Why Reason Matters: Connecting Research on Human Reason to the Challenges of the
The New Reflectionism in Cognitive Psychology: Why Reason Matters
Current Issues in Thinking and Reasoning
Nathaniel Barr1 and Gordon Pennycook2
1 School of Humanities and Creativity, Sheridan College
2 Department of Psychology, Yale University
Word count = 11,264 in total; 8894 in body
Tables = 0
References = 101
The capacity to reason has improved the life of human beings in innumerable ways through the
innovations it has wrought and the experiences it affords. Culture, art, music, literature, science,
and engineering are all products of reason that enrich our collective experience and well-being.
Although these benefits are intuitively apparent, a reflective analysis reveals that the same
advances that better our lives also have come to threaten them. George Miller famously made
this observation in his 1969 APA address, arguing that the “most urgent problems of our world
today are the problems we have made for ourselves … They are human problems whose
solutions will require us to change our behavior and our social institutions” (p. 1063). This
chapter aims to unpack this assertion by mapping the relations between human reason,
innovation, and some of the biggest obstacles to the continued success of the human species. A
review of contemporary societal and environmental problems in the context of modern reasoning
research and applications of behavioural science reveals much in the way of interconnection.
Reason is intimately bound to both the causes of and solutions to modern risks like climate
change and large scale conflict.
In this chapter we argue that the empirical study of how we think, what we believe, and
how we behave, and the practical application of lessons from such research, have the potential to
play an important role in how we address our most threatening global problems. The study of
morality, cooperation, creativity, belief formation, and how thinking relates to technology are
identified as particularly pressing areas for researchers and practitioners to focus upon. It is
argued that the pursuit of advancing and applying reasoning research must be elevated from an
important area of psychological research to an urgent matter of global priority. In light of the
strong ties between thinking, beliefs, and behaviours of relevance to large scale challenges, the
study of human reasoning and its application holds a particularly potent position in our
navigation of the novel risks we now face. To survive and flourish, we must study human reason
and apply what we learn to how we live our lives.
Tens of thousands of years ago, in what is now known as the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, the
archaeological record reveals an eruption of human innovation. This explosion marked a shift
from a relatively static state of progress within our species to a steep climb; “unlike previous
eras, when stasis dominated, innovation [became] the essence of culture, with change being
measured in millennia rather than hundreds of millennia.” (Leakey, 1984, p. 93-94). These
changes spanned all facets of life, ranging from advances in hunting strategies, increased
sophistication in art and jewelry, changes in social structure, and ritualized burial and religious
rites (see Gabora, 2003). This surge was not short-lived and our lives remain defined by the
acceleration of our innovative output.
From the onset of the first explosive surges of collective creative output around the globe,
the pace of progress has continually increased and the mark of the human mind upon the planet
has become increasingly apparent. In illustrating this heightened pace of innovation, Ronald
Wright points out that, “from the ﬁrst chipped stone to the ﬁrst smelted iron took nearly 3 million
years; from the ﬁrst iron to the hydrogen bomb took only 3,000.” (2005, p. 14). Such furious
acceleration continues into the contemporary. For example, from the time of the Wright brothers’
famous first flight at Kitty Hawk to the first time humans set foot on the moon, a mere 66 years
had passed. Within a lifetime, humans progressed from skimming across the surface of the Earth,
an incredible accomplishment in itself, to setting foot on an orbiting satellite, some 384,400 km
from our planet. In describing the marked acceleration of technological and scientific advance in
the modern era, Ray Kurzweil (1999) has argued that:
During the 19th century, the pace of technological progress was equal to that of the ten
centuries that came before it. Advancement in the first two decades of the 20th century
matched that of the entire nineteenth century. Today significant technological
transformations take just a few years.
That human action has a significant impact upon Earth has long been recognized by
scholars (e.g., Marsh, 1864) and remains an active topic of discussion in diverse academic fields.
However, the last few decades are unique in the intensity of human impact. Since 1950, in what
has been called ‘The Great Acceleration’, a sharp increase in population, economic activity, and
human pressures on Earth has occurred (Steffen et al., 2015). The collective innovation that
emerged as a consequence of our incredible capacity to think and reason has so drastically
influenced the Earth that many have called for the current post-industrial geologic era to be
defined in terms of our impact on the planet: the Anthropocene (see Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen,
& McNeill, 2011).
Though our innovations have afforded us countless benefits, they are not without costs
and have led to an unprecedented era in terms of risk. The risks that could destroy or
significantly degrade our collective future well-being are diverse and range from “volcanic
eruptions to pandemic infections, nuclear accidents to worldwide tyrannies, out-of-control
scientific experiments to climatic changes, and cosmic hazards to economic collapse.” (Bostrom
& Cirkovic, 2008, p. 1). Though we’ve long faced naturalistic risks, Bostrom (2013), in an
article entitled Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority, argues that the most threatening
risks are anthropogenic and related to technological advances. The World Economic Forum’s
The Global Risks Report 2017 converges with this assessment. The report identifies
environmental concerns, disruptions as a consequence of emerging technology, economic
inequality, and societal polarization as critical contemporary challenges for humanity. Thus,
modern analysis of the risks that most threaten us echo the sentiments of Miller (1969), found at
the beginning of this chapter: “our most pressing problems are of our own creation” (p. 1063).
Naturalistic risks, such as volcanic eruptions or cosmic hazards, are largely out of our
control to avoid. However, those problems that we have created, such as environmental disaster
and large scale conflict, might be within our sphere of influence. For instance, some estimates
suggest that a large proportion, up to 40%, of the per capita greenhouse gas emissions
contributing to climate change can be connected to choices made by individual citizens
(MacKay, 2008). Individual voters can in part determine the sort of geopolitical policies enacted
by nation states related to international conflict by virtue of the leaders they elect. Although we
face collective catastrophe, individual psychology is at the forefront of minimizing such risk.
