Ben Carson by Ann Telnaes

Dysrationalia [dis-rash-uh-ney-lee-uh] is defined as the inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence. Dysrationalia can be a resource to explain why smart people fall for Ponzi schemes and other fraudulent encounters. A survey given to a Canadian Mensa club (which grants membership solely based on high IQ scores) on the topic of paranormal belief found that 44% of the members believed in astrology.

There are many examples of people who are famous because of their intelligence, but often display irrational behavior. Martin Heidegger, a renowned philosopher, was also a Nazi apologist and used the most fallacious arguments to justify his beliefs. William Crookes, a famous scientist who discovered the element thallium and a Fellow of the Royal Society, was continually duped by spiritual ‘mediums’ yet never gave up his spiritualist beliefs.

The concept was first proposed by psychologist Keith Stanovich in the early 1990s, who classified it as a learning disability characterized by a difficulty in belief formation. However, special education researcher Kenneth Kavale notes that dysrationalia may be more aptly categorized as a ‘thought disorder,’ rather than a learning disability, because it does not have a direct impact upon academic performance. Further, psychologist Robert Sternberg argues that the construct of dysrationalia needs to be better conceptualized since it lacks a theoretical framework (explaining why people are irrational and how they become this way) and operationalization (how dysrationalia could be measured). 

However, Sternberg has edited a book in which the dysrationalia concept is extensively discussed. In a recent volume, Stanovich has provided the detailed conceptualization that Sternberg called for in his earlier critique. In that book, he also shows that variation in rational thinking skills is surprisingly independent of intelligence. One implication of this finding is that dysrationalia should not be rare. Stanovitch also suggests two important concepts related to dysrationalia: ‘mindware gap’ and ‘contaminated mindware.’ The former results from gaps in education and experience (i.e. limitations within person’s knowledge in logic, probability theory, or scientific method when it comes to belief orientation or decision-making). Due to these gaps, intelligent people can make seemingly irrational decisions.

The latter concept, contaminated mindware focuses on how intelligent people can ‘fall’ for irrational ideologies, pseudo-sciences, and/or get-rich-quick schemes. This idea branches out from cognitively misusing one’s gut instincts. A person can be lead into such contaminated mindware and dysrationalia through heuristic trust (overconfidence in mental shortcuts) or fallacious reasoning. Dysrationalia can also occur within situational tests that measure a person’s level of rationality when paired with emotions and intelligence tests. One of the issues with IQ tests is that they measure intelligence and not rationality. Therefore, some people who struggle with IQ tests, are in-fact smart, but could be under the power of dysrationalia.

Like other learning disabilities, borderline cases of dysrationalia may be difficult to classify. One case that can be related to dysrationalia centers on two former Illinois schoolteachers who pulled their children from the local public school in the area because discussions of the Holocaust are a part of the history curriculum. These parents, who are presumably competent due to their college education, believe that the Holocaust is a myth and should not be taught to their children. This is an obvious case of a problem in belief formation regardless of intelligence.

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