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On the complexity of Expressive Rationality

from Rationality and Belief in Evolution . . .

5. Addressing the complexity of expressive rationality 

5.1.  Two tiers of two forms of rationality

Human rationality is complex.  Instrumental rationality (maximizing goal/desire fulfillment) and epistemic rationality (how accurately beliefs map the world) can both be conceived as having two tiers (Stanovich, 2013). 

Following Elster (1983), a so-called thin theory of instrumental rationality evaluates only whether desire-fulfillment is being maximized given current desires. Its sole criteria of appraisal are whether the classic axioms of choice are being adhered to.  But people aspire to rationality more broadly conceived (Elster,1983; Stanovich, 2004).  They want their desires satisfied, true, but they are also concerned about having the right desires.   The instrumental rationality a person achieves must be contextualized by taking into account what actions signify about a person’s character (as someone who follows through on one’s plans, who is honorable and loyal, who respects the sanctity of nature, and so forth).  Narrow instrumental rationality is thus sometimes sacrificed when one’s immediate desires compete with one’s higher commitments to being a particular kind of person (Stanovich, 2013).

Epistemic rationality has levels of analysis parallel to that of instrumental rationality.  Coherence axioms and the probability rules supply a thin theory of the rationality, one that appraises beliefs solely in terms of their contribution to accuracy.  But because what one believes, no less than what one values, can signify the kind of person one is, a broader level of epistemic rationality places a constraint—one discussed under many different labels (symbolic utility, expressive rationality, ethical preferences, and commitment [Stanovich, 2004])—on truth seeking in certain contexts. Just as immediate desires can be subordinated to “higher ends” in the domain of instrumental rationality, so in the domain of epistemic rationality truth seeking can sometimes be sacrificed to symbolic ends.

5.2. Separating the rationality tiers from the irrationality chaff

These two tiers of instrumental and epistemic rationality make studying rationality complicated, too. How is one to know whether decisionmaking that deviates from the first tier of either instrumental or epistemic rationality is expressively rational on the second or is instead simply irrational? The conflict between what we referred to as the “bounded rationality” and “expressive rationality” theories of “disbelief” in evolution put exactly that question.

The answer we supplied rests on a particular inferential strategy forged in response to the so-called Great Rationality Debate—the scholarly disagreement about how much human irrationality to infer from the presence of a non-optimal responses on heuristics and biases tasks (Cohen, 1981; Gigerenzer, 1996; Kahneman & Tversky, 1996; Stanovich, 1999; Stein, 1996; Tetlock & Mellers, 2002).  Some researchers have argued against inferring irrationality from nonoptimal responses in such experiments on the ground that the study designs evaluate subjects’ responses against an inapt normative model. The observed patterns of responses, these scholars argue, turn out not to be irrational at all once the subjects’ construal of the problem is properly specified and once the correct normative standard is applied (see Stanovich, 1999; Stein, 1996).

Spearman’s positive manifold—the fact that different measures of cognitive competence always correlate with each other, (Carroll, 1993; Spearman, 1904)—can be used to assess when such an objection is sound (Stanovich, 1999; Stanovich & West, 2000).  Indicators of cognitive sophistication (cognitive ability, rational thinking dispositions, age in developmental studies) should be positively correlated with the correct norm on a rational thinking task.  If one observes a negative correlation between such measures and the modal response of the study subjects, then one is warranted in concluding that the experimenter was indeed using the wrong normative model to judge the rationality of the decision making in question. For surely it is more likely that the experimenter was in error than the subjects were when the individuals with more computational power systematically selected the response that the experimenter regards as nonnormative.

We used a variant of this strategy in weighing the evidence generated by our data analyses.  The magnification, rather than the dissipation, of conflict among those who scored highest on the CRT, we argued, furnishes a reason to be extremely skeptical of the conclusion that controversy over evolution can be chalked up to a deficit in one side’s capacity for “analytic thinking.”

In existing literature, this strategy has been applied at what might be termed the micro-level—that of applying a particular quantitative norm to a specific task.  The way we have interpreted our findings here might be viewed as applying the strategy at a macro-level, one that tries to understand what kind of rational reasoning the subject is engaged in: a narrow epistemic rationality of truth-seeking, or a broader one of identity signaling and symbolic affirmation of group identity.

5.3. The tragic calculus of expressive rationality

What choices and beliefs mean is intensely context specific. Part of what makes stripped-down “rational choice” models so appealing is that they ruthlessly prune away all these elements of the decisionmaking context. But the simplification, we’ve suggested, comes at a steep price: the mistaken conflation of all manner of expressively rational decisionmaking with behavior evincing genuine bias (Stanovich, 2013).

Accounts that efface expressive rationality are popular, however, not just because they are simple; they are attractive, too, because behavior that is expressively rational is often admittedly ugly. Among the “higher ends” to which people intent on experiencing particular identities have historically subordinated their immediate material desires are spite,  honor,  and vengeance, not to mention one or another species of group supremacy. 

Clearly, it would be obtuse to view all expressive desires and beliefs as malicious. But as Stephen Holmes (1995), Albert Hirschman (1977), Steven Pinker (2011), and others have taught us, there was genuine wisdom in the Enlightenment-era project to elevate the moral status of self-interest as a civilizing passion distinctively suited for extinguishing the sources of selfless cruelty (Holmes, 1995, p. 48) that marked human relations before the triumph of liberal market institutions.

The species of expressive rationality to which we have linked disbelief in evolution should fill us with a certain measure of moral trepidation as well.  It is, we’ve explained, individually rational, in an expressive sense, for persons to be guided by the habits of mind that conform their beliefs on culturally disputed issues to ones that predominate in their group. But when all individuals do this all at once, the results can be collectively disastrous.  In such circumstances, citizens of pluralistic self-governing societies are less likely to converge, or converge nearly so quickly, on the best available evidence on societal risks that genuinely threaten them all.  What’s more, their public discourse is much more likely to be polluted with the sort of recrimination and contempt characteristic of public stance-taking on factual claims that have become identified with the status of contending cultural groups (Kahan et al., 2016).

These predictable consequences, however, will do nothing to diminish the psychic incentives that make it individually rational to process information in an expressive fashion.  Only disentangling positions on facts from identity-expressive meanings—and thus counteracting the incentives that rational persons of all outlooks have to adopt opposing expressive stances to protect their cultural identities—can extricate them from this sort of collective action dilemma (Lessig, 1996; Kahan, 2015a, 2015b).

The sort of analysis presented in this paper is intended to aid in that process.  Exposing the contribution that expressive rationality makes to one specific instance of this public-reason pathology not only helps to inform those committed to dispelling it. It also helps clear the air of the toxic meme that such conflict is a product of one side or the other’s “bounded rationality” (Stanovich & West, 2007, 2008; Kahan, Jamieson et al., 2016). 

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