Symbolic Systems Senior Seminar:

"Debates About Human Rationality"

Revised Syllabus, April 12, 2001

Symbolic Systems 201

Spring Quarter, 2000-2001

Sections: (1) Thursdays, 2:15-4:05 pm, 460-126 (Margaret Jacks Hall)

(2) Tuesdays (except April 17), 7-8:50 pm, e207 (Education Building)

Instructor: Todd Davies (, x3-4091)

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


Course Overview:

The symbolic systems senior seminar is intended to be a small class, involving student-led discussions. The course generally involves readings that draw on different disciplines which are represented within our core. It is often referred to as the "capstone" experience for symbolic systems majors, because it is ordinarily taken near the end of a student's undergraduate years and because it attempts to put some of the earlier material in the major to use in a group exploration of an advanced topic.

This year's senior seminar will focus on some cross-disciplinary debates about human rationality. At the center of these debates is the work, since the late 1960s, of cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman ("T&K"), and of others who have done similar research. T&K and other behavioral scientists have produced laboratory evidence supporting the view that higher human cognition departs systematically from what is normatively considered "rational." Their work contrasts human reasoning, judgment, and decision making with accepted principles of logic, probability, and utility.

Their findings have generated aggressive opposition from philosophers, economists, and cognitive scientists who argue for alternative interpretations of the laboratory results. The opponents of the T&K perspective emphasize the broader, practical rationality of the human mind, and they question whether humans are truly irrational.


The class is divided into two sections this quarter. I expect you to attend section each week on the day that you signed up for. In special circumstances, credit for attending the other section during a particular week, as a substitute for attending your own section, will be allowed if you notify me of this in advance. Beginning with the second reading assignment (meetings of April 19 and 24), the Tuesday section will be in synchrony with the preceding Thursday section, rather than with the following Thursday. Cross-attendance credit will depend on attending the section meeting with the same reading assignment as the one you must miss.


Course Schedule:

Week 1 - Organizational meeting:

Introductions, scheduling, student input into syllabus for final version; signup sheet for email list; brief overview of topic.

Phase I. Epistemological debates

Week 2 - Discussion of:

[1] Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1973), "On the Psychology of Prediction," Psychological Review, 12:237-251; reprinted in Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A. (eds.), Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 48-68.

[2) Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974), "Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases," Science, 185:1124-1131; reprinted in Kahneman et al. (1982), op. cit., pp. 3-20.

Week 3 - Discussion of:

[3] Baron, J. (1994), "Logical Errors in Hypothesis Testing," excerpt from Thinking and Deciding (Second Edition), Cambridge University Press, pp. 160-166.

[4] Cohen, L.J. (1981) with commentaries by various authors, "Can Human Irrationality Be Experimentally Demonstrated?," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4:317-370.

[5] Various authors (1983), Continuing Commentary on Cohen, L.J. (1981), op.cit., Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 6:487-533.

Phase II. Economic debates

Week 4 - Discussion of:

[6] Baron, J. (1994), "Normative Theory of Utility and Choice," chapter 16, op. cit., pp. 312-329.

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

Week 5 - Discussion of:

[8] Simon, H. A. (1978), "Rationality as Process and as Product of Thought," Journal of the American Economic Association, 68:1-16; reprinted in Bell, D.E., Raiffa, H., & Tversky, A., Decision Making: Descriptive, Normative, and Prescriptive Interactions, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 58-77.

[9] 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 - Discussion of:

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

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

Phase III. Evolutionary debates

Week 7 - Discussion of:

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

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

Week 8 - Discussion of:

[14] 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.

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

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

Week 9 - Discussion of:

[17] Todd, P.M. & Gigerenzer, G. (2000) with commentaries by various authors, "Précis of Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23:727-780.

Outside of class (attendance optional): Showing of videotapes from "Symposium on Amos Tversky," Stanford University (1997).


Each student is required to help lead a discussion during one of the eight weeks of reading discussion (weeks 2-9). 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.


The course is S/NC. To receive an "S" a student should miss no more than one session (starting with week 2). Missing a second class requires a 4-5 page summary paper to be prepared, summarizing and reacting to the reading discussed in the missed session.


A course reader will be available at cost from Anita Black, Symbolic Systems Student Services Coordinator (, x5-1552), in room 127E of Margaret Jacks Hall, during normal working hours beginning on Friday, April 13. An announcement will be emailed to students in both sections with instructions on how to pay for the reader.