Bostrom (2013) suggests that our ability to detect and avert potential catastrophe at our own
hands can occur by way of “improvements in society’s ability to recognise and act on important
truths” (p. 27) and through “advances in science and philosophy, spread of rationality culture,
and biological cognitive enhancement” (p. 28), which can all be traced back to human reason.
In describing the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, which sparked our ascent into the
Anthropocene, Leakey (1984) argued that “this collective archaeological signal is unmistakable
evidence of the modern human mind at work.” (p. 93-94). What spurred this shift? What made
the mind modern? Other major shifts in human intelligence and cultural history have often
coincided with neuroanatomical changes, but no evidence exists that the influx of innovative
output in the Upper Paleolithic was correlated with changes to our brains. It has been argued, in
accounting for this surge of creativity, that this era is associated with the “onset of symbolic
thinking, cognitive fluidity, and the capacity to shift between convergent and divergent or
explicit and implicit modes of thought. Also, the emergence of meta-cognition enabled our
ancestors to reflect on and even override their own nature.” (Gabora & Kaufman, 2010, p. 18).
Accordingly, Gabora and Kaufman (2010) have argued that the innovation in the Upper
Paleolithic came about not as a result of changes to the structure of our brains, but rather as a
consequence of a change in how we used our brains.
In concordance with Miller’s (1969) argument, it would seem that the same intellectual
evolution which afforded humans many benefits in the modern era is also responsible for many
of the complex and serious challenges to our collective well-being that we must now face. To
conquer the challenges that we face in the Anthropocene, we must again change the way we use
our brains. We must improve our understanding of how we think, such that we can leverage that
understanding to improve our collective ability to reason, and we must also think differently
about the extent to which reason matters. Studying human reason, and applying lessons from that
research, must be conceptualized not just as an important area of psychological inquiry, but as a
global priority for the success of our species.
Creativity and Innovation
Perhaps the most obvious antidote in the quest to avoid catastrophe from our own reason is to
continue to increase creativity, as difficult problems require innovative solutions. An imperative
thus exists for humankind to expand extant basic and applied research programs in traditional
areas of scientific and engineering that yield practical outcomes. In addition, art, literature,
music, and other creative pursuits are important avenues for influencing individual behaviour. In
order to maximize our creative potential in these areas, not only should society dedicate large
resources toward innovative activities, we should also be investing heavily in understanding the
cognitive and social mechanisms of creativity, to best understand how to structure society and
education to foster it.
Despite the well-recognized need for further creativity in society, and decades of
concerted psychological research in this area, a replete understanding of the nature of creativity
and how to enhance it have remained elusive. Part of the challenge is that, although much work
has been done in this area, there are many essentially independent but concurrent streams of
research that span the many levels of analysis which comprise creativity studies (see Hennessy &
Amabile, 2010). Although there are many benefits to such a decentralized structure (see Silvia,
2014), an important avenue for theoretical development is to generate models of creativity that
allow for understanding the relation between cognitive and neural correlates of creativity and the
higher order organizational and societal level factors that influence whether creative ideas are
translated to meaningful innovation.
Extensive amounts of behavioural and neuroscientific evidence converge to suggest that
creativity is best understood as an interplay between autonomous and controlled thinking. Beaty,
Silvia, Nusbaum, Jauk, and Benedek (2014) demonstrated that individual differences in both
associative (Type 1) processing and executive (Type 2) processing are predictive of variance in
creative ability, and in convergent neuroscientific research have shown that creative thought
requires “cooperation between brain regions associated with cognitive control and low-level
imaginative processes” (Beaty et al., 2014, p. 92).
Given such findings, calls have been made for creativity studies to become more strongly
aligned with reasoning research. For example, Sowden, Pringle, and Gabora (2015) suggest that
creativity research should be contextualized in the broader cognitive psychological literature on
thinking and that reasoning research on the interaction between different modes of thought is a
promising area for integration. To accommodate evidence surrounding the interplay between
autonomous and controlled thinking in creativity, and to address the disarray in theoretical
development in this area, Barr (this volume) maps dual-process meta-theoretical frameworks of
human reasoning to creativity research. He argues that such models hold great potential, as they
are ubiquitous in both low level cognitive research and in higher order societal level
interventions and education, allowing for a common language that can span levels of analysis. It
is argued that more thinking, reasoning, and decision making researchers should be investing
time and effort toward integrating and expanding their research streams into the arena of creative
Human scientific and technological advance are, of course, already being leveraged to
combat problems of our own creation. Although scientific advance has created new risks, it
simultaneously is able to answer many of the new questions that it has posed. Disconcertingly
though, despite the need for scientific innovation is arguably more important than ever before,
anti-science attitudes are prevalent and appear to be increasing in some quarters (such as among
Republicans in the United States; see Gauchat, 2012). Thus, a priority in the Anthropocene is
finding ways to increase attention and appreciation of science through effective communication.
One means to address this issue is to creatively communicate scientific facts surrounding the
risks we face in ways that are more amenable to popular understanding than technical reports or
scientific papers. For example, the Doomsday Clock (http://thebulletin.org/three-minutes-and-
counting7938) was created to illustrate the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe.
Similar initiatives are underway with the Human Impact Lab at Concordia University
(www.humanimpactlab.com), which aims to develop creative means to illustrate the nature of
modern risks. Interestingly, and perhaps disturbingly, this pursuit is not merely a matter of
educating the public, as people’s views on at least some scientific issues appear to be strongly
associated with ideology as well, which will be discussed later in this chapter.
