Review of Philosophy and Psychology

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 787–803 | Cite as

Adaptive Rationality, Biases, and the Heterogeneity Hypothesis

  • Andrea Polonioli


Adaptive rationality (AR) theorists question the manner in which psychologists have typically assessed rational behavior and cognition. According to them, human rationality is adaptive, and the biases reported in the psychological literature are best seen as the result of using normative standards that are too narrow. As it turns out, their challenge is also quite controversial, and several aspects of it have been called into question. Yet, whilst it is often suggested that the lack of cogency comes about due to the implausibility of the alternative normative framework, in this paper I articulate a different strategy to resist the revolutionary rhetoric of AR. As I argue here, even if we accept the normative framework of AR, the challenge from AR is less damaging than usually accepted. In particular, I challenge the claim that biases reported in the literature should be conceived of as violations of axiomatic rationality. I argue that the category of bias refers instead to a range of heterogeneous phenomena and that, since several important families of biases are not just violations of axiomatic rationality, these are not vulnerable to the AR challenge. In fact, I also show that the families I consider here look like plausible cases of irrational behavior from the perspective of AR, and that the outcome of my analysis does not sit well with AR theorists’ claim that people are generally successful at achieving prudential and epistemic goals.


Human Rationality Normative Commitment Irrational Behavior Implicit Bias Adaptive Rationality 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am sincerely grateful to Michela Massimi, Till Vierkant, Matteo Colombo and Armin Schulz for their constructive and helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper. A special thank you goes to Florian Cova and two anonymous reviewers for their detailed feedback. This research was supported by a Studentship awarded by the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (PPLS) of the University of Edinburgh and by a Jacobsen Fellowship awarded by the Royal Institute of Philosophy. The usual disclaimers about any error or mistake in the paper apply.


