What Use Is An Evolutionary Definition of Rationality?

Eyal Winter’s book, Feeling Smart, is interesting but frustrating. There is much good content, indeed some of the stories are great. My biggest problem was the casual use of concepts exemplified by the central idea of his book. He said that feelings/emotions can help you make smart decisions. I totally agree but the big problem was that he wasn’t clear what emotions are and I wasn’t clear what he meant by good decisions.

He gave three definitions of rationality. The last definition to be developed was an evolutionary definition. I think the idea of “evolutionary” rationality is interesting and his approach seems a little different to other approaches from Gerd Gigerenzer, Vernon Smith, or the evolutionary psychologists. The problem with his definition is that it isn’t clear why anyone would think that following the dictates of his form of evolutionary rationality makes for good decisions. If evolutionary rationality has nothing to do with good decision making it isn’t clear why emotions that developed to bestow an evolutionary advantage make you smart as he seems to suggest.

The definition he gives of evolutionary rationality is: “An action undertaken by an individual is rational if, given the prevailing conditions at the time the action is chosen, there does not exist another action that will give the individual a great evolutionary advantage” (Winter, 2014, page xvii).

Winter uses a, somewhat confusing, all encompassing definition of emotions, he includes all instincts and feelings. It is perfectly possible that sexual desire, what Winter would call a biological “emotion”, could encourage a person towards ill-fated sexual encounters. A man might end up having many descendants. That said he might end up with multiple angry partners and kids who want to kill him. It is quite likely that he might not be happy about this situation himself either. He almost certainly won’t be doing his bank balance any good with child support payments. Is this smart? It doesn’t sound it. As such it isn’t clear that Winter’s evolutionary definition of rationality has any relationship to good decision-making. If evolutionary rationality doesn’t lead to good decisions then he hasn’t really shown that our evolved “emotions”, our feelings, lead to us being smart.

I mostly liked Winter’s book but it is an economist writing about thinking. I’m afraid my psychologically trained colleagues might have a negative emotional reaction if they read it.

Read: Eyal Winter (2014) Feeling Smart, Public Affairs.