Understanding creativity in the context of human reason is important both for facilitating
the genesis of new and useful ideas, and in finding ways to convince the public to adopt and
endorse such ideas. Interestingly, in the Anthropocene, some of our most powerful creations
interact with the substrate that created them- technology and thinking are enmeshed. Thus,
understanding thinking in the modern era necessarily entails consideration of how our cognitive
capacity and reasoning now interacts with and relates to some of the most influential innovations
in the history of our species- computing technology and the internet.
The Extended Mind: Process and Content
In considering the impact of technology in our lives, it has long been recognized that many of the
most important innovations in the history of our species are those that enhance our natural
physical and cognitive abilities:
Most of the greatest advances of modern technology have been instruments which
extended the scope of our sense organs, our brains or our limbs. Such are telescopes and
microscopes, wireless, calculating machines, typewriters, motor-cars, ships and
aeroplanes. (Kraik, 1943, p. 61).
Marshall McLuhan articulated the implications that such technological advances have for our
daily lives when arguing that “the medium is the message” (p. 81). In Understanding Media:
Extensions of Man, McLuhan (1964) considers the impact of inventions such as the telephone
and radio, and how they have modified the landscape of our experience and routines. More
recently, philosophers and psychologists have focused increasing attention on the ways that
different media interact with the way we think. In the Anthropocene, an important aspect of
understanding thinking entails studying how our thinking may be modified by or interact with
technological advance to shape human thought and the way humans engage with the world.
In 1998, Clark and Chalmers published their seminal work, The Extended Mind,
providing a philosophical perspective on how artifacts in the world can be conceived as allowing
us to extend our thinking beyond our brains. Their work is relevant for a range of behaviours,
from offloading arithmetic to paper to more complex interactions like cybernetic neural
enhancements. Interestingly, although the internet existed at the time, and many foresaw the
impending rise, the ubiquity and centrality of this medium in human life in the 21st century had
yet to become clear. In 1995, but a few years before the notion of the extended mind became
extensively discussed, 86% of American adults did not use the internet but, by 2013, this
proportion flipped, with 86% reporting they used the internet (Pew Research Center, 2016). As
such, Clark and Chalmers (1998) work has arguably become increasingly important with time, as
more complex and important extensions of the mind emerged as computing technology
continued to accelerate rapidly.
Of particular importance in spurring conversations and empirical research into the way
that thinking and internet use interacts was David Carr’s (2008) essay, Is Google Making Us
Stupid? His introspective work reflected on the way that reading online inspires relatively
shallow thought when compared to consumption of longer physical texts. Although his work was
not empirical, the anecdotes he recounted and the ideas he espoused resonated with a world
increasingly interconnected by the internet. In a landmark study, Sparrow et al. (2011)
empirically assessed the role that the internet had in the way people remember information.
Sparrow et al. demonstrated that individuals offload memory to the internet in a way akin to the
manner in which people rely on transactive memories of other individuals. Priming experiments
showed that when faced with difficult, but not easy, trivia questions, people readily think of the
internet. They also found that rather than remember content, people were prone to remember
where that information was accessible. Together, these data supported empirically some of what
Carr (2008) proposed; people were using the internet to limit cognitive effort.
Since Sparrow et al.’s (2011) work was published, the internet has only gained a more
prominent role in the daily affairs of the average human. Empirical investigations exploring the
relation between the internet, memory, and reasoning are likewise becoming more frequent. For
example. Fisher and Keil (2014) showed that searching for information online inflated estimates
of internal knowledge. Ferguson, McLean, and Risko (2015) showed that the internet can
influence metacognitive processes and modulate the willingness of an individual to offer
answers. Barr, Pennycook, Stolz, and Fugelsang (2015) looked at individual differences in
reliance on search engines, with an emphasis on Smartphones. They found that less reflective,
less intelligent, and more intuitive reasoners were more likely to rely on their device for
information in daily life, and suggested that this pattern of results is indicative of people
offloading their thinking to technology, and that this offloading constitutes a modern type of
cognitive miserliness. Vujic (2017) showed that the number of computing hours per day is
negatively related to sustained attention and rational thinking, the proportion of time on
smartphones is negatively related to rational thinking style, and that trait mindfulness does not
act as a protective factor. Ward, Duke, Gneezy, and Bos (2017) showed that the mere presence of
a Smartphone can reduce cognitive capacity. An important aspect of human reasoning research
in the modern era will be keeping pace with the way that such technology is used in daily life
and continually expanding our understanding of the relation between how we think and how we
Another important line of research in this area surrounds the nature of the content online
and how it is transferred. Rather than rely on a standardized central encyclopedia, the internet
represents an ever-evolving dynamic knowledge store. If humans are, as argued by Sparrow et
al. (2011) and others, offloading memory and cognition to the internet, then consideration of
online content in relation to human reasoning is increasingly important. For example, research
into the way information travels in the context of social networks suggests that many of us
operate in what are called echo chambers, which often facilitate the spread of misinformation
(see Del Vicario et al., 2016). Echo chamber refers to the phenomenon that people primarily
share and consume content that coincides with information which we already believe, often
amplifying those beliefs. Rather than procure information from diverse sources across the
ideological spectrum, the average member of our species relies on a curated, convergent set of
friends and sources for information. Network analyses conducted by Williams, McMurray, Kurz,
and Lambert (2015) showed that, on Twitter, most users “interact only with like-minded others,
in communities dominated by a single view” (p. 126), and that activists and skeptic circles are
largely echo chambers. Del Vicario et al. (2016) analyzed how Facebook users consume
information about scientific and conspiracy news and showed that selective exposure to content
created homogenous clusters of information in distinct circles. Misinformation online comes not
only from individual citizens, but governments as well, making this area of research even more
consequential. As part of a project on computational propaganda, Bradshaw and Howard (2017)
outline how dozens of countries, both authoritarian and democratic, engage in social media
manipulation meant to manage public opinion using ‘cyber troops’, which are military and
political teams meant to shape the way citizens see and understand contemporary issues.
