Stanovitch: The Robot’s Rebellion: Dysrationalia

Consider Jack.  As a child, Jack did well on an aptitude test and early in his schooling got placed in a class for the gifted.  he did well on the SAT test and was accepted at Princeton.  He did well on the LSAT test and went to Harvard Law school.  He did well in his first and second year courses there and won a position on the Law Review.  He passed the New York Bar Exam with flying colors.  He is now an influential attorney, head of a legal division of Merrill-Lynch on Wall Street.  He has power and influence in the corporate world and in his community.  Only one thing is awry in this story of success: Jack thinks the Holocaust never happened and he hates Jewish people.

Jack thinks that a Jewish conspiracy controls television and other media.  Because of this, he forbids his children to watch “Jewish shows” on TV.  Jack has other habits that are somewhat “weird.”  He doesn’t patronize businesses owned by Jewish people.  There are dozens of business establishments in his community, but Jack always remembers which ones are owned by Jewish people (his long-term storage and retrieval mechanisms are quite good).  When determining the end-of-year bonuses to give his staff, Jack shaves off a little from the Jewish members of the firm.  He never does it in a way that might be easily detectable, though (his quantitative skills are considerable).  In fact, Jack wishes he had no Jewish staff members at all and attempts not to hire them when they apply for positions.  He is very good at arguing (his verbal skills are impressive) against a candidate in a way that makes it seem like he has a principled objection to the candidates qualifications (his powers of rationalization are immense).  Thus, he manages to prevent the firm from hiring any new Jewish members without, at the same time, impeaching his own judgment.  jack withholds charitable contributions from all organizations with ‘Jewish connections” and he makes sizable contributions from his large salary to political groups dedicated to advancing ethnocentric conspiracy theories.

The point is that Jack has a severe problem with belief formation and evidence evaluation – but none of the selection mechanisms that Jack had passed through in his lifetime were designed to indicate his extreme tendencies toward belief perseveration and biased evidence assimilation. They would indeed have been sensitive – indeed, would have quickly raised alarm bells – if Jack’s short-term memory capacity were 5.5 instead of 7. But they were deadly silent about the fact that jack thinks Hitler wasn’t such a bad chap.

In fact, Jack has a severe cognitive problem in the area of epistemic rationality – he is severely dysrationalic in the epistemic domain. yet he has a leading role in the corporate structure that is a dominant force in American society. Does it make sense that our selection mechanisms are designed to let Jack slip through – given that he has a severe problem in epistemic regulation (and perhaps in cognitive regulation as well) – and to screen out someone with normal epistemic mechanisms but with a short-term memory capacity 0.5 items less than Jack’s?

Although Jack’s problem in belief formation may seem to be “domain specific”, it is clear from this brief description that such unjustified beliefs can affect action in many areas of modern life. In a complex society, irrational thinking about economics, or about the nature of individual differences among people of different races or genders can – when it occurs in people of social influence – have deleterious influences that are extremely widespread. Besides, some domains are more important than others. When the domains involved become too large and/or important that it seems ill-advised to assuage concern about irrational thinking by arguing that it is domain specific. To say “Oh well, it only affects his/her thinking about other races and cultures” seems somewhat Panglossian in the context of modern technological and multicultural societies. Domain specificity is only a mitigating factor in the case of irrational thought when it can be demonstrated that the domain is truly narrow and that our technological society does not magnify the mistake by propagating it through powerful information and economic networks.

Finally, it is equally possible that Jack’s thinking problems are really not so domain specific. It is possible that careful testing would have revealed that Jack is sub-par in a variety of tasks of human judgment: He might well have displayed greater than average hindsight bias, extreme overconfidence in his probability assessments, belief perseverance, and confirmation bias. Of course, none of this would have been known to the law school admissions committee considering Jack’s application. They, as had many others in Jack’s life, conferred further social advantages on him by their decisions, and they did so without knowing that he was dysrationalic.

Obviously, I have concocted this example in order to sensitize the read to the social implications of mismatches between cognitive capacities and rationality. However, as a dysrationalic, Jack is unusual only in that society bears most of the cost of the disability. Mos dysrationalics probably bring most of the harm onto themselves. In contrast, Jack is damaging society in myriad ways, despite the face that his cognitive capacities may be allowing him to “efficiently” run a legal department in a major corporation. Ironically, then, Jack is damaging the very society that conferred numerous social advantages on him because of his intelligence. The maintenance worker who cleans Jack’s office probably has cognitive capacities inferior to Jack’s and has been penalized (or denied rewards) accordingly. However the fact that the maintenance worker does not share Jack’s irrational cognition has conferred no advantage on the maintenance worker – just as the presence of dysrationalia has conferred no disadvantage on Jack. Perhaps if we assessed rationality as explicitly throughout educational life as we do cognitive capacity, it would.
(Stanovitch, Robot’s Rebellion, page 167-169)