Can I Learn to Think More Rationally?

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By Daniel Willingham

The short answer is yes: you can learn to think more rationally but only about specific subjects. Enhancing rational thinking overall is much more difficult.

Before exploring the question in more depth, we first need to define rational thinking. For this discussion, let’s stick with a relatively straightforward interpretation—rational thinking encompasses our ability to draw justifiable conclusions from data, rules and logic.

Schooling can indeed improve rational thought, research suggests. A recent analysis of many studies showed that college courses contribute to critical thinking abilities. But decades of research have also consistently found that students improve only in the type of reasoning skills emphasized in the course, not in other tasks. That is, if students work on logic puzzles, they get better at logic puzzles but not at other things, such as forming coherent arguments or winning debates.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. @OP – But decades of research have also consistently found that students improve only in the type of reasoning skills emphasized in the course, not in other tasks. That is, if students work on logic puzzles, they get better at logic puzzles but not at other things, such as forming coherent arguments or winning debates.

    Narrow specialisms tend to produce compartmentalised thinking.

    To cover a wider field needs exercise operating in a wider field, and looking to join-up different subjects into an over-view, where new detailed parts can be added to an initially sound structure.

  2. “For example, most people would turn down a favorable gamble in which
    they could earn $22 if a coin lands on heads but lose $20 if it
    settles on tails.”

    I am one of them. Is it irrational to want to hold onto the initial $20? Why?

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