Towards a descriptivist psychology of reasoning and decision making

Jonathan St. B. T. Evans, Shira Elqayam
2011 Behavioral and Brain Sciences  
We propose a critique of normativism, defined as the idea that human thinking reflects a normative system against which it should be measured and judged. We analyze the methodological problems associated with normativism, proposing that it invites the controversial "is-ought" inference, much contested in the philosophical literature. This problem is triggered when there are competing normative accounts (the arbitration problem), as empirical evidence can help arbitrate between descriptive
more » ... n descriptive theories, but not between normative systems. Drawing on linguistics as a model, we propose that a clear distinction between normative systems and competence theories is essential, arguing that equating them invites an "is-ought" inference: to wit, supporting normative "ought" theories with empirical "is" evidence. We analyze in detail two research programmes with normativist features -Oaksford and Chater's rational analysis and Stanovich and West's individual differences approach -demonstrating how, in each case, equating norm and competence leads to an is-ought inference. Normativism triggers a host of research biases in the psychology of reasoning and decision making: focusing on untrained participants and novel problems, analyzing psychological processes in terms of their normative correlates, and neglecting philosophically significant paradigms when they do not supply clear standards for normative judgement. For example, in a dual-process framework, normativism can lead to a fallacious "ought-is" inference, in which normative responses are taken as diagnostic of analytic reasoning. We propose that little can be gained from normativism that cannot be achieved by descriptivist computational-level analysis, illustrating our position with Hypothetical Thinking Theory and the theory of the suppositional conditional. We conclude that descriptivism is a viable option, and that theories of higher mental processing would be better off freed from normative considerations. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. "I don't much care where -"said Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat. -Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland JONATHAN EVANS is Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Plymouth, United Kingdom. He is author or co-author of eight books and more than 150 scientific publications on the psychology of thinking, reasoning, and decision making. His recent work has focused on (a) the psychology of conditionals and (b) the development, review, and critical discussion of dual-processing models of higher cognition. His most recent book is Thinking Twice: Two Minds in one Brain, published in
doi:10.1017/s0140525x11001440 fatcat:g5j5clupr5ehxm4nodku7cmhde