As the internet’s ubiquity rises it will be important to uncover how the internet facilitates
the spreading of and belief in things like conspiracy theories (Swami, this volume), bullshit
(Pennycook, Cheyne, Barr, Koehler, & Fugelsang, 2015), and fake news (Pennycook, Cannon, &
Rand, under review). Interestingly, belief in conspiracies (Swami, this volume) and seeing
profundity in bullshit (Pennycook et al., 2015) are both associated with decreased analytic
thinking, as is reliance on the internet for information (Barr et al, 2015). As such, it may be the
case that those who are most prone to endorsing such questionable views might be most often
encountering them online. Conspiracist ideation is a particularly consequential area to understand
as there are well-documented negative consequences of such beliefs that pervade diverse
domains of everyday life (for reviews see Swami, this volume; Douglas, Sutton, Jolley, & Wood,
2016). Limiting the spread of misinformation is clearly important, but social and cognitive
psychologists should be especially concerned with understanding the mechanisms by which
individuals assess information they encounter and how to limit potential bias as a consequence of
group relations. For example, Swire, Berinsky, Lewandowsky, and Ecker (2017) conducted a
study aimed at understanding how people process political misinformation and found that
judgments of truth or falsity were influenced by whether or not it was attributed to Donald
Trump and whether participants supported him.
In general, continued exploration into how people recognize fake news and other forms
of bullshit (see Frankfurt, 2005) should be an important future direction for behavioural, social,
and cognitive research, as what citizens consume and believe has direct connection to the most
pressing problems in the Anthropocene, like belief in climate change and extreme political
views. The correction of misinformation and successful debiasing of erroneously held beliefs
across all levels of society constitutes one of the great challenges of the information age (see
Lewandowsky, Ecker, Seifert, Schwarz, & Cook, 2012). By better understanding the ways that
people find information, how they assess whether it is valid, and how they act upon that
information, we can better understand the true nature of the social and psychological obstacles to
our collective success.
Traditional Beliefs and Moral Tribes in the Modern Era
Although humans now enjoy the modern affordances of advanced innovation, many of our most
ancient and deeply-seated dispositions and beliefs remain a central aspect of contemporary life.
Religion remains a powerful force in shaping human belief and behaviour, with estimates
suggesting that up to 90% of the world’s population believes in some sort of deity (Gallup,
2011). Secularity and atheism have been often been predicted to increase, due to the rise of the
internet and increases in scientific and rational thinking. However, taking a biologically informed
perspective, some recent work has suggested that so long as believers continue to have more
children than non-believers, secularity will not subsume the whole of society in the immediate
future (Ellis, Hoskin, Dutton, & Nyborg, 2017). These authors actually argue for a contra-
secularization hypothesis, whereby secularism will see a decline in industrialized nations in the
21st century. In assessing the persistence of supernatural belief in the face of ever-increasing
scientific education and knowledge, Lindeman (this volume), cite Gilovich (1991), who notes
that despite having the best universities in the world, there are significantly more astrologers than
astronomers in the United States, and recount The Church Institute’s (2016) observation that
despite Finland having one of the best education systems on Earth, almost half of the populace
believe in angels and entertain the idea of an after-life. Atheists often report intellectual,
rational, and scientific reasons for religious disbelief (Hunsberger & Altemeyer, 2006), but it
seems clear that even as society advances scientifically, supernatural beliefs are not likely to
uniformly extinguish as a result. Although human reason has ushered in an era of unprecedented
advances, many traditional beliefs remain a fixture of contemporary society.
As globalization marches on, The Great Acceleration continues, and people of diverse
beliefs continually come together, it is important to understand both the psychology of group
dynamics and the psychology of beliefs. Of particular interest is the relation between cognitive
and social factors in the context of religious belief. Social foundations theory specifically
addresses this relation (see Morgan, Wood, & Caldwell-Harris, this volume). This theory argues
that to more fully understand the well documented relation between analytic thinking and
religiosity, one must consider the societal factors in which this relation occurs. Specifically, the
social foundations hypothesis articulates a view in which social density, cognitive style, and
religiosity interact, with different sorts of societies encouraging different sorts of thinking styles,
which in turn can result in different levels of religiosity. Social density is a broad concept that
considers a number of facets of society, including the relative emphasis on independent or
interdependent construal, the relative need to respect hierarchy and authority, and differences in
the extent to which one seeks to appease in-group members. Societies high in social density, that
more highly prize interdependence, respect for authority, and reliance on social rules, are thought
to encourage more intuitive, rather than analytic, thinking styles.
Interestingly, Morgan et al. (this volume) posit that behaviours associated with high
social density are especially important when living conditions are difficult, harsh, and precarious,
like when natural disasters occur, and people must extensively rely on social relations for support
and resources. To support this supposition Morgan et al. cite evidence that religiosity increases
after economic crises and natural disasters (Chen, 2010; Norris & Inglehart, 2011; Sibley &
Bulbulia, 2012). Given the challenges of the Anthropocene—the potentially disastrous
consequences of anthropogenic climate change, other environmental disasters, the ongoing
increase in economic inequality, and the fallout if large scale conflict were to occur—the social
foundations hypothesis might predict another relation between the risks of this era and human
reason: Not only might a failure to understand and change our thinking precipitate changes to the
planet and economy, changes to the planet and economy might yet change our thinking.
