Rational Thought: Not all it’s cracked up to be.

In my post entitled Intuitive Thought I mentioned that rational thought is slow and arduous. I also mentioned in Spinoza’s Conjecture that vague or confusing information is processed in a portion of the brain that also processes pain and disgust. Rational thought, it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact we are not very good at it. According to Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, “People are naturally curious but they are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, people will avoid thinking.


Willingham delved into this reality in his intriguing article “Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking.” He suggests that we are good at certain types of reason (relative to other animals), but that we are much better at other brain functions like seeing and moving. Both of these capabilities are highly complex; however, they are relatively automatic and we tend to take them for granted. We don’t have to think to see or generally to ambulate. A massive portion of our neurological terrain is dedicated to these activities because seeing and moving are actually much more complicated than working out a complex physics problem for example.


Working out novel and/or complicated problems requires concentration and the complete dedication of one’s attention. Think about a personal situation that necessitated solving an important and novel problem involving numerous and complicated variables. Recall how difficult and slow the process was – and how it demanded single minded dedication and supreme concentration. Do you remember how disruptive distracting stimuli became? Personally, I recall a complicated wood working project where for the life of me I could not work out the solution. Another situation that stumped me recently was trying to navigate the streets of Paris. Oy vey! Between the language difference that made reading street signs difficult, the meandering streets, and the uniform buildings I had a difficult time.


When the solution is not quickly evident or one lacks experience in solving similar problems, novel and complicated scenarios can become frustrating and downright unpleasant. Extraneous distractions can completely short circuit problem solving.


Another complication associated with thinking is that it is uncertain and even prone to error. So let’s see, slow, arduous, and error prone – not much of a selling point for rational thought.


These realities are responsible for us tending to avoid thinking when we can get away with it. So if this is true, how do we get through life? The answer is that we rely to a significant extent on memory including the adaptive unconscious. Willingham states:

“For the vast majority of decisions you make, you don’t stop to consider what you might do, reason about it, anticipate possible consequences, and so on. You do take such steps when faced with a new problem, but not when faced with a problem you’ve already encountered many times. That’s because one way that your brain saves you from having to think is by changing. If you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually become automatic; your brain will change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it.”

In other words, exposure and repetition brings the task into the realm of the intuitive brain – the fast and frugal mind behind the locked door. And this adaptive unconscious is entirely dependent on memory.


Memory, it is important to note, is a multidimensional function involving working memory and long-term memory. This is a simplification of the process mind you, but it will do for this discussion. Working memory houses the information that is the focus of your active attention regardless of the source of that information (e.g., drawn from the immediate environment or recollections of past events). These memories are within your awareness and are the focus of your attention. Long term memory, which lies outside your awareness functions as a vast warehouse of your factual and procedural knowledge.


When you need the details contained in long-term memory, you pull them from this passive warehouse into your active working memory. Thinking, as we know it, occurs when there is a collaborative effort combining input from the environment with knowledge stores from your long-term memory. Successful thinking requires effective strategies for combining these two sources of input. In other words, you have to know how to think – how to problem solve. This procedural knowledge is essentially a recipe that is itself stored within long-term memory.


It is complicated, but this is why we do better when tasked with familiar problems – because we have experiential knowledge and procedural knowledge that we can readily employ. Novel problems tend to be more challenging because we lack a recipe and/or cogent memories to assist us in problem resolution.


This is why practice is so important when one wants to become proficient at something – repetition increases efficacy, ease, and ultimately how automatic subconscious responding can become. Learning to ski, golf, or drive a car are initially quite difficult (a lot of novel thinking is mandated) but as one gets more and more practice these skills become more refined and fluid.


It is important to note that effective thinking is dependent not on just having procedural knowledge (a recipe) but also on having factual knowledge. So although critical thinking is important, it is equally critical to be knowledgeable. Being widely read and having a vast storehouse of knowledge is crucial to effective thinking and is likely to make snap judgments more accurate and rational thought faster, more precise, and less arduous.


The finite capacity of our working memory is yet another factor that impinges on one’s ability to think. Most of us are familiar with the experience of information overload, which is indicative of an overloaded working memory. I experience this phenomena after two full days at a professional conference or even when trying to solve multiple digit long division in my head. For example try diving 753 by 13 in your head. This is difficult because we are not adept at storing much organized data in working memory. Anyways, if working memory is overloaded, one’s ability to think is compromised.


So why is it that despite the arduous nature of rational thought, that we are drawn to mental challenges? Why do people enjoy games like chess, suduko, crossword puzzles, framegames, and so on? Why, if we’re not good at thinking, do we seek out mental challenges that actively engage thinking? Willingham suggests that “mental work appeals to us because it offers the opportunity for that pleasant feeling when it succeeds.”


