Patricia Rich

Better Lessons from Ecological Rationality

Ecological Rationality is sometimes defined as the “match between mind and environment”; for example, a simple heuristic is more ecologically rational in a given context the better it will perform in that context. I heartily endorse this approach to rationality, with some caveats: I endorse what I see as the substance of Ecological Rationality rather than its rhetoric (which, for example, is unduly unfriendly towards formal logic). Furthermore, I see Ecological Rationality as an excellent framework into which we can integrate other tools (e.g. logic and probability theory) rather than as a wholesale replacement of them (again, as the rhetoric might suggest).

In the context of reasoning and argumentation, Ecological Rationality is most often appealed to in order to criticize or cast doubt on particular claims, for example about whether subjects commit an error in some reasoning task. In this talk, I argue for a more constructive use of Ecological Rationality as a systematizing framework which naturally unifies the descriptive, normative, and pedagogical aspects of reasoning and argumentation. An important benefit of this framework is that it can help us to focus on the right (most helpful) questions.

As one example, inquiry should focus on processes – such as simple heuristics – rather than outcomes; ideally processes can be simulated so that performance statistics can be gathered. Whether e.g. the notorious response in the Linda Problem is an error or not matters much less than the question of how often the reasoning process that produced it can be expected to lead to poor results in the relevant context, and just how grave those poor results will be. Furthermore, rationality judgments should consist of comparisons between processes that people may actually use, including ones that we might teach them; it isn’t helpful to complain that a person’s reasoning process is error-prone unless one has a better, implementable alternative to offer. Other examples pertain to the omnipresent issue of the correct normative standards, and to the categorization of errors.