Although the forces of globalization mean more diverse groups are living together than
ever before, this has not necessarily resulted in greater unification of ideals, and polarization of
belief is a considerable issue to address. One major factor in accounting for such polarization
relates to our moral beliefs. Greene (2014) has documented the way in which humans organize
ourselves into moral tribes, privileging those in our in-group. Research in this area has
catalogued and explored how individuals differ in the way they conceptualize moral
transgressions. Moral foundations theory (see Haidt, 2012) has articulated differences across
individuals in what they view to be the critical determinants of what constitutes right or wrong.
For instance, liberals and conservatives differ in their relative valuation of tradition and respect
for authority as a factor driving moral decisions. Research has also shown that disgust can play a
role in moral judgments, with conservatives being more easily disgusted than liberals, which can
have consequences for issues of tolerance and acceptance (e.g., Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2009).
Importantly, in terms of the broader argument articulated in this chapter, such moral
reasoning has strong connections to reasoning research. For instance, Pennycook, Cheyne, Barr,
Koehler, and Fugelsang (2014) showed that analytic thinking style is related to differences in
binding moral values, and that the extent to which disgust influences moral judgments is also
dependent upon differences in analytic thinking style (see also Pizarro & Bloom, 2003). In
accounting for such relations, Landy and Royzman (this volume) put forth the Moral Myopia
Model (MMM), which articulates a novel formulation of the relation between reason and moral
judgments. These authors review research in this area and develop a view in which deliberate
and analytic thinking is related to more complex conceptions of moral issues and consideration
of a number of normative factors, whereas intuitive processing is more oriented to singular
factors of consequence. Thus, in their view, deliberate thinking promotes a measured, weighted
approach that considers multiple factors, and intuitive thinking promotes dogmatic adherence to
but one normative factor, such as individual rights or utilitarian gains.
In an increasingly complex world, it seems likely that singular focus on any one factor in
moral reasoning could be disadvantageous to group harmony, particularly when the work of
Haidt (2012) and others shows that different groups value different factors. As such, in the
context of the MMM, an interesting possible means by which to facilitate reductions in the odds
of cultural violence as a function of moral tribalism is to focus on increasing deliberate thinking,
rather than solely focus on the content of disagreements.
And it is not just conflict- moral reasoning research also intersects with issues pertaining
consumption that connects to pollution, climate change, and environmental challenges. Mazar
and Zhong (2010) showed that although priming green products makes people more altruistic
than being primed by conventional products, purchasing such green products can have
detrimental consequences. Relative to conventional products, those that bought green products
were more likely to subsequently steal, cheat, and act less altruistically. In other cases, moral
appeals can be positive. For instance, Bernedo, Ferraro, and Price (2010) demonstrated in a large
population that a one-time nudge combining technical information, moral persuasion, and social
comparisons can have significant benefits in convincing individuals to reduce their water
consumption over long periods of time. Teaching people how to live more sustainable lives
interacts with cognitive biases and an important task is to leverage morality in the pursuit to save
the planet, as giving people tips on how to be more environmentally friendly is more complex
than it appears (see Grolleau, Midler, & Mzoughi, 2017).
Individual differences in reasoning and group affiliation are also of consequence for
climate change. For instance, although an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate
change is a real and present danger, and that humans are to blame, the issue is highly politicized
in the United States. Party lines and personal cultural affiliations are more predictive in
determining views about climate change and other scientific issues than are differences in
intelligence, reflectiveness, or scientific knowledge (Kahan, Jenkins‐Smith, & Braman, 2011;
Kahan et al. 2012; Kahan, 2013). Indeed, much of the rejection of science in general is a
consequence of motivated cognition, such that people do not accept findings which threaten their
beliefs or view of the world (Lewandowsky & Oberauer, 2016). Kahan et al. (2012) undertook a
large scale study to assess if the idea that the reason for disbelief in anthropogenic climate
change was a lack of knowledge or education, and found no support for that position. Rather,
they found that social ties were of extreme consequence. The most intelligent and knowledgeable
about climate change were not the most concerned- rather, they were the most polarized. In
summarizing their work, the authors suggest that:
public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of
science but from a distinctive conflict of interest between the personal interest individuals
have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties
and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to
promote common welfare. (p. 732).
In all, research into moral reasoning constitutes an incredibly important avenue for
psychological research in the Anthropocene. Reasoning researchers should increasingly explore
the intersection of cultural cognition, moral tribalism, traditional beliefs, motivated reasoning,
and social network dynamics in the context of human conflict and political polarization. As
technological advances increase the ease and scale with which both individuals and nation states
can inflict violence, an increasingly important task for reasoning researchers will be to better
understand how best to encourage cooperation across moral tribes in daily life and in the pursuit
of solving problems that threaten us collectively at the broadest scale.
Importance of Cooperation
How to manage the diverse beliefs that make up the global landscape in a truly globalized
age, particularly those that seem to contradict contemporary demands in favour of traditional
standards, remains a huge ethical and practical challenge. For instance, some have argued that
religious beliefs which suggest an afterlife can be antithetical to efforts aimed at recognizing the
importance of self-preservation on the planet, and in solving the sorts of problems discussed in
this chapter. Steven Pinker (2011), for example, argues that “The doctrine of the sacredness of
the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just
a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence”
(p. 143). Although rates of religiosity are in decline, it remains clear that even in the modern era,
human belief structures rooted in ancient traditions are powerful in shaping both the individual
and the collective, and efforts to shift such ideologies drastically in short order, would likely be
both unsuccessful, in addition to being hugely unethical. Thus, a challenge for the scientific
community will be to align matters of global concern to be complementary with pre-existing
belief structures and ideologies. That is, the literature on the psychology of belief suggests that
many of the long standing beliefs that shape society today are likely to remain entrenched, and
efforts at shifting public opinion to policies that minimize the threat of anthropogenic risks must
complement, rather than replace existing views to be both ethical and practically useful. In short,
people with diverse ideologies must cooperate.
