How rational do people think they are, and do they care one way or another?
How rational do you think you are? How important do you think rationality is? ClearerThinking.org ran a survey on 400 people (mostly from India and the U.S.) to find out the answers to questions like this among the general population, and to compare answers cross culturally. We wanted to know what people think “rationality” means, whether or not they believe they are rational, and if they are interested in being more rational or taking online courses to learn rational thinking skills. We also wanted to know if people think rationality should be taught to children, if they think rationality is important, and if they’re overconfident in their rationality (e.g. do most people think they are more rational than the median?). We also took the opportunity to compare some of the responses between males and females, as well as between survey takers from the United States and India, to see if they varied significantly.
About 60% of survey takers were male, and 78% were between the ages of 21 and 36. Survey takers were recruited using the Mechanical Turk recruitment platform and were paid for their participation. You can scroll to the bottom of this post to see the demographic information in more detail, as well as the survey itself, and to download the survey data.
Most survey takers seemed to feel positively about rationality and to consider it beneficial; the majority did believe that thinking rationally is important, and felt they were rational. Nevertheless, their definitions of rationality and the reasons for their interest in it were quite varied. Below is a detailed breakdown of what we discovered.
What did we learn?
From our survey, we discovered that:
most people feel positively about rationality as a concept, and consider themselves moderately to very rational.
people tend to be overconfident in their rationality, as over 80% of survey takers felt they were more rational than 50% of the population.
those in India tended to place less importance on rationality than those in the United States, and also believed themselves to be very or extremely rational less frequently than those in the United States. Still, survey takers in India tended to be more interested in free online courses to learn rational thinking skills than those in the United States! Perhaps they felt they had more to work on in this area, despite placing less importance on it overall.
over 50% of survey takers were interested in free online courses to help with their rational thinking.
among those who were less interested in further developing their rationality, a common response was they were already rational and didn't need to work on being more rational.
they were still open to becoming more rational, though some wondered how rational thinking could be taught via an online course (or taught at all!)
people were largely in support of teaching children rational thinking in school.
Survey takers’ definitions of being rational were also eye-opening. Many felt that rationality has to do with:
spending time thinking through decisions,
using common sense,
behaving in accordance with societal norms,
choosing actions that are the most beneficial for oneself and others or effective for achieving goals,
and not considering emotions when making decisions.
This last view of rationality, one that doesn’t include emotions as part of a rational decision making process, was particularly intriguing. It’s ClearerThinking.org’s view that our emotions are essential for telling us what we value in a situation, and also as a source of information about the world, and so shouldn’t be ignored when making decisions. That being said, sometimes emotions are so strong that they overwhelm all other information, and so lead to bad decisions. In our view, one’s feelings are a source of information, to be combined with other sources of information, as part of a process for rational decision making.
What does it mean to be rational?
When we asked people what it means to be rational, there was variety amongst survey takers’ responses, but we identified several frequently-recurring motifs. These included the following different definitions of “rational”:
thinking things through or deliberating before making choices
carefully considering the consequences and possible outcomes of decisions
making choices to maximize benefits for, or the well-being of, all involved
using logic and reasoning to make decisions
not letting emotions dictate one's decisions
acting in accordance with societal norms
doing what is right in an ethical or moral sense
making choices that are effective for achieving some purpose or goal
Perhaps the most common definition people gave associated rationality with thinking things through and considering the consequences and possible outcomes of decisions. This theme, a connection between rationality and careful and deliberate thinking and actions, reappeared in responses to many of the different survey questions. One individual stated that to be rational is:
To do something in a deliberate manner, to think something through and act on it.
Another survey taker said:
It means that a person has considered the consequences of their actions and has thought through their actions.
Many individuals emphasized the need to think about consequences of decisions, as with the following:
They need to think in a thoughtful manner. They take the time to think about what consequences will be for their actions.
A careful examination of the possible outcomes of actions was linked to a regard for how one’s actions affect others, in many responses. Here’s what being rational meant to some of these individuals:
For a person to act rationally, it means that they have considered a reasonable number of scenarios and chosen the course of action that would lead to the greatest net benefit for themselves, their family and their friends.
To think about the process carefully and act within certain parameters which mitigate destruction and attempt to do what is best for oneself and others.
To consider all the choices available, and to be aware of and consider the consequences of choices and behavior. To be aware of how things affect those around us, and ourselves.
To act while thinking of the consequences and with consideration to themselves and others.
Other users brought reasoning and logic into the picture. To them, being rational meant:
to act based on logic and reason.
making logical decisions in everyday life.
to have reasons behind your actions that are logical.
using logic and facts to make decisions.
Many of the survey takers who mentioned logic and reason in their responses created a dichotomy between considering emotions as a factor in making decisions and relying purely on logic and reason.
To make decisions by choosing the most logical options and avoid making decisions based on your feelings.
To use logic and reason to weigh the options and act based on that inner dialogue. The opposite of acting emotionally.
This idea of excluding emotions and feelings from the decision making process appeared frequently, as with the following response:
Acting rationally primarily means to act outside of the moment, objectively and non-emotionally. This isn't to say that future emotional states are irrelevant, but rather that present emotional states are not impacting decision-making.
