Irrationality is adaptive?

I’m not a cognitive scientist, so I’ll be curious to see what the blog commentary on this paper might say, but apparently people get smarter when they think about things that don’t make sense. Whether or not irrational beliefs are epistemically compatible with science, this would suggest that they are cognitively helpful for the practice of science.

Basically, the researchers had some students read a convoluted story by Kafka and another group read a more linear story. The each group was tasked with making sense of seemingly random strings of letters that actually did have structure. Those who read Kafka performed better at locating the patterns.


  1. #1 Sigmund
    October 14, 2009

    There is no logical connection between your first and second sentences. It seems to me that you are confusing two separate points. It is certainly plausible that thinking about a complex, seemingly irrational story, poem or painting can help you into a mindframe where you can find patterns more quickly than someone who isn’t in that mindframe.
    The problem is that this is different to the situation with religious beliefs. Religious believers, for the most part (leaving aside the extreme minority of introspective religious thinkers), do not think they are looking for meaning within an irrational belief system. So long as you accept certain notions (mainly the existence of miracles) then most religion can be explained on a ‘rational’ basis.
    Do you really think that Christians read the Gospel stories of Jesus dying on the cross to redeem the original sin of Adam and think to themselves “wait a second, Adam and Eve, the garden of Eden and that talking snake, they never existed! Why exactly is Jesus dying for these non existent sins? It doesn’t make sense! Is there even any evidence for Jesus as a real person?”
    I suspect they read the bible as a rational and logical story (and simply ignore those parts that contradict this view.)
    However, let’s for a second assume your hypothesis might be true and ask ourselves the question ‘are irrational beliefs “cognitively helpful for the practice of science?” ‘
    How can we test this model?
    What would it predict about the proportion of top level scientists who are religious believers?

  2. #2 Ixarux
    October 14, 2009

    I believe it is more about the mind attempting to search for patterns than it is about irrational beliefs.

    On the contrary I believe that the mind is forced to find order in randomness and thus will be not take mental shortcuts which is what most superstitions and staunch theism are about.

  3. #3 Anthony McCarthy
    October 14, 2009

    Did I miss something or did this report, like just about every other report of “studies” in the behavioral sciences not contain much in the way of actual statistical information about the research?

    Show the numbers, show more details and it will be possible to know something about this study. Until then, call me skeptical.

    If someone gave me that letters test I’d begin thinking it was bogus and wouldn’t even bother trying. I wonder if any people in their sample had a similar attitude or how many of us there are in the real, as opposed to the artifical, test, population there are.

  4. #4 Katharine
    October 14, 2009

    I suspect this study is not so much about irrationality.

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    October 14, 2009

    I suspect that this study says more about the benefits of, say, a show like The Prisoner than it does about religion.

  6. #6 apuleius platonicus
    October 14, 2009

    Without knowing what the other story was it’s hard to judge what is going on. The NYT piece describes the Kafka story, “The Country Doctor”, as “urgent” and “vivid” as well as being “nonsensical”. The other story is not named, nor is it’s author — we are only told that it is “coherent”. It could be that the Kafka story was simply more interesting and stimulating. Kafka was a great writer, after all. In fact we would need to have some quantitative measure of how “incoherent” or “irrational” or “non-linear” a story is before we could rationally speak of the effect of rationality in a story on subsequent performance on a pattern recognition test. The measure of the story’s rationality should be just as quantitative as the measure of the performance of the subjects on the test. In fact we should ideally demand a dose-response relationship be shown.

  7. #7 becca
    October 14, 2009

    And now for something completely different…

  8. #8 gillt
    October 14, 2009

    Why talk about a scientific study and not link to the actual paper? Who cares what the journalists at the Times think? Anyway, the authors of the paper said this: “…these meaning frameworks activate a meaning-maintenance motivation that may call upon any other available associations to restore a sense of meaning.”

    Simply stated, when meaning is explicitly lacking our minds are conditioned to find meaning in otherwise senseless or abstract scenarios. We are pattern-seeking animals. Nothing new here.

  9. #9 Anthony McCarthy
    October 14, 2009

    Pattern seeking, how about pattern creating. And that’s not unknown to happen in the social sciences. And that’s not to mention all the other sciences to some extent.

    The desire to want to understand is irresistible, the desire to depend on a previous understanding maybe even harder to resist even in the face of contrary evidence.

    You don’t have to be religious to make mistakes and to think you’re discovering a truth that is self created. Even a lot of the true truths are created by us.

  10. #10 apuleius platonicus
    October 14, 2009

    I don’t know why I missed this before, but the whole idea that any given trait is INHERENTLY “adaptive” or not is totally bogus. It all depends on the environment. Being able to breath under water is very adaptive in some environments, not so much in others. Same thing for cell walls, horns, tails, backbones, multicellularity, etc, etc. Also, many different mutually exclusive traits can be simultaneously “adaptive” in the SAME environment (although perhaps if “environment” were defined narrowly enough this might not be the case).

