For some time, sociologists considered social problems to arise from objec-
tive considerations. Since the 1970s, however, our understanding of social
problems has shifted to a more naturalistic description in which issues rise to
the level of true social problems with widespread public recognition through
a process not unlike competition among living organisms. In this model,
“social problems compete for societal attention” (Hilgartner & Bosk, 1988,
p. 55; Blumer, 1971, pp. 300–303) and gain that attention independent of the
apparent worthiness of those causes. Instead of society weighing problems in
an objective fashion, problems gain currency through “drama and novelty”
(Hilgartner & Bosk, p. 61).
Because so many societal problems are competing for the public attention
and resources at any given time, casting those problems “in dramatic persua-
sive terms” using “vivid, emotional rhetoric” is essential to the success of the
message (Hilgartner & Bosk, p. 62). This implies that highly emotive mes-
sages stand a better chance of gathering public notice than those less ame-
nable to being framed in emotional language—a claim supported by many
examples, such as the 2014 Ebola virus scare in the United States (Gorman
& Gorman, 2017, p. 3).
Yet, even emotionally salient messages and causes can lose valence if merely
repeated over time, which calls for novelty in the form of new symbols,
new representatives, or slightly modified messages (Hilgartner & Bosk, pp.
62–63). Even if a message has emotive potential and is offered in languages
and images that evoke positive emotions, it is not guaranteed to gather public
attention. Society has limited “carrying capacity” for social problems (Hil-
gartner & Bosk, p. 59) for obvious reasons: there is only so much space in
print or digital media, only so much time on radio or television shows, and
most importantly, humans have only so much attention to lend even the most
Each potential social problem thus competes not only against other prob-
lems but against the limited public space in which problems vie for attention.
To make matters more difficult, each culture has a set of priorities that may
filter potential candidates for public attention while others may be quashed
by powerful parties whose interests may be threatened by public awareness
(Hilgartner & Bosk, p. 64). Clearly, the urgency, validity, magnitude, and
import of the problem do not necessarily determine the transformation of a
social need into a true social problem.
If measures such as the severity and urgency of a problem do not neces-
sarily contribute to a problem entering public consciousness in a significant
way, what factors do contribute? According to Hilgartner and Bosk, the main
factors are “institutional, political, and cultural” (1988, p. 56). Culturally,
The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality 345
the rise of social problems depends upon a dramatic problem being cast in
emotionally salient, “succinct messages” (Hilgartner & Bosk, p. 62). An entire
industry of social problem promoters “work to fit social problems into slick,
little packages that crisply present issues in authoritative and urgent tones”
(Hilgartner & Bosk, p. 62).
These messages often use tried and true dramatic “tropes” such as repre-
sentative figures and allegories (Hilgartner & Bosk, p. 62); they often receive
imaginative salience from the cultural familiarity of the message and are often
powered by strong “political and economic interests” (Hilgartner & Bosk, p.
64). And they are further winnowed and shaped by organizational structures
such as media outlets that choose to emphasize one problem over another
or even a particular facet of a particular problem. And, in the age of social
media, social problems can rise to celebrity status (and then disappear) in very
short order through postings and message forwarding, although they may
not gather the same momentum that an institutionally or governmentally
sponsored cause might have.
What Irrationality Is Missing
The previous section delineates factors that do and do not contribute to a
problem growing to the level of being widely recognized as a social problem
deserving of public attention and resources. This outline of the structure
of social problems describing the factors contributing to raising the import
of social problems leads to the inference that the social problem of human
irrationality is at a grave disadvantage when competing with other problems.
Since social problems that gain attention and power must be emotionally
salient, they must possess a strong element of drama.
The problem of human irrationality completely lacks this quality; it is hard
to even imagine an effective emotive statement about the widespread harm of
human irrationality. No images of people suffering because of human irratio-
nality are available; indeed, the closest thing to a consistent trope regarding
human irrationality is Scott Adams’s portrayal of office irrationality in Dilbert;
and even this is easily interpreted to mean that there is something about the
modern bureaucratic office that creates the irrationality portrayed therein. In
Dilbert, irrationality is mingled with office politics or the intellectual failings
of individuals—there is no broader social message about human irrationality
beyond its sheer entertainment value.