Cooperation and compromise is especially difficult in a world wrought with inequity.
Although the ‘Great Acceleration’ is associated with sharp rises in GDP globally, analyses reveal
that much of the economic growth has occurred in the wealthier OECD countries, whereas the
population growth is largely driven by increases in the less wealthy, non-OECD nations (Steffen
et al., 2015). Evidence suggests that economic development, inequality, war, and state violence
are connected (Nafziger & Auvenin, 2002). Such socio-economic inequality, and the consequent
extremism and violence with which it can be associated, is particularly perilous in the modern
era. Not only are we at risk from the environmental by-products of consumption-heavy lifestyles
afforded by innovations, technological advances figure prominently in overt aggression and large
scale conflict. From the discovery of how to harness the power of the atom, through the Cold
War, and into the present, the risks posed by nuclear weapons continually increases, whether it
be through accident or intentional aggression (Schlosser, 2013). In assessing the need to arrive at
peace in the nuclear age, Lemon (1946) warned, “unless [peace] can be accomplished, the
darkest of all ages surely lies ahead; the rare joy that in the past has gone with the acquisition of
knowledge will be known no more” and that the accomplishments of the past seem insignificant,
“compared to achievements that now must promptly be attained in other fields of human
activity” (p. 441).
Philosophers, psychologists, scientists, other academics, politicians, religious and cultural
leaders, and citizens must extensively discuss means by which to accommodate traditional views
with contemporary risk analysis and align the goals of diverse groups. The WEF report, in
concluding their analysis of global risks, implores those in positions of power to “redouble our
efforts to protect and strengthen our systems of global collaboration. Nowhere is this more
urgent than in relation to the environment” (p. 58). In assessing the prospect of world peace,
Martin Luther King Jr. (1967) famously argued for the importance of global cooperation: “our
loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, our nation; and this means we must
develop a world perspective” (p. 253). Cooperation is not only desirable, but essential in this
Some trends in this direction are encouraging- for example, organizations such as the
Evangelical Environmental Network are rallying religious Americans to support the fight against
climate change. The Pope has also declared that anthropogenic climate change marks a true
threat and has made calls for believers to act sustainably. Indigenous philosophies are seeing
increasing recognition in the public sphere as environmentally threatening industries continue to
encroach upon ancestral lands (e.g., Dakota Access Pipeline). These views have long emphasized
spiritual and traditional beliefs that align with the modern warnings of contemporary scientists.
For instance, the seventh-generation principle advocates considering all decisions with an eye for
the consequences for future descendants, and many Indigenous North American languages have
a word that translates to “we are all related to and respect, everything in life” (e.g., “mitakuye
oyasion” in Lakotan, “Nogomaq” in Algonquian, and “Ea Nigade Qusdi Idaddavhn” in
Cherokee). Cooperatively integrating such views with the empirical evidence of contemporary
science is an important avenue for approaching environmental issues and large scale conflict.
Thankfully, many strides have been made in recent years that advance our understanding
of the relation between cooperation and reasoning that hold promise in applied interventions.
The pursuit of cooperation is not only a practical priority for businesses, governments, and
citizens, but a fruitful area for academic research as well. Some of the most influential work
aimed at understanding the cognitive and social underpinnings of cooperation adopts a dual-
process framework and explores the relative contributions of intuition and analytic thinking. In
assessing whether intuition or analyticity yields greater cooperation, the results are clear; more
deliberation leads to less cooperation, with humans disposed to ‘spontaneous giving and
calculated greed’ (Rand, Greene, & Nowak, 2012; Rand & Nowak, 2013; Rand et al., 2014;
Rand, 2016). Given that cooperation seems to be facilitated by intuitive thinking, advice from
psychologists to be more intuitive constitutes a deviation from the standard refrain from
reasoning researchers that humans would do well to reflect more often and to engage analytic
thinking more frequently.
For example, Bear and Rand (2016) present an evolutionary model in which intuition acts
as a social heuristic and deliberation does not increase cooperation. They suggest that reflection
often leads people to override their initial intuition to collaborate, and that our impulses are not
typically selfish. Jordan, Hoffman, Nowak, and Rand (2016) demonstrated that cooperating
without calculation and taking less time to decide to work together acts as a signal of
trustworthiness, and is actually associated with being more trustworthy as well. Stagnaro,
Arechar, and Rand (2017) researched the influence of top-down incentives to cooperate and
demonstrated that institutions which reward working together can have power in shaping cultures
Finding ways to promote intuitive cooperation, but foster critical reflection in other
domains, is a considerable challenge in the current climate. Given that deliberate reasoning
seems a remedy in moral tribalism but a hindrance to cooperation, prescriptions for peace and
togetherness at both the interpersonal and societal levels seem complex, at best, and impossible
at worst. Striking the balance between intuition and reason, both as individuals and as a society,
is increasingly important as risks increase in scope and severity. Important work awaits in
mapping the relation between individual psychology, group dynamics, and societal structure in
the context of cooperation and the Anthropocene.
The Future of Research on Human Reason: Basic and Applied Approaches
For generations, psychologists have argued that the application of lessons from
psychology could yield massive dividends for society. Behaviorists, particularly B.F. Skinner,
argued that by modifying and reinforcing behaviour, we could shape a more cohesive and
functional society. Skinner’s (1948) novel, Walden Two, described a society which was
structured to align with insights about human psychology and social dynamics. George Miller,
in his famous 1969 APA address, argued,
if we were ever to achieve substantial progress toward our stated aim – toward the
understanding, prediction and control of mental and behavioural phenomena – the
implications for every aspect of society would make brave men tremble (p. 1065).