    Therefore the question of whether or not “irrationality” is “adaptive” is hereby thrown own on the groups of incoherence.

    Still the NYT article is very good as science journalism goes

  11. #11 abb3w
    October 14, 2009

    Anthony McCarthy: Pattern seeking, how about pattern creating.

    It’s between pattern conception and pattern recognition. You can’t recognize what you can’t even conceive of.

    The convoluted story has a more complex pattern; it trains humans to examine a larger search space. The flip side of this question would be investigating how it affects pareidolia-induced false positives: identifying “patterns” that are mere coincidence.

  12. #12 gillt
    October 14, 2009

    abb3w: “The flip side of this question would be investigating how it affects pareidolia-induced false positives: identifying “patterns” that are mere coincidence.”

    Looking over the data in the paper, the first thing I noticed was the lack of a control like the one you mentioned: to measure the frequency of false positives. But what do I know about cognitive science anyway.

  13. #13 Glen Davidson
    October 14, 2009

    I think that what matters here is that often finding patterns is a Gestalt, or whatever you want to call it, rather than a matter of following rational steps to a conclusion.

    It gets to the fact that part of science is not a rational process at all, rather it’s a matter of “intuition,” of noticing that things must be connected because they’re correlated in some non-random fashion. That’s exactly what picking the pattern of letters out of randomness is all about.

    But of course we demand that the scientist show us how one can rationally attain the connections, rather than simply notice and report the purported correlation (they’re not always correct).

    Is religion at all like this, and is ID? Actually, I think that religion is a kind of logical creation in order to explain apparent connections. The trouble is, it really doesn’t work out, not when reasoning from the evidence. Likewise with ID, clearly it’s not the worst notion of all that life might have been designed, but it can never be backed up by rational means from the evidence, and often their demand is that science quit insisting upon that step. Which is why it’s bogus non-science, or even anti-science.

    I would suppose that people who are good at Gestaltic recognition of patterns would often be attracted to religion. The people who understand that purported connections have to be adequately argued, and not simply supposed to be true once noticed, will tend not to stay with religion, unless for social reasons.

    Glen Davidson

  14. #14 Anthony McCarthy
    October 14, 2009

    Here’s A Country Doctor in translation.

    Reading it, I wonder if any of the subjects of this test were familiar with Kafka before they read the adaptation. If they had it might not have been as irrational to them as it would have been to someone who wasn’t familiar with him. Or their experience might not have been of irrationality but of comparing it to Metamorphosis or The Hunger Artist or some other story they’d read. If they were very familiar with him, had read a biography or his journals it might have been a very different experience from that of a neophyte. Someone sympathetic to that kind of aesthetic would have a very different experience from that of someone who was hostile to it. Someone who had read the original might have another kind of very different experience reading it.

    Just assuming that any two people have the same kind of experience from reading the same thing is quite a leap of faith. Faith not entirely unlike some varieties of religious faith, that are hardly less varied than the experiences of different readers of Kafka.

    Glen Davidson, if this wasn’t one of my heavy schedule days I’d refute several of your points. Maybe later.

  15. #15 Marshall
    October 14, 2009

    There’s a long train of thought about the connection between music and mathematics. Logic and aesthetics.

    It seems unfair to Kafka to call his stuff “irrational“. The reason why his stuff still gets read must have something to do with being somehow coherent to humans… “what researchers call implicit learning”. Just because something isn’t sensate, is it therefor not sensible? No surprise if the more you play whatever… basketball, piano, chess, foolish riddles… the better you get at it.

    My bottom line would be that life, even intellection, isn’t all logical positivism. ID’ers miss this point. Real Religion™ has more to do with “working out unsettling dilemmas”.

  16. #16 flynn
    October 15, 2009

    I took a semester-long seminar on Kafka. We did not spend the entire time saying, “Wow, that makes no sense.” (also, no one used the word “Kafkaesque.”)

    I’d like to distinguish “irrational” from “nonrational.” Randomness is nonrational. When I use the term “irrational” in reference to literature, I’m talking about an author intentionally breaking expectations. I’m not even sure what “irrational” would mean in a cognitive science sense. It sounds like popularization to me.

    When we read a story, we know someone wrote it and we assume that everything we see (except maybe typos) is intentional. We are aware of dealing with another mind. So we seek patterns. Ask anyone who reads James Joyce.

    This is an error when we are dealing with random events, though. I guess that much of our pattern-matching energy is devoted to the huge amount of work we do to be social animals, and that the mistakes we make applying social intuitions to the natural world have not been harmful enough to kill us (which is not proven to be the same as adaptive).

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