Even in its most tragic and conspicuous form, human irrationality is often
portrayed as a political preference for a certain interpretation of facts—some
sort of strange expression of free speech. Indeed, media reports that struggle
to understand contradictory statements issued by politicians or outright
denial of factual scientific knowledge by public officials present these as indi-
vidual aberrations. Therefore, even if there were widespread outrage at an
individual’s obviously irrational abuse of logic and science, this outrage would
346 JOHN D. EIGENAUER
likely be directed at the individual in question and not at human irrationality
Beyond the lack of emotional salience, human irrationality faces other
significant hurdles in becoming a recognized social problem. Social prob-
lems are often represented by “operatives,” that is, professionals whose job
is to create urgency, emotional connection, and visibility for problems. This
implies that the “industry” knows which kinds of problems gain public atten-
tion and have the highest probability of garnering media attention, financial
support, and eventual success.
Common cultural themes include healthcare, environmental concerns,
and the economy. In addition, newsworthy items may rush into public con-
sciousness in the aftermath of a tragedy, leapfrogging long-term issues such
as unemployment. But human irrationality lacks stature as a cultural concern
and the ability to be qualified as a tragedy in the customary sense of the
word. Operatives who work in the social problems arena, then, would have
little incentive to promote human irrationality as a social problem because
it does not qualify as a cultural concern on par with health and wealth and
it cannot grab public attention suddenly as does a tragedy that causes death
Nonetheless, human irrationality is a topic of public discussion; extensive
research endeavors exist to discover and describe it; numerous books describe
human irrationality, and scholars in numerous fields related to cognitive
science undertake elegant experiments to discover its characteristics, its
neurological underpinnings, and its social consequences. This research often
reveals factors that prohibit irrationality from being recognized as a social
problem even if it could be portrayed dramatically and even if it were taken
up by industry operatives.
One such factor is that people do not recognize their own irrationality
because the human brain functions in a way that makes recognizing its own
errors extremely difficult. As Burton argues, “feelings of knowing, correct-
ness, conviction, and certainty” are deeply embedded in biological processes
outside conscious awareness—feelings that trump arguments and therefore
stubbornly resist evidence contrary to personal conviction (2008, p. 218).
Kurzweil takes this argument one step further, saying that this cognitive
intransigence is due to the brain’s complete lack of “a critical thinking mod-
ule” to assess inconsistent or emotionally menacing ideas objectively (2012,
p. 176, 197). Lacking this capacity, people have a tendency to ignore evidence
that conflicts with their prior beliefs and even to believe more firmly in the
face of evidence or arguments that contradict their beliefs: a phenomenon
known as belief perseverance (Anderson, 1983; Nissani & Hoefler-Nissani,
1992; Savion, 2009; Greitemeyer, 2014).
The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality 347
As but one example among many, the percent of Tea Party members who
believed that President Obama was not born in the United States rose after
President Obama produced his birth certificate showing that he was born in
Hawaii (Gold & Gold, 2014, pp. 60–61). Ignoring evidence in this fashion
is especially evident from research supporting the blind spot bias. This bias
refers to the tendency for people to consider themselves less susceptible
to pressures toward social conformity (i.e., more independent-minded and
objective) than others (Pronin, Berger, & Molouki, 2007).
The sum of this research points to the conclusion that humans would likely
not consider themselves to be irrational or their choices to be ill-founded
even if evidence clearly showed that they were thinking or acting irrationally.
And so, a distinctive feature of the social problem of irrationality is that
although scholars studying cognition have recognized it as a problem affect-
ing the human condition, individuals seem to consider themselves immune
from it. Not believing that they need improvement in that arena, people
would not seek solutions to it; the problem would not be considered to be
a problem by the very individuals who suffer from it. And if people do not
perceive their own irrationality, it is highly unlikely that it would rise to the
level of a social problem.
