Intelligence, rationality, and decision-making limits

Surprisingly little of our brain has to do with logic, whether we make baffling or brilliant decisions. But we can learn to govern it better

by Tomas Barazza


Photo: Ashley Batz

I often pause to reflect on the complex layering of human impact on our planet. Looking back to the days when the Earth bore no sign of our presence, I’m amazed to see how many layers of inventions, solutions, and structures have shaped every facet of our lives. It’s fascinating to consider how a series of choices has shaped everything we take for granted or how there is a specialization and a network of interdependencies in a vast and complex system behind every object we use.

This leads me to ask: How did we get here? The answer lies in the intelligence — our ability to learn, reason, solve problems, and adapt — that we have developed over time. We are undoubtedly collectively intelligent beings who have overcome numerous challenges and successfully adapted to our environment.

However, being intelligent does not necessarily imply perfect rationality. Economic theory has long posited a perfectly rational decision-maker capable of maximizing expected utility. But we have come to realize that our rationality is limited.

The concept of bounded rationality, introduced by Herbert Simon, acknowledges that in decision-making situations, we are unable to consider and assess all the information available in order to make the optimal decision. This limitation stems from factors such as cognitive capacity, time, and available resources and often prompts us to settle for solutions that are “good enough” rather than perfect.

Kahneman and Tversky, two psychologists, revolutionized our understanding of human decision-making and upended economic theory by highlighting the tendency to use cognitive shortcuts (heuristics) that can lead to systemic errors (biases) in judgment and decision-making. Later, phenomena related to random and unpredictable errors, termed noise, were discovered.

Cognitive biases, systemic patterns of deviation from rational judgment or decision-making, permeate our thought processes, often subtly and unconsciously. These biases can originate from various sources, such as past experiences, emotions, and cultural or social expectations, and drive us to make choices that seem rational but are actually biased.


Image: Vlado Paunovic

On the other hand, in the realm of decision-making, the concept of noise refers to inconsistent deviations in decisions that should theoretically not exist in an ideal rational setting. Unlike bias, which is a predictable deviation, noise is random and unpredictable. It can be caused by a multitude of factors, such as emotional context, physical surroundings, or even fatigue, leading to decisions that differ from each other in alike situations, even when made by the same person.

The interplay of cognitive biases and noise further complicates our decision-making process. While biases can steer us toward systematically biased decisions, noise introduces an element of uncertainty and inconsistency. This combination can significantly impact not only individual choices but also decisions at organizational and societal levels.

Recognizing the existence and impact of both cognitive bias and noise is a critical step toward making more informed and effective decisions. It entails an ongoing commitment to self-reflection, questioning one’s choices, and seeking to comprehend one’s thought patterns. Only by cultivating an awareness of these cognitive challenges can we aspire to mitigate their effects and move toward a more rational and objective decision-making paradigm.

Recognizing and being willing to address our cognitive limitations is not merely an academic pursuit; it is a practical commitment to personal and collective improvement. While bias and noise remain persistent challenges, understanding and managing them can lead to more thoughtful, balanced, and ultimately more compassionate decisions.

In an era of accelerating change and information overload, the ability to make well-informed and rational decisions is not only desirable but crucial. This exploration of the essence of decision-making encourages us to be more introspective, discerning, and mindful, acknowledging that despite our shortcomings, we can continually strive for greater wisdom in our choices.

Ultimately, the true measure of our intelligence and rationality lies not in the flawlessness of our decisions but in our relentless quest to understand and refine our decision-making processes.