Many survey takers found a rational process of deliberation and the influence of feelings or emotions to be incompatible:
To think things through before acting, not taking feelings or emotions into account.
A person thinks before doing things. A person looks over all facts and information before making a decision and does not let their feelings influence their decisions.
Another notion of rationality that came up many times had to do with behaving in accordance with societal norms or doing what is socially acceptable.
To be rational is to be able to act while using common sense. Generally doing what is acceptable in society.
They are able to think things through and come to the "best" conclusion. They act in a way most people in society would find acceptable.
We also saw the words “calm,” “sane,” and “normal” in many responses, which also touched on the themes of thinking carefully and behaving appropriately.
To think things through and decide objectively and/or calmly.
To act calmly in a manner that is well thought out and that most people would agree with as an appropriate response
Another somewhat less common thread we observed was an association of rationality with making the right choice in a moral sense.
A person who acts rationally is one who performs with logic, order, and common sense. The behavior will be conforming to the norms of societal expectations, of reason, and leaning towards even morality.
To do something that seems like the right thing to do, despite their own opinions or other opinions on the subject.
To act reasonably or sensible. To do your best to perform moral and ethical actions.
For a few other individuals, rationality had to do with selecting actions that are effective and/or achieve certain goals or purposes.
It means that they have considered all options honestly and have chosen the most effective way to go about solving a problem.
To think through decisions and act in ways that make sense to advance their goals.
To make decisions based on more than emotional response. To act in a way that is consistent with someone’s values, that helps them to achieve whatever goal is set.
Most people consider themselves very or moderately rational
None of the respondents in the U.S. deemed themselves to be “not at all” rational, whereas 4.6% of the respondents in India selected this answer. On the other hand, few people think of themselves as “Extremely” rational either (12.1% U.S., 6.6% India).
Most survey takers believed themselves to be moderately or very rational, though a greater percentage of United States-dwellers classified themselves as very rational. In India, by contrast, more individuals chose “moderately” than “very.”
We asked not only how rational individuals considered themselves on a scale of “Not at all” to “Extremely,” but why they rated themselves to be so. Some individuals pointed to their academic studies, their vocations, or their upbringings as imbuing them with rationality. One felt that working in an analytical laboratory required “a rational approach.” Others mentioned knowledge of statistics and the scientific method, and still others pointed to level-headedness as a personal trait.
Many associated rationality with making good choices and achieving optimal outcomes, both for themselves and for those around them. A few also associated rationality with behaving in accordance with societal norms or what is socially acceptable or common.
Many surveyed said they “make logical choices” or that they use logic and reason when making decisions, rather than their emotions. The most frequent type of response had to do with not relying on emotions, letting emotions sway or control one’s decisions, or letting emotions “cloud” one’s judgment.
I'm not usually irrational, but I sometimes can let my emotions get the best of me.
One of the distinctions between those who rated themselves moderately rational and very rational was that the former felt that their emotions got in the way of making informed and carefully thought out decisions.
I do have strong emotions that often prompt me to act in the moment, but for the most part I am learning to control those impulses and think before I do.
As with the meanings of rationality, we observed that people linked emotions to impulsive behavior and felt that they get in the way of rational thinking and action. Again, one of the phrases that appeared frequently was “think things through.” Many survey takers considered themselves more rational than not due to a habit of thinking carefully or taking their time thinking before making a choice. They mentioned considering all of the possible viewpoints, possible consequences, and available information. Many who rated themselves “moderately” rational felt that they occasionally act before really thinking carefully. They tended to feel that these instances were lapses of good judgment; one survey taker felt that not thinking things through put them in “tough situations.”
Better decisions and less chaos: most people think it’s important that people think rationally
Populations of both countries selected that it’s “very” important that people think rationality more often than any other option. None of the United States-dwellers selected “not at all.” Additionally, far more of those in the United States chose “extremely” than the India group, and far fewer chose “moderately.” These results suggest that those living in India do not prize rational quite as highly as those in the U.S., though they do still value it.
When asked why they considered rational thinking important, survey takers tended to believe that it leads to better decisions. By and large, they agreed that rationality prevents “people from making rash or unwise decisions,” and that thinking rationally produces the “best results” or “best outcome(s).”
Survey takers thought that choices taken without logical thought lead to harming others, mistakes, and all kinds of unfortunate consequences, and that rational thinking is good for both the individual and society—and especially for the progress and proper functioning of the latter.
I think it allows society to make better progress overall.
More rationality means better conclusions, and a better society as a whole.
People who think irrationally act in ways that are contrary to the best interests of themselves and their society.
They also thought that rationality prevents discrimination and violence, and leads “to a more peaceful way of living”—one with fewer arguments and better communication.
I think that people using rationality would improve communication.
Rational thinking helps to maintain peace
The word chaos appeared many times here, too.
The world would basically be in chaos if people didn’t act rationally.
Because if we do not have a rational system then it would be extremely hard for people to get along and understand what the other person was thinking. It would be chaos. Rational thought gives us a common denominator.