The problem is worse than merely failing to recognize one’s own think-
ing errors; it seems that people actually overestimate their abilities, further
exacerbating the problem of recognition and need for correction. Like nearly
any trait imaginable, humans display varying degrees of rationality (Stanov-
ich & West, 1998). While they may be able to compare standards such as
their personal wealth fairly accurately (Payne, 2017, pp. 31–55)—perhaps
because data about income is readily available and fairly objective standards
of economic prosperity are visible in terms of living conditions—people do
not accurately assess personal qualities, often overestimating everything from
physical attractiveness to intelligence (Kruger & Dunning, 1999; Dunfer et
al., 2011; Gabriel, Critelli, & Ee, 1994; Miller & Geraci, 2011).
Kruger and Dunning’s now-famous research showed that those lacking key
cognitive skills do poorly on cognitive tests and fail to recognize that fact,
badly overestimating their competence (p. 43). One explanation that they
offer for this fact is that people do not get feedback on their mental mistakes
and biases (Kruger & Dunning, p. 43). This is especially important in light of
Heft and Scharff’s finding that feedback is an essential component in improv-
ing individual reasoning ability (2017, p. 49). In the absence of feedback from
rational others, individuals of lower cognitive competence are left to their
own devices to recognize their own cognitive shortcomings. This results
in a cognitive catch-22; in order to properly monitor and assess one’s own
cognitive deficiencies, one needs to consistently and consciously use Type 2
processing and metacognitive skills.
Unfortunately, the ability to enlist these processes and the mindware neces-
sary to diagnose and correct irrational tendencies is precisely what is missing.
348 JOHN D. EIGENAUER
To make matters worse, rationality lacks “unavoidable reality constraints”
(Kruger & Dunning, p. 44) such as those that stop people from believing
that they can solve calculus problems having never mastered algebra. In
the absence of well-known standards for rationality (“unavoidable reality
constraints”), people are free to claim that they are capable of being rational
and to overestimate the degree to which they are. It follows that individuals
who overestimate their own rational abilities, who lack corrective feedback,
metacognitive skills and the tendency to enlist them, and objective restraints
on their own overconfidence, would likely be unreceptive to the possibility
that human irrationality constitutes a true social problem.
Overconfidence in one’s abilities, though, does not preclude the possibil-
ity of having a desire to enhance those abilities. But factors also exist that
limit motivation toward change of personal abilities. For example, Eil and
Rao have shown that people treat favorable and unfavorable information in
very different ways, discounting negative information about themselves and
readily accepting positive information through “asymmetric updating rules”
(2011, pp. 116, 127). The result of this asymmetrical use of information is to
create biases and consequently limit the ability to make rational judgments—
some with severe social consequences (Sharot & Garrett, 2016, pp. 26, 29).
Clearly, those wishing to gather support for efforts to ameliorate this
problem would be faced with the challenge of convincing a population ill-
equipped to accurately assess and unwilling to admit their rational shortcom-
ings or their need for enhanced rationality. Among society at large, the very
message that humans are irrational would not be well received and would
likely be discounted by virtue of the apparently innate tendency to discount
negative personal information and incorrectly assess personal abilities. These
traits of human cognition would therefore dramatically impede efforts to
raise consciousness about human irrationality.
Part of the blame for our inability to accurately assess our irrational ten-
dencies lies with the fact that the human brain functions in two modes that
have come to be called System One and System Two—or Type 1 and Type2
processing (LaRue, Poirier, & Nkambou, 2013). The formal description of
these two modalities has come to be called the dual process theory. In its most
basic format, dual process theory posits that the human brain defaults to a
processing mode that is fast, only roughly accurate (and often inaccurate), and
which relies on a variety of heuristics (mental shortcuts) to make assessments
(Type 1 processing; Evans & Frankish, 2009). The brain does this because it
has evolved to conserve resources, especially under conditions in which there
is no immediately apparent harm in using heuristics.