The contemporary era has seen similar admonishments from psychologists to take the lessons
from the science of behaviour and find ways to apply them in meaningful and practical ways. For
example, Lilienfeld, Ammirati, and Landfield (2009) echoed Miller’s (1969) urging to give
psychology away by arguing that disseminating research on debiasing could hold great promise
in promoting human welfare, asserting that “research on combating extreme confirmation bias
should be among psychological science's most pressing priorities” (p. 390). An inspection of
global commitments in applied behavioural science suggests that the world is increasingly
heeding this call.
Since the publication of Ariely’s (2008) Predictably Irrational, Thaler and Sunstein’s
(2008) Nudge, and Kahneman’s (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, the notion that behavioural
science and the psychology of reasoning, judgment, and decision making can be leveraged in
business and policy has increasingly entered the public consciousness (see Thaler, 2015, for a
history). Around the world, governments are housing behavioural science teams and engaging in
both the direct application of insights, nudges, and rigorous experimentation. In the United
Kingdom, the Behavioural Insights Team, which is jointly owned by the UK government, Nesta
(a charity), and the employees, has achieved considerable success. Another example, ideas42, is
a group that “aims to use the power of behavioral science to design scalable solutions to some of
society’s most difficult problems”. Obama (2015) issued an executive order that directed the
federal government to leverage insights from behavioural science. In Canada, the Province of
Ontario has been piloting behavioural insights based projects, and the federal Privy Council
Office is engaging in behavioural science work within ‘The Innovation Hub’. Such centres are
not confined to Europe and North America, either- The Busara Center for Behavioral
Economics, primarily focuses on poverty alleviation and boasts offices in the United States,
Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. These represent a fraction of the organizations and initiatives that
are leveraging psychological and behavioural science in the pursuit of problems related to our
collective well-being on the planet- as the scope and number of such groups increase, so too does
our odds of success in addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene. Field experiments,
randomized control trials, and other sorts of studies that study how people reason in the real
world are increasingly being used in many areas (see Shafir, 2012). As governments, businesses,
and other organizations around the world increasingly rely on insights and methods germane to
reasoning research, the impetus for investment in such research also increases (see Benartzi et al,
As vital as such applied work is, it is also imperative that society support basic research
into human reason. The applied work that has proven successful is scaffolded on the foundation
of basic research and theoretical models of human reason developed over decades of
psychological research. As noted by Lewin (1951) "there is nothing so practical as a good
theory" (p. 169). For example, the seminal works of Kahneman and Tversky, including prospect
theory, have been cited as key in inspiring the behavioural economics explosion in the applied
realm (e.g., Camerer, 1999). The world is noisy and in order to increase our ability to craft
effective interventions and understand human reason in these complex environments, we must
concurrently refine and develop our theories of reasoning in the lab, where we can isolate causal
factors. Importantly, as reasoning research increasingly extends its reach in the real world,
applied outcomes can be used to guide basic research. Descriptive studies, normative analysis,
and prescriptive interventions all should constitute areas of priority (see Fischhoff, 2010).
Increasingly sophisticated theoretical models are required in an increasingly challenging and
complex world and they must be functional in their application to anthropogenic issues.
Fischhoff (2010), echoing Baddeley’s (1979) call for increased intermingling between the basic
and applied, foresees the future of research in this area defined by interaction between “applied
basic research, testing theory by its application, and basic applied research, creating theory from
new phenomena observed through those tests” (p. 10). A back and forth between researchers and
practitioners is, in our opinion, an essential aim for those interested in human reason in the
If more researchers engage in a mixture of basic and applied research focused on real
world challenges, inter-disciplinary approaches will be increasingly required. For instance, in
work outlining how to correct misinformation, experts draw on “political science, education, and
computer science” (see Ecker, Cook, & Lewandowsky, 2015). The rise of artificial intelligence
and computing technology not only pervades individual psychology, but also intersects with
economic and workplace issues across many sectors. J.P. Guilford (1950), in his famous APA
address about creativity, recognized that as such technologies progressed, humankind must
develop an economic order in which sufficient employment and wage earning would still
be available. This would require creative thinking of an unusual order and speed. In the
second place, eventually about the only economic value of brains left would be in the
creative thinking of which they are capable (p. 448).
Thus, the trend toward increased reliance on smartphones and computing technology intersects
with economic, business, moral, ethical, and environmental challenges that require collaborative
and interdisciplinary research. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s
(2017) report, Behavioural Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from Around the World
illustrates the breadth of topics already covered in contemporary applied research. The report
features a large number of case studies and outlines how insights and experimentation are
applied in a multitude of areas, including “consumer protection, education, energy, environment,
finance, health and safety, labour market policies, public service delivery, taxes and
telecommunications” (p. 3). Extending the reach of reasoning research into such diverse sectors
will require ongoing collaboration with nearly the full spectrum of professional domains and
Another important point is that for basic and applied research to be as fruitful as possible,
reasoning researchers must draw on methods and approaches that draw on the innovations of this
age. In recounting the history of the cognitive revolution, which was foundational for the
evolution of the sort of research discussed in this chapter, Miller (2003) identified cross-
discipline collaboration as critical, particularly areas connected to emergent technology. He cites
Norbert Wiener’s work on cybernetics, Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy’s pioneering work
on artificial intelligence, Chomsky’s work on linguistics, and Alan Newell and Herb Simon’s use
of computers to simulate cognitive processes as catalytic in crystallizing new ways of conceiving
Today, similar revolutions are afoot in that the use of technology is transforming the way
that we understand and address the challenges of the modern era from a cognitive perspective.
