Concept-Checking: Nonrational vs. Irrational vs. Rational

Though this is a relatively rare distinction to be made, it is nonetheless an important one. Nonrationality is NOT the same thing as irrationality. These two terms are different and must be recognized as such. While we are at it, we should discuss what ‘rationality’ actually is…

The term rational is used to describe decision-making processes that are consciously analytic. In contrast, the term nonrational is meant to denote decision-making processes that are intuitive and evaluative. Meanwhile, the term irrational is appropriate when describing decision-making processes that respond to the emotions or that deviate from action chosen “rationally.”

When it comes to rational decision-making, goals and alternatives are made explicitly clear, the consequences of pursuing different alternative courses of action are calculated, and these potential consequences are evaluated in terms of how close they are to the goals in question. For instance, if you are wanting to lose weight, it would be rational to begin working out, to change up your diet to be more health-conscious, and to tell your family and friends to hold you accountable for dropping a certain number of pounds by a certain date.

But when it comes to nonrational decision-making, the response to the need for a decision is usually rapid, too rapid to allow for an orderly or sequential analysis of the situation. As a result, the decisionmaker cannot usually give a veridical account of either the process by which the decision was reached or the grounds for judging it to be the correct or most useful one. Nevertheless, decision-makers may have great confidence in the correctness of their intuitive decisions and are likely to attribute their ability to make them rapidly to their previous experiences.

As an example, sometimes when driving on the highway, we are required to make snap decisions to avoid disaster. An instance of nonrational decision-making would be to merge left, instead of right, to avoid causing a massive accident. When the driver pulls over afterward to calm their nerves, they may not be able to understand why they felt the impulse or intuition to go left instead of right (especially when previous experience and the law states to merge to the right shoulder), but they may nonetheless feel assured in their choice at the time. But since they didn’t necessarily weigh all of the alternatives available to them, it would hardly qualify as a rational decision.

Irrational decision-making, however, means that it is poorly adapted to our volitional and rational goals. Rational and nonrational decisions are thought out with some kind of common sense, irrational ones are not. An irrational decision is a decision that goes against or counter to logic or reasoning. For instance, if you are wanting to clean up your bedroom, then there are, presumably, certain tasks that you should do in order to complete that task or fulfill that purpose. This may include things like vacuuming your carpet, picking up any clothes left on the floor, throwing away your trash, and the like. So if the goal or purpose is to clean up your room, doing any/all of those activities would make sense. You would be acting rationally.

However, it would be irrational if you poured out soda on your carpet and left it there. Or if you decided to decorate your windowsills and nightstands with soil from your plants. And so on. These actions would be irrational because you’re going against your previously acknowledged purpose of cleaning up your room. You are, in fact, making things worse by making things dirtier. Because there is that expectation or anticipated purpose, anything that actively goes against it (that you willingly chose to do) means it is irrational.

Thus, there are differences between rational behavior (or reasoning), nonrational behavior, and irrational behavior (or reasoning). We must keep them in mind as we analyze human behavior as well as what it means to engage in critical thinking. Nonrationality has its place in our world; sometimes we forget that. But we must also strive to be as rational as possible, not just for ourselves but also for our communities.

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