Symbolic Systems 202:

The Rationality Debate

Winter Quarter, 2001-2002

Syllabus (revised, January 15, 2002)

Meeting time: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:45-4:00 (please arrive promptly)

Location: 460-126 (Margaret Jacks Hall, 1st floor)

Instructor: Todd Davies (tdavies at csli dot stanford dot edu, x3-4091)

Office hours: Weds, Thurs, Fri 10:30-12:00 in 460-040C

Course website:

This course will explore evidence and perspectives from different disciplines bearing on the general question of whether human behavior is, or should be called, "rational". The springboard for debate on this question was the incorporation of axiomatic probability and utility theory into economic models of individual choice behavior. A critique of probability and utility theories as models of human behavior was developed beginning in the 1960s by cognitive psychologists, especially by Amos Tversky (d. 1996) and Daniel Kahneman, who developed the view that the human mind normally operates using heuristic and systematically biasing principles that cannot be reconciled with principles of rational choice and judgement. Related work done by Peter Wason, Philip Johnson-Laird, and Jonathan Evans indicated that people also employ heuristics in logical reasoning tasks that lead to systematic departures from logic.

Responses to this work have come from philosophers, economists, psychologists, and others, and distinct "camps" have emerged on the question of human (ir)rationality. Cognitive scientists including Gerd Gigerenzer, Nick Chater, and Mike Oaksford have attempted to re-analyze the empirical results of the "heuristics and biases" approach to human judgement using new forms of rational explanation. Decision theorists including Herbert Simon and Duncan Luce have developed new theories of rational choice that attempt to explain departures from classical utility theory. And philosophers like Jonathan Cohen have disputed whether experimental departures from normative theories of rationality really mean that people are systematically irrational. In this course, we will look at how the rationality debate has developed up to and including present controversies.

Readings Schedule:

Week 1 - Organization and Introductions (no readings assigned)

Week 2 - Logical reasoning: Main results with challenges from evolutionary psychology and rational analysis

[1] Baron, J. (2000), "Logic" (chapter 4), Thinking and Deciding (Third Edition), Cambridge University Press, pp. 67-87.

[2] Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1992), "Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange," in Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 163-225.

[3] Chater, N. & Oaksford, M. (1998), "Ten Years of the Rational Analysis of Cognition," Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3(2):57-65.

Week 3 - Judgment: Tversky/Kahneman versus Cohen

[4] Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974), "Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases," Science, 185:1124-1131.

[5] Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1982), "Causal Schemas in Judgments Under Uncertainty," in Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A. (Eds.), Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge University Press, pp. 117-128.

[6] Cohen, L.J. (1979), "On the Psychology of Prediction: Whose Is the Fallacy?," Cognition, 7:385-407.

[7] Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979), "On the Interpretation of Intuitive Probability: A Reply to Jonathan Cohen," Cognition, 7:409-411.

[8] Cohen, L.J. (1980), "Whose Is the Fallacy? A Rejoinder to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky," Cognition, 8:89-92.

Week 4 - Judgment: Further results and Tenenbaum/Griffiths' attempt at rational reconciliation

[9] Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1983), "Extensional Versus Intuitive Reasoning: The Conjunction Fallacy in Probability Judgment," Psychological Review, 90(4):293-315.

[10] Tenenbaum, J.B. & Griffiths, T.L. (2001), "The Rational Basis of Representativeness," 23rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.

[11] Gilovich, T., Vallone, R., & Tversky, A. (1985), "The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences," Cognitive Psychology, 17:295-314.

[12] Griffiths, T.L. & Tenenbaum, J.B. (2001), "Randomness and Coincidences: Reconciling Intuition and Probability Theory," 23rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.

Week 5 - Decision making: Subjective expected utility versus prospect theory

[13] Savage, L.J. (1954), "Historical and Critical Comments on Utility" (section 5.6), The Foundations of Statistics, Dover Publications, 1972, pp. 91-104.