For example, Medimorec and Pennycook (2015) used text analyzers to compare the language of
climate change proponents and deniers, to reveal the ways that denial is manifest linguistically.
Brady, Wills, Jost, Tucker, and Van Bavel (2017) used a large sample of social media
communications to understand how highly polarizing policy relevant issues are spread in the
context of real political discourse. Chen et al. (2017) leveraged advanced neuroimaging
technologies to longitudinally assess future creative cognitive ability as a function of alterations
in frontoparietal and frontotemporal brain networks. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s (2017) book,
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really
Are, illustrates the potency of Google search data in illuminating how people think about core
issues of our time. Rand, Tomlin, Ludvig, Bear, and Cohen (in press) apply “a formal theoretical
approach that applies mathematical methods from non-linear dynamical systems analysis and
population biology together with numerical methods and computational simulations” (p. 3) to
show the way that automatic and controlled thinking cycle in a society over time. They argue
that societal progress due to increased cognitive control can allow for automaticity to increase,
which in turn undermines the advances made as a function of the era of heightened control.
Illumination of such a cycle can explain historical and contemporary trends, and inform our
quest to address the challenges of the Anthropocene.
The list of such work goes on, and must grow, as reasoning research has an imperative to
keep pace with the technological advances afforded by human innovation to truly understand
thinking in the modern age. Much as computing technology has extended the mind of the
average human, it has extended the ways to study and understand the relation between human
reason and the challenges we face as a species. As impressive as the threats we face now are in
scope and severity, they are arguably matched by the remarkably advanced tools, methods, and
theories available to those interested in studying the very mind that brought about those threats.
The future of reasoning research is bright, and it is our hope that the continued
advancement and application of this body of work can result in a concomitant brightening of our
future prospects of success as a species. Improving our basic understanding of the nature of
moral belief, religious belief, conspiratorial thinking, how thinking interacts with technology,
creativity, understanding and belief in the power of science, and cooperation, has the potential to
yield immense rewards by informing applied interventions and policy. As we progress into the
future, research into human reason must leverage advanced technology and be connected to the
challenges we collectively face.
Risk and (Not) Investing in Research on Human Reason
Decision science and reasoning research has a long history of studying risk tolerance.
Much of this work has been conducted in the context of relatively small gambles that are not
strongly related to individual or collective well-being, but instead map onto financial scenarios
meant to emulate less dire choices in the real world. Overall, this work finds that humans are
quite loss averse, favouring avoiding loss than making equivalent gains (Kahneman, Knestch, &
Thaler, 1991). Interestingly, although this work finds that people tend to be very loss averse in
such scenarios, it appears that we, as a species, are more tolerant, perhaps illogically so, of
larger, even existential risks. Bostrom (2013) argues that we are dangerously myopic on longer
timescales with greater risks, in that we underestimate the massive benefits of even tiny
reductions in the odds that we either end our collective existence or so damage the environment
as to jeopardize the future possibility that our species attains its full potential. If we preserve the
planet for future generations, we can have a hand in preserving human life on this planet, and
perhaps beyond (see Dick, 2003). Given the relation of such risks to human reason, it is apparent
that we must engage in conversations about the risk of not exploring the way human reasoning
interacts with such extreme risks. That is, although historically research into human reason has
investigated risk tolerance of individuals in society, it is time for society to consider reasoning
research in the context of risk. Our species is perched precariously on our sole planet in an
unprecedentedly risky time. It is important for individuals, organizations, and governments to
invest heavily in learning about human reason and leveraging insights from that research to
address pressing problems.
In considering the investment in such research in the context of the immediate existential
threats we face as a consequence of our own reason, it seems clear that the cost of not investing
in such research outweighs the investment that would be required to facilitate such research and
its applications. We implore those who agree with this conclusion to advocate strongly and
publicly for funding and investment in the areas discussed in this chapter. Never before has
reasoning research been this advanced or applied this widely, yet never before has there been a
stronger imperative for further advancement and wider application. Reason matters.
Humans are unique amongst animals on Earth in the diversity, complexity, and impact of our
cultural and physical artifacts- language, art, science, and technology are unparalleled amongst
other animals. The development of the human capacity to reason and the ability to manipulate
not just objects, but symbols, have long been identified as playing a central role in our
differentiating ourselves from other species on our planet cognitively, technologically, and
creatively (Stanovich, 2009; Penn, Holyoak, Povenelli 2008; Barr et al., 2015). We are uniquely
situated as a species that has shaped the face of the planet so significantly that we now face
challenges that are a consequence of our creations (Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen, & McNeill,
In this era, in order to ensure the perpetuation and progress of the human species and
avoid anthropogenic existential risk (Bostrom, 2013), we collectively must attempt to minimize
large scale human conflict, social injustice, environmental destruction and pollution, including
climate change. Technological advances and globalization, emergent properties of human reason,
have created novel and complex issues that now demand our reflection and analysis.
A change in our thinking led us into the Anthropocene. Now, in order to survive and
progress in this era, we need to change our thinking to be more creative, less extreme in our
beliefs, to leverage the advantages of emergent technology, and to cooperate more, We also
need to change how we think about the prioritization of applying and advancing research on
human reason. Work in this area must be recast from an important area of cognitive research to
an urgent global priority. Cognitive and behavioural economic research has shown that people
often tend to be short-sighted in their reasoning and decision making, and researchers,
universities, governments, and funding agencies must not mirror this myopia in the allocation of
resources and attention dedicated to further understanding human reasoning and rationality in a
bid to address our most important societal issues. By bettering our understanding of human
cognition, belief, and behaviour, we can reason our way to a more secure future.
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