But the human brain is also capable of operating in a slower, more
resource-intensive mode known as Type 2 processing (Stanovich, 2011, pp.
20, 29, 70) that is more conducive to reaching rational decisions, such as
those that require gathering and weighing evidence objectively, but which can
only be sustained for shorter periods of time. Interestingly, thinking about
The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality 349
rationality—indeed, thinking about thinking in general—is a Type 2 process:
it is a cognitively challenging, resource-intensive task sustainable for only
short periods of time (Gorman & Gorman, 2017, p. 183). Unfortunately for
public debates about human rationality, understanding a nuanced discussion
of the import of rationality and the dangers of irrationality on a social scale
is a task for System Two.
Social issues still tend to rise to levels of public concern when they portray
dramatic emotional tropes, when they possess cultural familiarity, and when
those in the industry of marketing social problems deem them worthy of
their effort, all properties that are at odds with the fundamental functioning
of System Two: emotional salience replaces effortful thought, cultural famil-
iarity replaces the isolated concerns of cognitive scientists, and marketing
replaces deliberation. Indeed, all of the skills necessary to viably assess human
irrationality as a true social problem involve System Two resources while all
the messages designed to enhance sympathy for social problems are designed
to access System One resources.
Because the nature of the problem of human rationality requires access
to Type 2 cognitive processes and social problems commonly access Type1
cognitive processes, there is a mismatch between the nature of cognitive
processes required to properly address the problem and the nature of the
cognitive processes that need to be accessed for the problem to reach the level
of social concern. Therefore, individuals enlisting Type 2 processes might
well recognize human irrationality as a social problem but be hard-pressed
to convince others of this fact without doing so in a manner that accesses
Type 1 processes—something that is highly unlikely because of the difference
between the nature of the problem of human irrationality and the nature of
social problems in general.
Our overestimation of our cognitive abilities, our lack of receptivity toward
information that supports this overestimation, and our tendency to conserve
cognitive resources would seem to point to the need to ameliorate the prob-
lem via education. Unfortunately, educational theory and practice conflate two
separate cognitive traits that need to be separated in order to make progress
toward increased rationality on a broad scale. These two traits are “intelli-
gence” and “rationality.” Despite the fact that the practice of critical thinking (a
concept often linked to rationality) has existed since at least the ancient Greeks,
the distinction between intelligence and rationality has emerged only in the
past twenty-five years and has largely escaped public attention, even going
unnoticed by educators and policy makers (Stanovich, 2011, pp. 186–190).
The distinction began with Keith Stanovich’s 1993 article “Dysrational-
ity: A new specific learning disability,” in which he defined “dysrationalia”
(a word that still does not appear in dictionaries) as “the inability to think
350 JOHN D. EIGENAUER
and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence” (p. 503). Since that
time, much of Stanovich’s experimental work has focused on substantiating
and formalizing the relationship—or lack thereof—between intelligence and
rationality, expanding the concept beyond its initial conceptual framework
of a learning disability. He has found that although there are moderate cor-
relations between intelligence and some aspects of rationality, to a very large
degree the two concepts are separable (2008), implying that even individuals
of high intelligence can think and act in irrational ways.
Various elements of Stanovich’s argument are important for the question of
human irrationality being seen as a social problem. First, if intelligence and
rationality are truly separable as his research indicates, educational interven-
tions would have to target each entity individually in order to increase intel-
ligence (a primary object of education) and increase rationality (an ignored
aspect of education)—unless increased rationality followed from increased
intelligence (which it does not) or increased intelligence followed from
increased rationality (which we do not know).
Because formal education assumes the equivalence of the two, progress in
rationality is necessarily limited in the educational sphere to the degree that
educational measures focus on knowledge mastery. In fact, in the absence
of tests that measure rationality (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2016, p. x),
educators have no diagnostic tools to determine if individual rationality has
increased over the course of an instructional period. And even if these tests
became available (as they did in late 2016), they would have to be adopted
by schools. If and when that should happen, the tests would be meaningful
only to the degree that schools adopted wholesale educational reforms that
involved changes to instructional methodologies, curricula, and textbooks
aimed at enhancing rationality.