[14] Ellsberg, D. (1961), "Risk, Ambiguity, and the Savage Axioms," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75:643-669.

[15] Raiffa, H. (1961), "Risk, Ambiguity, and the Savage Axioms: Comment," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75:690-694.

[16] Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1981), "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice," Science, 211:453-458.

[17] Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1987), "Can Normative and Descriptive Analysis Be Reconciled?," Working Paper RR-4, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland.


Week 6 - Decision making: Rank-dependent utility versus cumulative prospect theory

[18] Luce, R.D. & Fishburn, P.C. (1991), "Rank- and Sign-dependent Linear Utility Models for Finite First Order Gambles," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 4:29-59.

[19] Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1992), "Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 5:297-323.

[20] Camerer, C.F. (2000), "Prospect Theory in the Wild," in Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (eds.), Choices, Values, and Frames, Cambridge University Press, pp. 288-300.

Week 7 - Judgment: Dempster-Shafer versus support theory

[21] Shafer, G. (1978), "Two Theories of Probability," Technical Report No. 1, Department of Mathematics, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.

[22] Mitchell, D.H. (1990), "The Dempster-Shafer Theory of Evidence as a Model of Human Decision Making," 12th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society.

[23] Tversky, A. & Koehler, D. (1994), "Support Theory: A Nonextensional Representation of Subjective Probability," Psychological Review, 101:547-567.

Week 8 - Judgment: Challenging "base rate neglect"

[24] Koehler, J.J. et al. (1996/1997), "The Base Rate Fallacy Reconsidered: Descriptive, Normative, and Methodological Challenges" (with commentary), Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 19:1-53, continued in 20:774-783.

Week 9 - Judgment: The Gigerenzer et al. challenge

[25] Gigerenzer, G. (1991), "How to Make Cognitive Illusions Disappear: Beyond `Heuristics and Biases'," in Stroebe, W. & Hewstone, M. (eds.),European Review of Social Psychology, Volume 2, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 83-115.

[26] Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1996), "On the Reality of Cognitive Illusions," Psychological Review, 103:582-591.

[27] Gigerenzer, G. (1996), "On Narrow Norms and Vague Heuristics: A Reply to Kahneman and Tversky (1996)," Psychological Review, 103:592-596.

[28] Gigerenzer, G. & Goldstein, D. (1996), "Reasoning the Fast and Frugal Way: Models of Bounded Rationality," Psychological Review, 103(4):650-669.

[29] Chater, N., Oaksford, M., Nakisa, R., & Redington, M. (under review), "Fast, Frugal, and Rational: How Rational Norms Explain Behavior".

Week 10 - Judgment, reasoning and decision making: The "individual differences" challenge

[30] Stanovich, K.E. & West, R.F. et al. (2000), "Individual Differences in Reasoning: Implications for the Rationality Debate" (with commentary), Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23:645-726.

Format and Grading:

The course is S/NC for 2 units, and graded or CR/NC for 3 units. To receive a pass a student should miss no more than two sessions (starting with week 2). Missing a third class requires a 4-5 page summary paper to be prepared, summarizing and reacting to the reading discussed in the missed session.

Each student is required to help lead a discussion during one of the eight weeks of reading discussion (weeks 2-10). I will interject comments when I think it is appropriate, and serve as an interlocutor along with other students in the class. Emphasis will be on participation by everyone over the course of the quarter. Please contact me if you would like help in preparing to lead a discussion.

For the 3 unit option, a written paper will be required (on the order of 7-10 pages) in addition to leading a discussion. Information about this assignment will be handed out within the first few weeks of the quarter.


Course readers are available from Melanie Levin, Symbolic Systems Student Services Officer (, x5-1552), in room 127E of Margaret Jacks Hall, during normal working hours. You will need to write a check for $38.54 payable to "Stanford University" with "SSP 202" in the "memo" line of the check.. Handouts will be posted on the web at Extra hard copy handouts will be available outside 460-040C.