A few survey takers connected rational thinking and action with predictability, safety, and stability.
I think that rational people are more predictable. And in our interpersonal relationships it's important to have stability, growth, and understanding. Unpredictable people who behave irrationally block opportunities for that to occur.
A world full of irrational people would not be very pleasant to live in - rationality lends an air of predictability and thoughtfulness to any situation.
Survey takers who placed less importance on thinking rationally were apt to think that rationality was at odds with creativity and with emotions. But as mentioned above, this perceived dichotomy of emotion and rationality was also used as an argument in favor of rational thinking, by those who felt that controlling one’s emotions was favorable.
But did survey takers want to become more rational?
“You can never be too rational”: most people are moderately or very interested in becoming more rational
For this question, we found that results between the United States and India were quite similar. The majority of survey takers felt they would benefit from being more rational. Many felt it would help them deal with their emotions productively and not let emotions negatively affect their decisions. Some felt that they were already rational (but were still interested in learning more and improving), while others felt rationality was an area in which they were lacking and wanted to boost their skills.
Survey takers frequently saw better decisions as one benefit of rationality.
Rational thinking leads to better decisions. Better decisions generally lead to a better quality of life.
Those who were not interested in becoming more rational tended to be those who felt they already were very rational, or rational enough. One individual felt that being any more rational would make them “too far removed from normal society,” and another didn’t “want to become like a robot or like a Vulcan.”
Responses that individuals were already rational appeared across the board, but as interest in being more rational increased, so did the number of responses that mentioned the utility of rational thinking for better decisions, as well as the sentiments that being more rational can’t hurt and that there is always room for improvement.
ife throws different obstacles at you, and having different methods to evaluate those obstacles using rational thought will result in better outcomes.
Most people were moderately or very interested in online courses teaching rational thinking
Overall, online courses to teach rationality were more appealing to India-dwellers, though populations in both countries had comparable percentages for levels of interest at either end of the spectrum. Far more of those in India were “very” interested in such courses, whereas interest waned for United States-dwellers beyond a moderate level.
Those who were not at all interested in online courses to teach rationality did not think the topic would be engaging, and often did not think that rational thinking could even be taught!
I think that rationality is something that is not learned but acquired over time.
I don't believe it's something that can be taught.
Some felt that online courses do not work for their personality types or would not be a suitable medium for conveying this specific subject matter.
I am not a person who learns well from internet courses - I would much rather spend my time in an actual class.
Others felt that it was a waste of time, and the most common response among those who weren’t interested—as with the question about interest in being more rational—was that they already considered themselves rational and didn’t need to work on building that particular skill. Responses from those who were a little interested were much the same, as far as considerations of their own time constraints and their view of themselves as already being rational. Moderately interested individuals were sometimes curious or skeptical about the effectiveness of such courses, but were open to trying them. Others who were moderately interested felt that these courses would definitely be beneficial.
A course to help me think clearer and more rationally would benefit my life greatly.
Those who were very or extremely interested in online courses for rational thinking described themselves as curious, always looking to learn more, interested in self-improvement, and appreciative of the convenience of online study.
Rational thinking helps one to deal with everything in life. Learning to put aside irrational thought is beneficial in multiple life aspects.
First of all if a course is "free", why not? Secondly, I believe everyone can improve in many areas by constantly learning and experiencing new things.
I think this would be helpful in my overall life. It would be something I could apply to many different areas and situations in my life and would help me become more successful.
We also found that interest among men and women in online courses to learn rationality was relatively similar.
Did survey takers also think that children would benefit from learning rational thinking skills?
One of the most positive responses we received was in favor of children being taught rational thinking skills in school.
Do people tend to overestimate their rationality?
Results From All Survey Takers
People tended to be a bit overconfident in their rationality. The median percentage of people their age and gender that survey takers thought they are more rational than is 60%, and 81% of survey takers thought they were more rational than 50% or more of those their age and gender. If people were not overconfident, we would expect to see close to 50% of survey takers thinking they are more rational than 50% or more of their peers, not 81% like we found.
We found that women overall had a slightly more modest estimate of how rational they are compared to their peers, though 77% still believed themselves to be more than rational than 50% of those of their age and gender.
84% of men surveyed believed themselves to be more rational than 50% of their peers.
Results For Men
Comparing Men’s and Women’s Overconfidence In Their Rationality
We analyzed whether men and women differed in their average response to “What percentage of people who are your age and gender do you believe yourself to be more rational than?” Both men and women seem to be overconfident in their rationality, but women in our sample were less overconfident than men. For women, the mean percent they felt they were more rational than was 57.3% (stddev= 20.4%). For men, the mean was 64% (stddev=20.2%). This difference was statistically significant (p=.0009), which indicates a very low probability that chance alone would cause such a wide gap between men and women’s assessment of their rationality if these means were actually equal.
Below are charts with more information about who the survey takers were.
Click here for the raw data from this survey, in CSV form.
Click here to run the survey itself.
Click here to see the code used to make the survey. (You’ll need a GuidedTrack.com account for this!)