Success is the crucial variable within the pursuit of mental challenges. Problems that are either too easy or too difficult are unlikely to be attended to. Puzzles that challenge, but that do not overtax one’s capacity are likely to offer that reinforcing “pleasant feeling” associated with success. In reality this is a behavioral paradigm. Again, Willingham notes:

“…when you size up a problem as very difficult, you are judging that you’re unlikely able to solve it, and therefore unlikely able to get the satisfaction that would come with the solution. So there is inconsistency in claiming that people avoid thought and in claiming that people are naturally curious – curiosity prompts people to explore new ideas and problems but when they do, they quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much or too little, people stop working on the problem if they can.”

Willingham’s intent in his article was to help teacher’s understand that learning is hard and frankly aversive for many students because of how they are taught. He provided specific strategies for helping teachers plan appropriately and teach in a way that fosters a love of learning. The key is finding that magical Goldilock’s Zone – where the work is neither too easy or too hard – it needs to be just right.


Developing an understanding of these concepts is crucial for anyone interested in learning, teaching, or in becoming a more effective thinker or doer. Here are just a couple of things to “keep in mind:”

  • Read a lot – build the stores in your long-term memory
  • Experience a lot – build those same stores.
  • Diversify your exposure. Expand your stores.
  • Practice a lot – if you want to get better at a particular skill – practice, practice, practice!
  • If something is too hard – don’t give up. Instead back up a bit – work on fundamental skills – refine your procedural skills. Find your level of competence and slowly raise the bar.


We need not be victims of evolution and the subsequent configuration of our brains. Just as we can proactively upgrade our adaptive unconscious, so too can we adapt our rational thought.


Willingham, D. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking. American Educator. Spring Issue. http://archive.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/spring2009/WILLINGHAM%282%29.pdf



  1. Pingback:Tweets that mention Rational Thought: Not all it’s cracked up to be. · How Do You Think? -- Topsy.com

  2. As I think about this and project it forward to adults, it occurs to me why the advice “Follow your bliss”, do what you’re interested in, makes so much sense. Something that interests us makes us willing to do the hard work of thinking, gives us the patience to acquire new knowledge and skills. We continue to get rewards as we deepen our understanding until we become expert in our chosen field. Could be why people have hobbies and avocations as they mature. A few lucky souls manage to combine their interests with their occupation or profession or vocation, and then they can do good, deepen all of our understanding and advance knowledge in the world. Teaching more effectively, engaging young minds, can set more of them on this path.

  3. Right on Vinny, right on. Your last point, more effective teaching, is a big challenge. I wish more educators, parents, and School Board folk read Willingham’s article and internalized it. Teaching is hard, and integrating the kind of thinking necessitated by the insight in this article, is even more challenging. I guess we need to think about how to raise consciousness.

  4. Pingback:Narrative Fallacy » How Do You Think? - A personal exploration of science, skepticism, and how we think.

  5. The point your trying to make is that rational thought is not what is all cracked up to me. You give reason to this by the fact humans are not naturally good at it. Yet you say when humans practice and experience various issues and life circumstances we don’t have to think about them anymore. This article is very weak because their is many counter arguments you don’t address.

    One being is that humans are given the gift of rational thought. We are as of now the only existing thing we know of which can do such a thing. How is that not amazing?

    Second, you claim it be hard, but through practice it will become easier and is very necessary. “Rational thought is a term that refers to the capacity human beings have to make sense of things, to establish and verify facts, and to change or justify practices, institutions, and beliefs.”

    Third, you strike knowledge as if it’s something easily obtainable. Knowledge is not black and white, one situation in which a decision was made could turn out completely different depending on the vast amounts of possible variables that could be included. If you were to use past memory to make your decision, then that would simply just be careless.

    Rational thought is needed and without it you deprive yourself of improving. Everyone is constantly learning and growing, memory is important, but it should not be the final say.

  6. Thanks for the comment Dominic. I’m afraid that the title of the article may have implied that I was attempting to diminish the importance of rational thought. That was in no way my intent. It indeed differentiates us from less sentient beings. I value reason immensely and wish deeply that more of my fellow hominids would practice it more often. This article was written to put rational thought into perspective relative the other faculties in the brain that affect us in profound ways. I’m guessing that many of us are completely unaware of the neurological workings I reviewed. I attempted to provide strengthening strategies to help hone the capacity of reason – because frankly it is relatively weak. Here’s to Rational Thought and it’s rampant application! May we flourish as a society as we use this portion of the brain with increased agility!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *