The Great Rationality Debate – what is "normal" thinking?

I would be remiss as a researcher if I neglected to mention the opposition to Kahneman's heuristics and biases approach to human rationality. As impressive as his work as been, it is not universally accepted in the scientific community. The fundamental question is whether or not we are defining "normal" thinking in the appropriate way, known as the normative model. When Kahneman claims that the subjects in his studies made the "wrong" choice, is it that his standards are artificial, or is he truly exposing flaws in human rationality? A bigger question may be, is there an accurate and purely objective source of rationality? Aristotle defined man as the "rational animal." Animals have the potential to be either rational or arational – devoid of any rational thought. However, humans have the distinction of being the only animals that can behave irrationally. That is, we can make decisions that violate what may be in our best interest.  We know that In-n-Out burger is going to clog our arteries, but darn it's tasty!  However, simultaneously, rationality is subjective.  What may be rational to one person or in one situation may not be to another.  If In-n-Out is the only food for 100 miles, and you are starving, it is a rational choice.

As I've written about before, Kahneman and his late colleague Amos Tversky spent decades researching irrationality.  In brief, Kahneman's Nobel Prize was given for showing a flaw in economic theories that assumed humans behaved rationality. However, as Keith Stanovich writes, "researchers have found it much easier to measure whether a particular rational structure is being violated...rather than whether their thinking is as good as it can be." He continues to giving the analogy that doctors can easily spot when someone is in ill health easier than when they are in perfect health. As such, "failure to display a cognitive bias becomes a measure of rational thought."

The people in this camp have been termed the Meliorists and take the position that human reasoning could stand to be improved through human effort. They believe that humans are not behaving optimally and ought to improve to coincide with their standards of ideal rationality. However, these standards are often hard to firmly establish.

Conversely, there is a competing camp that believes the results from studies like Kahneman's heuristics and biases studies do not describe irrationality. Rather, they describe the optimal evolutionary adaptation to perceived inputs as the gold standard of rationality. They argue that the subject's interpretation of the task is often different than what the researcher assumes it is. As such, the “cognitive biases” that are demonstrated are not biases at all, but rather problems with the experiment that entrap participants. This group is called the Panglossians.

A tangible consequence of this is highlighted in an article from The Economist I posted a while ago that poses the question of whether advertisers do a service for people by sharing products that they didn't know they wanted, or if advertisers take advantage of people who already know what they want. The Economist argued the latter position.

Moreover there is a philosophical question of whether humans should improve their rational thinking skills or not. We live in a society that champions those with higher rational thinking skills (a proxy measure being IQ tests, though these admittedly are not necessarily the best measures). Nevertheless, the average American will live their life without ever having any sort of training to improve their rational thinking and avoid cognitive biases, and society has made it as far as we have.

Interestingly, since about the 1930s, IQ test scores in developed countries have slowly but steadily increased, dubbed the Flynn Effect.  Are humans getting smarter or are we just getting better at taking tests?  My gut says that we are getting better at teaching and cultivating rational thinking in students, aligning with the Meliorist view.

I can't offer any conclusion to this debate, but the question of what is optimal rationality is an interesting one to ponder.  Few things in this world are black and white - could we ever truly find an objective rational truth?  That's a subject of a future post I'm sure.

The Fight for Uninhibited Creativity

Humans love to peek inside of history’s great minds – Da Vinci, Picasso, Einstein among others.  We yearn to comprehend the thought processes behind brilliant discoveries and innovations, perhaps with a moonshot hope that we may one day be able to emulate brilliant inventors. There seems an invisible, insurmountable barrier between our own pursuits and those of the greats – it is as if they are on a different plain of thinking and existence. 

While the holy grail of brilliance has not yet been discovered, one significant correlation with financial/academic/social success is creative ability. (I read this somewhere, but cannot remember the source.  If someone can find this study, I would greatly appreciate it!)  According to Threshold Theory, there is a correlation between IQ and creative ability up to a threshold of about 120, and after that there is no correlation.  In fact, very high IQ's are often associated with lower creative potential.  So success has more to do with how you can apply your given skill set and experience than your quantifiable intelligence.  Of course how to quantify a person’s creativity is a subject of continuing research, but some measures include measuring the extent of someone’s past creative experience and testing divergent thinking potential such as brainstorming as many uses as possible for a used car tire. (It's fun...try it.)

Society distinguishes a group of professions and people as “creative-types” such as fashion designers, painters, musicians, dancers, etc.  Consequently, those of us pursuing “non-creative” professions have a tendency to distance ourselves from the purely “creative” way of thinking, leaving our contributions to come by generally following practiced methods and formulae.  At the same time, one finds plenty of scientifically minded people having a reasonable proficiency in one or more artistic pursuits such as music or painting.  For busy engineers and scientists, this often serves as a fun creative outlet for stress, though from my experience few engineers and scientists are able to develop skills that would allow them to go on to be professional musicians, even before getting to college and having to choose a major (though I know it happens!).  As someone who has formally studied both music and engineering, I have started to ask what it is about music that benefits scientific thinking, and furthermore what it is about scientific thinking that can limit musical (or general artistic) ability.  I have a few conjectures, and I would love to hear what you think.

In engineering and scientific education, students are taught distinct problem solving methods and that they should avoid errors at all costs.  There is an ever-present division of "correct" and "incorrect" that hovers in the back of any student's mind particularly during exam season.  Most civil and mechanical engineers have seen footage of the collapsing Tacoma Narrows Bridge as a vivid warning of the danger of making a mistake.  Obviously when such public structures are concerned, and lives are at risk, errors should be avoided at all costs.  However, a student's education is a low risk scenario, and I believe students should live with and learn from mistakes.  Too many students take shortcuts and just copy down an answer at a TA’s office hours to avoid getting low grades on homework assignments.  Distractions take away time that most students truly need to process and internalize new information and techniques.

Music education takes a different approach to nurturing skill within future performers. While the goal of performing music is to get the performance as close to “perfect” as possible, musicians are not overly concerned with the slip-ups along the way while practicing or in rehearsal.  Even in performance, mistakes happen, but performers continue for the sake of the art; this is a critical lesson any professional musician takes to heart.  In the few piano lessons I took, my teacher would always encourage me to continue playing in exact rhythm even if I missed a note (or many...) to develop a more fluid style of playing.  In voice lessons my teacher would remind me that in certain vocalizations allowing my voice to crack was a positive intermediary step towards improving my range.  (Side note, if you have never heard the Tenor Voice Crack video, you need to hear it to believe it.)

And how difficult that was!  This mindset is anathema to most engineers.  As I learned in engineering, mistakes happen, but they must be corrected!   For years, I approached music the same way.  However, I now realize this is a counterproductive way to learn the art of music.  I am almost convinced that this liberated mindset allows for the highest amount of genuine expression, emotion, and skill.  I spent too much time fixating on what I had done incorrectly, and not enough time focusing and enhancing on what I did correctly.  Quoting my favorite composer Gustav Mahler,

What is best in music is not to be found in the notes. 

There is a very entertaining TED talk (yes another...) by Benjamin Zander in which he highlights the value of “one-buttock playing” or removing logical and technical impulses/emphases from performance to nurture emotion in performance.  There is distinct value in engineering and scientific education to occasionally adopt a similar philosophy.

In the context of dual process theory I introduced in the first blog post, I hypothesize that engineers are generally taught to avoid System 1’s intuitive and emotional thinking through their education, relying purely on System 2's analytical thinking, which for most cases is a good thing.  We don’t want engineers using the error-prone System 1 to design a bridge!  Conversely, musicians (especially improvisers) are taught to take advantage of their emotional and intuitive System 1 thinking to convey the power of the music.  While on stage performing a concerto, there is little time to perform detailed analyses of tone quality or get caught up on botched notes.  A consummate professional musician must depend on their intuitive System 1 to get through each performance.

At the same time, learning fundamental technique in any artistic pursuit requires attention and practice.  This kind of analysis of stimuli and inputs requires slow, methodical System 2 thinking (who remembers working painstakingly through music theory books?), which is why I believe scientifically minded people can learn to be proficient at musical instruments fairly easily.  However, there is a limit to a musician’s ability if they cannot make the switch from a System 2 approach to a System 1 approach to performance.  Admittedly, there also must be a choice whether to invest the time in either music or science, and this will impact the success of either pursuit.

In engineering design, one of the main problems we face is students’ tendency to depend on analytical thinking rather than more creative out-of-the-box thinking in the design process.  This limits their ability to generate creative solutions to problems, as unique and novel ideas are generally discarded too early in the design process by an overly sensitive and evaluative System 2.  In the seminal book Creative Cognition, the authors write, “People are afraid of being creative... [It is] thought to promote disorder and chaos,” which could not ring more true for engineers.  Engineers are generally too quick to safely limit their thinking to what they have learned from textbooks and past experience, and being too dependent on analytical thinking creates a closed loop that does not allow for long term intellectual growth. To counter this it is said that Steve Jobs used to create a 'false reality' in Apple to convince engineers that seemingly impossible technology was possible; they just had not thought of how to do it yet.

One of the goals of my research is to develop ways to encourage engineering students to use more of their intuitive and emotional System 1 thinking in the early stages of the design process, rather than automatically going to their analytical System 2 thinking.  Even crazy ideas can be built on and developed into creative, feasible designs. Studies already show that students with more creative experiences perform better on design tasks. However, this still begs the question: can an engineering curriculum teach students to be more open-minded and free in their thinking? 

I can only hope so (my dissertation depends on it), because it is when thinking and creativity are uninhibited that the greatest contributions are made to the world.  Albert Einstein’s contributions to physics are well known to the world, but less known is his ability as a violinist. He told a reporter in 1929

“If," he confessed to me, with a smile that was half wistful, half apologetic, "I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music...I get most joy in life out of my violin."

Einstein said many times that he did not think in terms of words and formulae.  Instead, he would think in intuitive feelings and emotions, and he would find insight into solutions to problems while playing his violin, which he called “combinatorial play.”  We can all learn a lesson from this great mind who was able to take advantage of unorthodox approaches to problem solving and contribute groundbreaking research to the world.  He is a prime example of the genius and power of uninhibited creativity. 


Finke, R. A., Ward, T. B., & Smith, S. M. (1992). Creative cognition: Theory, research, and applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Viereck, G. S. (1929). What life means to Einstein. The Saturday Evening Post, 26, 17.