Clearly, these are formidable barriers that would require considerable
investments of time and money to overcome (Ennis, 2016). But even before
such investments were made, there would have to be broad recognition of
the problem, which would necessarily begin with educators, politicians, and
parents acknowledging the distinction between intelligence and rationality.
Given that centuries upon centuries of accumulated cultural knowledge has
assumed the equivalence between intelligence and rationality, it seems highly
unlikely that the issue of educating specifically for increased rationality would
become a public concern because of the cultural inertia behind the conflation
of intelligence and rationality.
Nonetheless, institutions of higher education would seem to be ideal places
to undertake efforts to teach rationality and achieve some advances in this
arena. After all, instructors could target for improvement of at least some
individual components of rationality, and departments, programs, or entire
schools could adopt policies and techniques that would enhance “critical
thinking,” no matter how loosely defined that concept may be or how closely
it aligns with rationality.
The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality 351
In fact, some publications report appropriate concern with, and mea-
sureable progress in, undergraduate reasoning skills as a result of targeted
instruction in critical thinking (Solon, 2007; Harrell, 2012; Hitchcock, 2015).
However, despite these encouraging reports, other research indicate that
impediments may still remain to recognizing that rationality is a problem that
needs to be addressed on a broad scale by institutions of higher education.
Richard Paul, for example, has argued that there are at least three serious
impediments to colleges teaching students to be better critical thinkers, none
of which have to do with the cognitive limitations of students: “most college
faculty … lack a substantive concept of critical thinking,” most faculty mem-
bers do not know that they lack this understanding, and faculty still largely
rely on instructional methods that emphasize lecture and memorization of
facts (2005, p. 27).
Possibly exacerbating this problem, McCrickerd reports general faculty
resistance to change, presumably away from antiquated methodologies such
as prolonged lectures and toward methods that promote thinking skills and
dispositions (2012, p. 56). Even if Paul’s conclusions may overgeneralize,
and even if McCrickerd’s research speaks to the minority, their conclusions
deserve consideration in light of the import of irrationality on a social scale
and the limited concern with this problem outside academia.
These assessments suggest that, in addition to the impediments to a soci-
etal recognition of the problem of human irrationality discussed thus far,
some more may still exist even where the challenge is recognized and taken
seriously. After all, even if a minority of college faculty fail to implement
strategies that may enhance individual rationality for any reason—be it “pro-
fessional inertia” (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2016, p. 328), misconceptions
about thinking, or even psychological resistance to change—prime opportu-
nities for advocacy are lost.
Advances in artificial (machine) intelligence could also lead to the percep-
tion that human irrationality needs not be considered a broad social prob-
lem. Current advances in intelligent technology indicate that computational
devices are being assigned an increasing responsibility in solving problems
formerly undertaken by humans (Pannu, 2015; Steiner, 2012, pp. 17–18, 214).
A significant number of these tasks involve decision-making that is designed
to optimize rationality by relying on algorithms that are free of emotion and
therefore avoid the kinds of biases and heuristics that commonly guide human
thinking (Steiner, 2012, p. 63; Kelly & Hamm, 2013, p. 13). For example,
machine learning systems can improve the accuracy of medical diagnoses
(Amato et al., 2013), eliminate emotion from decisions in investments (Steiner,
2012, p. 57), and enhance security measures against terrorist strikes (Tambe,
2011)—all fields potentially influenced negatively by human emotion.
352 JOHN D. EIGENAUER
As artificial intelligence advances, demonstrating and proving its accuracy,
cases of “machine rationality” will no doubt be highly touted, much as Watson
is currently publicized (Kelly & Hamm, 2013, pp. 34–39). These messages,
if they look anything like the current advertisements for Watson, will tout
the “intellectual” successes and predictive capacities of intelligent machines,
letting people see in simple, visual, and often intriguing terms, practical solu-
tions to complex problems (Kelly & Hamm, 2013, pp. 13–16, 58).
