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Towards a descriptivist psychology of reasoning and decision making

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2011

Jonathan St. B. T. Evans
Affiliation:
School of Psychology, Faculty of Science, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA, United Kingdom. jevans@plymouth.ac.ukhttp://www.plymouth.ac.uk/staff/jevans
Shira Elqayam
Affiliation:
Division of Psychology, School of Applied Social Sciences, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester LE1 9BH, United Kingdom. selqayam@dmu.ac.ukhttp://www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/elqayam

Abstract

Our target article identified normativism as the view that rationality should be evaluated against unconditional normative standards. We believe this to be entrenched in the psychological study of reasoning and decision making and argued that it is damaging to this empirical area of study, calling instead for a descriptivist psychology of reasoning and decision making. The views of 29 commentators (from philosophy and cognitive science as well as psychology) were mixed, including some staunch defences of normativism, but also a number that were broadly supportive of our position, although critical of various details. In particular, many defended a position that we call “soft normativism,” which sees a role for normative evaluation within boundaries alongside more descriptive research goals. In this response, we clarify our use of the term “instrumental rationality” and add discussion of “epistemic rationality,” defining both as descriptive and non-normative concepts. We consider the debate with reference to dual-process theory, the “new paradigm” psychology of reasoning, and empirical research strategy in these fields. We also discuss cognitive variation by age, intelligence, and culture, and the issue of relative versus absolute definitions of norms. In conclusion, we hope at least to have raised consciousness about the important boundaries between norm and description in the psychology of thinking.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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