Illusory Rational Thinking

Rational thinking is basic to our functioning human beings. Being able to consider the information available, organize it in a way that leads to a logical solution begins very early in cognitive development. With maturation, concrete rational thinking can become more sophisticated with the ability to consider more information in order to reach a decision. However, rational decision-making is much more difficult than emotional decision-making.

Abstract decision-making is the ability to use abstract concepts rather than concrete information to influence decision-making. Competent abstract rational thinking would be the ability to understand and manipulate multiple abstract concepts in order to reach a decision. Keeping in mind that only 60% of 18-year-olds can understand and manipulate two abstract concepts simultaneously, and there are very few opportunities where teaching people to increase that number exists, the abstract cognitive enabler of rational thinking is rare and often bounded by the inability to transfer what has been learned to various contexts.

This doesn’t mean that the ability for abstract rational decision-making doesn’t appear with some frequency in the population. It does. However, recent work in the animal kingdom illustrates the prevalence of illusory thinking abilities.

Redouan Bshary has recently published research into animal models of economic systems. Economic systems that rely on the subtleties of market forces such shifts in supply and demand. Behaviors that appear to reflect rational decision making in the exchange of services.

As an example, Bshary uses the interaction between small fish called the cleaner wrasse that lives off the parasites that live between the scales of much larger fish. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two kinds of fish. The cleaners eat and the cleaned are cleared of parasites. However, the relationship is more complicated than that. In addition to eating the parasites, the wrasse likes to nibble on the protective mucus layers on the larger fish.

This propensity to eat more than just the parasites creates a market for services. How much mucus are the scaled fish willing to give up to be cleaned and how much mucus does a wrasse dare to eat before their food supply swims off. This is where the interplay of supply and demand appear.

There are two types of scaled fish that are regularly cleaned by the wrasse. Fish that live close to where the wrasse and others that have a wider range and have access to a number of wrasse schools. What has been observed is that the wrasse tends to eat more mucus off of the local fish than the visiting fish. The local fish are captive customers with no choices as to where they can go to have their scales cleaned. The fish that can access various schools of wrasse can swim off to another location if the wrasse engages in gouging (literally) their customers. Both kinds of fish are displaying the rational thought process of responding to the laws of supply and demand.

The story gets even more interesting when environmental changes led to a reduction in the number of wrasses. With the increased scarcity of cleaners, the wrasse engaged in more mucus feasts. The scaled fish were willing to pay more for the services that were offered when the supply of service providers was low when compared to when there was an abundant supply of cleaners.

Clearly, the behavior of these fish indicated the ability to make sophisticated concrete rational decisions based on the market forces of supply and demand.

Given the complexity of rational decision-making and the sizes of the brains of the fish involved, there is no way that actual rational thinking is taking place. These are learned behaviors that provide us with the illusion of rational thinking. A kind of pseudo-rational thinking.

If fish can learn behaviors that give the illusion of rational decision-making, it would be a stretch to assume that humans could not do the same. Using learned algorithms (concrete thinking), it isn’t hard to imagine how any of the abstract cognitive enablers could be imitated with the person doing the imitating looking like they were engaging in the use of genuine abstract cognitive enablers.

This begs the question, if the results of a decision–making process using real abstract cognitive enablers are indistinguishable from pseudo-abstract cognitive enablers, what difference does it make? This holds true with all of the abstract cognitive enablers – critical thinking, complex inductive reasoning, hypothetico-deductive reasoning, abstract creativity, metacognition, or abstract logic. If any one of these can be imitated without actually engaging in the real thought processes, why is it necessary to go through the real work of learning the real thing.

Actually, it makes no difference as long as the environment and demands don’t change. Imitating an abstract cognitive enabler is fine if the task or process remains relatively stable. However, if the context, environment, or process is significantly altered, the lack of abstract cognitive enablers becomes glaringly obvious.

This doesn’t mean that a competent individual can’t do a competent job doing something else, but the ability to take the illusion of an abstract cognitive enabler with them. This is very close to the transference problem in learning, where something learned in one context does not transfer to another context. I would be willing to wager that a wrasse cleaner would be unable to adjust to using their pseudo-rationality to make a reasonable decision about what house to buy.

This is why I continue to advocate for really learning abstract cognitive enablers. The future we are rushing toward will be marked by continual changes in the environments, contexts, and processes that will be expected in the workplace. In a future where we will be expected to move seamlessly between work and learning, will the learning involve nothing more than the ability to perform a new task? Tasks, no matter how intricate, will all eventually be replaced by AI and automation. Although AI may be able to display pseudo-abstract cognition, the genuine article will remain a distinctly human ability.

We all have to choose for ourselves. Will we be satisfied with a future of constantly learning new tasks or do we want a future where a foundation of abstract cognitive enablers provides us with a distinctive human value that cannot be automated?

Socelor, our new learning venture, may not meet traditional educational forms, but it is designed for learning. Learning that is based on The Science of Learning, not on the traditions of teaching. Watch my video explaining why Socelor exists. Read about why we need a campus and not just an online presence. Find out about the abstract cognitive enablers we focus on and why this is the case. Look into what makes us fundamentally different.

Socelor isn’t a part of the crowd and people without the imagination or desire to look beyond concrete thinking makes what we are doing confusing and avoidable if at all possible. Only those who have been burned by the present system, realize that the way things are done isn’t enough anymore, and are brave enough to break with conformity and do something that works.

Or, maybe illusory thinking is all you want.

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