While these machines may in fact offer viable solutions to social prob-
lems—and not merely to logistical problems such as cost efficiency in ship-
ping—doing so can create the tacit understanding that irrationality need not
be a social concern because artificial intelligence will provide solutions on a
case-by-case basis to virtually any problem. Indeed, the belief that “there is
no problem technology cannot reduce to its most formulaic level and thereby
determine objective answers [to]” will likely become more widely accepted
with time (Dormehl, 2014, p. 4).
It is a short step from accepting that algorithms can provide objective
answers to any question to the position that it is irrational not to rely on
machine intelligence. In fact, Rodriguez and Watson suggest that people
should “take on faith that the algorithm knows what is best for them in
a resource complex world,” which would allow for a “perfect life” that is
“devoid of pretense, doubt, and ultimately, fear” (2009, p. 8). This faith is
grounded in the absolute fact of human cognitive limitations: these limita-
tions are part of our evolutionary inheritance, they cannot be consistently
overcome through simple acts of volition, and they can be exploited by those
who understand them. This inevitability and vulnerability leads to the sug-
gestion that disembodied intelligence that is free of these limitations and
vulnerabilities provides the only known means of consistently avoiding errors
arising from irrationality.
If the goal were to eliminate irrationality (given that humans are evolu-
tionarily bound to it), it would be possible to argue that it is irrational not to
accept and implement any available means to defeat irrationality. Here, the
technological solution to the problem contains a compelling reason to con-
sider the problem to be de facto solved, and therefore not to be a problem
Only recently have cognitive scientists begun to recognize and describe the
deeply nuanced nature of human rationality (Stanovich, West, & Toplak,
2016, p. 315). While they still often speak in terms of the dichotomy of
System One and System Two, human rationality is being recognized as a
multifaceted operation that cannot be simply contrasted with irrationality.
For example, Stanovich, West, and Toplak have compiled an extensive list of
areas of social concern negatively influenced by less-than-optional rational
The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality 353
processes. These include medicine, law, economics, journalism, education,
psychology, insurance, consumerism, investing, occupational success, finance,
school success, personal health, public policy, environmentalism, and super-
stitious thinking (pp. 298–311).
While society at large may not be able to see clearly the negative effects of
irrationality in general, seeing some of the specific and direct consequences
in smaller arenas (e.g., medical diagnoses) allows for irrationality to be seen as
a legitimate social concern in specific instances. Shortcomings in these areas
are attributable to insufficient “knowledge bases,” to “contaminated mind-
ware,” and to the tendency to rely on heuristics and think in a biased fashion
(Stanovich, West, & Toplak, pp. 312–313).
Consequently, it may be possible to attack specific problems of human
irrationality due to insufficient knowledge bases in medical diagnoses, for
example; successful examples of error reduction due to awareness of improper
thinking and training in proper thinking in this field could lead to height-
ened awareness and increased training in other fields such as criminal justice
or personal finance. Such a strategy would not cure the problem of human
irrationality and would probably not raise it to the level of a social concern.
But the necessity of such a granular strategy may indicate that irrationality is,
indeed, a different kind of social problem that needs to be approached on an
ad hoc basis. If this is true, it leads to two conclusions: that irrationality will
never likely rise to the level of being a social problem and that this does not
mean that advances cannot be made in human rationality.
Human irrationality plays a role in a large number of social ills. These
include failure to recognize financial scams, poor financial planning, use of
homeopathic remedies, rejection of science in favor of pseudoscience, accep-
tance of fake news, improper legal judgments, susceptibility to demagoguery,
belief in religious cults, and many others. All of these cognitive failings result
in a commensurate cost that is shouldered by governments, taxpayers, insur-
ance providers, corporations, communities, families, and individuals. While
in many cases the most obvious cost is financial, it can also be psychological,
cultural, or health related.