  1. Arkes, H.R. 1991. Costs and benefits of judgment errors: implications for debiasing. Psychological Bulletin 110(3): 486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baron, J. 2000. Normative and prescriptive implications of individual differences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23(05): 668e669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baron, J. 2004. Normative models of judgment and decision-making. In The Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision-Making, eds. D. J. Koehler and N. Harvey. Blackwell.Google Scholar
  4. Binmore, K. 1999. Why experiment in economics? The Economic Journal 109(453): 16–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bonanno, G.A., N.P. Field, A. Kovacevic, and S. Kaltman. 2002. Self- enhancement as a buffer against extreme adversity: civil war in Bosnia and traumatic loss in the United States. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28: 184–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Buehler, R., D. Griffin, and M. Ross. 2002. Inside the planning fallacy: The causes and consequences of optimistic time predictions. In Heuristics and biases: the psychology of intuitive judgment, ed. T.D. Gilovich, D.W. Griffin, and D. Kahneman, 250–270. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burns, B.D. 2004. Heuristics as beliefs and as behaviors: the adaptiveness of the “hot hand”. Cognitive Psychology 48(3): 295–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chase, V.M., R. Hertwig, and G. Gigerenzer. 1998. Visions of rationality. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2(6): 206–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chater, N., and M. Oaksford. 2000. The rational analysis of mind and behavior. Synthese 122(1–2): 93–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cohen, L.J. 1981. Can human irrationality be experimentally demonstrated? Behavioural and Brain Sciences 4(03): 317–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Colvin, C.R., and J. Block. 1994. Do positive illusions foster mental health? An examination of the Taylor and Brown formulation. Psychological Bulletin 116: 3–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cooper, W. 1989. How evolutionary biology challenges the classical theory of rational choice. Biology and Philosophy 4: 457–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cooper, A.C., C.Y. Woo, and W.C. Dunkelberg. 1988. Entrepreneurs’ perceived chances for success. Journal of Business Venturing 3(2): 97–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Czerlinski, J., G. Gigerenzer, and D.G. Goldstein. 1999. How good are simple heuristics? In Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, eds. G. Gigerenzer, P. M. Todd, and the ABC Research Group, 97–118. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Dawes, R.M. 1989. Statistical criteria for establishing a truly false consensus effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 25(1): 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dawes, R.M., and M. Mulford. 1996. The false consensus effect and overconfidence: flaws in judgment or flaws in how we study judgment? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 65(3): 201–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Evans, J. St. BT and D.E. Over. 1996. Rationality and reasoning. Hove, England: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  18. Gaissmaier, W. and J.N. Marewski. 2011. Forecasting elections with mere recognition from lousy samples. Judgment and Decision Making 6: 73–88.Google Scholar
  19. Gigerenzer, G. 2000. Adaptive thinking: rationality in the real world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Gigerenzer, G. 2008. Why heuristics work? Perspectives on Psychological Science 3: 20–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gigerenzer, G., and D.G. Goldstein. 1996. Reasoning the fast and frugal way: models of bounded rationality. Psychological Review 103(4): 650.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gigerenzer, G., and P. Todd. 1999. Simple heuristics that make us smart. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gigerenzer, G., and Selten, R. 2001. Rethinking rationality. Bounded Rationality: the Adaptive Toolbox 1–12.Google Scholar
  24. Gigerenzer, G., and H. Brighton. 2009. Homo heuristicus: Why biased minds make better inferences. Topics in Cognitive Science 1: 1–37.Google Scholar
  25. Gigerenzer, G., and W. Gaissmaier. 2011. Heuristic decision making. Annual Review of Psychology 62: 451–482.Google Scholar
  26. Gigerenzer, G., and T. Sturm. 2012. How (far) can rationality be naturalized? Synthese 187(1): 243–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gilboa, I., A. Postlewaite, and D. Schmeidler. 2012. Rationality of belief or: why savage’s axioms are neither necessary nor sufficient for rationality. Synthese 187: 11–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gilovich, T., D. Griffin, and D. Kahneman. 2002. Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Goodman, N. 1965. Fact, fiction, and forecast. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.Google Scholar
  30. Hahn, A., C.M. Judd, H.K. Hirsh, and I.V. Blair. 2014. Awareness of implicit attitudes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143(3): 1369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hájek, A. 2005. Scotching Dutch books? In John Hawthorne (ed.). Philosophical perspectives, 19: 139–51.Google Scholar
  32. Haselton, M., G. Bryant, A. Wilke, D.A. Frederick, A. Galperin, W.E. Frankenhuis, and T. Moore. 2009. Adaptive rationality: an evolutionary perspective on cognitive bias. Social Cognition 27: 732–762.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hertwig, R., and G. Gigerenzer. 1999. The conjunction fallacy revisited: how intelligent inferences look like reasoning errors. Journal of Behavioural Decision Making 12: 275–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hertwig, R., and K.G. Volz. 2013. Abnormality, rationality, and sanity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(11): 547–549.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hilbert, M. 2012. Toward a synthesis of cognitive biases: how noisy information processing can bias human decision making. Psychological Bulletin 138(2): 211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Houston, A.I., J.M. McNamara, and M.D. Steer. 2007a. Violations of transitivity under fitness maximization. Biology Letters 3(4): 365–367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Houston, A.I., J.M. McNamara, and M.D. Steer. 2007b. Do we expect natural selection to produce rational behavior? Philosophical Transactions Royal Society B 362: 1531–1543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kacelnik, A. 2006. Meanings of rationality. In Rational Animals, eds. M. Nudds and S. Hurley. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Kahneman, D. 1981. Who shall be the arbiter of our intuitions? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 4(03): 339e340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kahneman, D., and A. Tversky. 1979. Prospect theory. An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 47(2): 263–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kelly, D., and R. Roeddert. 2008. Racial cognition and the ethics of implicit bias. Philosophy Compass 3(3): 522–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kenrick, D.T. 2013. The rational animal: how evolution made us smarter than we think. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  43. Kruglanski, A.W., and I. Ajzen. 1983. Bias and error in human judgment. European Journal of Social Psychology 13: 1–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Langer, E. 1975. The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32: 311–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Larrick, R., R. Nisbett, and J. Morgan. 1993. Who uses the cost–benefit rules of choice? Implications for the normative status of microeconomic theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 56: 331–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lenton, A. P., L. Penke, P.M. Todd, and B. Fasolo. 2013. The heart has its reasons: Social rationality inmate choice. In Simple Heuristics in a Social World, eds. R. Hertwig, U. Hoffrage, and the ABC Research Group. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Lewis, D. 1981. Why ain’cha rich? Noûs 15(3): 377–380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Machery, E. 2009. Doing without concepts, 210. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. McKay, R.T., and D.C. Dennett. 2009. The evolution of misbelief. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32(06): 493–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. McKenna, F.P., R.A. Stanier, and C. Lewis. 1991. Factors underlying illusory self- assessment of driving skill in males and females. Accident Analysis and Prevention 23: 45–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Moore, D.A., and P.J. Healy. 2008. The trouble with overconfidence. Psychological Review 115(2): 502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Payne, B.K. 2001. Prejudice and perception: the role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81(2): 181–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Place, S.S., P.M. Todd, L. Penke, and J.B. Asendorpf. 2009. The ability to judge the romantic interest of others. Psychological Science 20(1): 22–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Polonioli, A. 2015. Stanovich's arguments against the “adaptive rationality” project: An assessment. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 49: 55--62.Google Scholar
  55. Rieskamp, J., and T. Reimer. 2007. Ecological rationality. In Encyclopedia of social psychology, ed. R. Baumeister and K. Vohs, 274–276. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.Google Scholar
  56. Ross, L., D. Greene, and P. House. 1977. The “false consensus effect”: an egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 13(3): 279–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Rutter, D.R., L. Quine, and I.P. Albery. 1998. Perceptions of risk in motorcyclists: unrealistic optimism, relative optimism, and predictions of behavior. British Journal of Psychology 89(4): 681–697.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Rysiew, P. 2008. Rationality disputes–psychology and epistemology. Philosophy Compass 3(6): 1153–1176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Samuels, R., S. Stich, and M. Bishop. 2002. Ending the rationality wars: how to make disputes about human rationality disappear? In Common Sense, Reasoning and Rationality, ed. R. Renee. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Scheibehenne, B., and A. Bröder. 2007. Predicting Wimbledon 2005 tennis results by mere player name recognition. International Journal of Forecasting 23(3): 415–426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Stanovich, K.E. 2011. Rationality and the reflective mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Stanovich, K. E. and West, R. F. 2003. Evolutionary versus instrumental goals: How evolutionary psychology misconceives human rationality. In Evolution and the Psychology of Thinking: The Debate, ed. E. Over. Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  63. Stein, E. 1996. Without good reason: The rationality debate in philosophy and cognitive science. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  64. Stevens, J.R. 2008. The evolutionary biology of decision making. In Better than conscious? Ernst Strüngmann Forum Report 1, ed. C. Engel and W. Singer, 285–304. Cambridge: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Sturm, T. 2012. The “rationality wars” in psychology: where they are and where they could go. Inquiry 55(1): 66–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Svenson, O. 1981. Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica 47: 143–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Taylor, S.E., and J.D. Brown. 1988. Illusion and well being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin 103: 193–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Thompson, S.C., W. Armstrong, and C. Thomas. 1998. Illusions of control, underestimations, and accuracy: a control heuristic explanation. Psychological Bulletin 123: 143–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Todd, P.M., and G. Gigerenzer. 2000. Précis of simple heuristics that make us smart. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23(05): 727–741.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Todd, P.M., and G. Gigerenzer. 2012. Ecological rationality: intelligence in the world. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Tversky, A., and D. Kahneman. 1974. Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. Science 185: 1124–1130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Tversky, A., and D. Kahneman. 1986. Rational choice and the framing of decisions. Journal of Business 59: S251–S278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wallin, A. 2013. A peace treaty for the rationality wars? External validity and its relation to normative and descriptive theories of rationality. Theory and Psychology 23(4): 458–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wason, P. 1966. Reasoning. In New horizons in psychology, ed. B.M. Foss. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  75. Weinberg, J.M., S. Nichols, and S. Stich. 2001. Normativity and epistemic intuitions. Philosophical Topics 29(1/2): 429–460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Wilke, A., and R. Mata. 2012. Cognitive bias. In Encyclopedia of human behavior, vol. 1, 2nd ed, ed. V.S. Ramachandran, 531–535. Maryland Heights: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wilson, T.D., and N.C. Brekke. 1994. Mental contamination and mental correction: unwanted influences on judgments and evaluations. Psychological Bulletin 116: 117–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK

Personalised recommendations