Rational explanation is ubiquitous in psychology and social sciences, ranging from rational analysis, expectancy-value theories, ideal observer models, mental logic to probabilistic frameworks, rational choice theory, and informal “folk psychological” explanation. However, rational explanation appears to be challenged by apparently systematic irrationality observed in psychological experiments, especially in the field of judgement and decision-making (JDM). Here, it is proposed that the experimental results require not that rational explanation should be rejected, but that rational explanation is local
, i.e., within a context. Thus, rational models need to be supplemented with a theory of contextual shifts. We review evidence in JDM that patterns of choices are often consistent within
contexts, but unstable between
contexts. We also demonstrate that for a limited, though reasonably broad, class of decision-making domains, recent theoretical models can be viewed as providing theories of contextual shifts. It is argued that one particular significant source of global inconsistency arises from a cognitive inability to represent absolute magnitudes, whether for perceptual variables, utilities, payoffs, or probabilities. This overall argument provides a fresh perspective on the scope and limits of human rationality.
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