There is rarely, if ever, a case of irrational behavior on a large scale that
does not come with a large price tag to society and rarely a case on an indi-
vidual level that does not result in unnecessary suffering or suboptimal out-
comes. Any other behavior with such far-reaching and significant negative
consequences would demand a large-scale response from groups concerned
with the well-being of their constituents.
Human irrationality is still a breed apart. It inspires mounds of popular
literature that is treated as merely informational and scholarly literature that
goes unnoticed or is translated into anecdotes for popular science. But it does
not make its way into public debate as a matter of serious social concern. If
this article’s thesis is correct, it is extraordinarily unlikely that human irratio-
nality will ever enter into that debate and less likely that society will recognize
354 JOHN D. EIGENAUER
the seriousness and the severity of the problem enough to dedicate significant
resources to its solution.
What, then, is to be done about such a serious problem? The only viable
answer may lie with education (Pinker, 2002, p. 235). While there are impedi-
ments to ameliorating human irrationality through educational programs,
none of them is insuperable. For example, Stanovich, West, and Topak’s work
demonstrating that intellect and rationality are distinct cognitive functions
(2016) implies that different educational tools and methods need be applied
to each arena.
The modern educational system has developed extensive and elaborate
methods and curricula for disseminating content and testing its mastery;
there is no reason that this machinery could not be used to create means
of educating and testing for rational processes. Once educational planners,
administrators, and instructors recognize that rational behaviors can map to
individual skills, these skills can be treated like any other skill: if you can teach
young people to use the quadratic equation to solve for the x-intercepts of a
parabola on a two-dimensional plane, you can teach them to recognize emo-
tional language, phony claims in a sales pitch, or a post hoc fallacy.
The problem of faculty resistance and lack of understanding of criti-
cal thinking likewise becomes manageable if treated in a granular fashion.
Instead of asking instructors to teach or assess “critical thinking,” instructors
could be asked to introduce a single skill into existent curricula: virtually any
reading assignment in any subject presents the opportunity to juxtapose a
claim with its opposite; virtually every accepted scientific principle has a his-
tory of debate in which opposing claims were made. Instead of seeing the lack
of faculty preparation and willingness to teach thinking skills and dispositions
toward rationality as characteristic of faculties at large, we can treat subopti-
mal educational strategies as a temporary state that can be changed over time
with appropriate granular strategies.
While it is highly unlikely that human irrationality will gather public
attention because it is a hidden problem that lacks emotional valence, it is,
nonetheless, a significant social problem that merits such attention. Recog-
nizing this fact may be key to lessening the problem. If educators, cognitive
scientists, and social psychologists recognize irrationality to be a significant
social problem and also recognize that it will most likely not enter social
consciousness through traditional channels, they might promote efforts to
ameliorate the problem in other ways. At present, the most viable option is
the educational system.
Wholesale renovation of the education system is an inordinately difficult
task that would be bogged down in the realities of implementing such massive
changes. However, recent research that recognizes the distinction between
intelligence and rationality may be an excellent starting point for change. By
informing educators about this distinction, researchers may inspire subtle
changes to curricular content to include facts concerning human cognitive
limitations and means to overcome them (Lau, p. 387).
The Problem with the Problem of Human Irrationality 355
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), more
than 20 million students were to attend college in the Fall semester of 2017.
This represents approximately 6% of the entire population of the United
States. It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which only minor
changes to course content could result in significant improvements of aware-
ness about human irrationality among this population: individuals that could
effect change and heighten awareness as they move into the workforce, start
families, and engage in civic decisions.
Educators should recognize the import of the fact that human irrationality
is not going to become a recognized social problem. Therefore, it is incum-
bent on those who understand human irrationality and what is at stake in
failing to ameliorate it to undertake efforts to lessen its pernicious personal
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John D. Eigenauer is a professor of philosophy at Taft College. He received his doctor-
ate from Syracuse University. He has interests in the pedagogy of critical thinking,
human irrationality, and the French Enlightenment.