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Adaptive Rationality: An Evolutionary Perspective on Cognitive Bias

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A casual look at the literature in social cognition reveals a vast collection of biases, errors, violations of rational choice, and failures to maximize utility. One is tempted to draw the conclusion that the human mind is woefully muddled. We present a three-category evolutionary taxonomy of evidence of biases: biases are (a) heuristics, (b) error management effects, or (c) experimental artifacts. We conclude that much of the research on cognitive biases can be profitably reframed and understood in evolutionary terms. An adaptationist perspective suggests that the mind is remarkably well designed for important problems of survival and reproduction, and not fundamentally irrational. Our analysis is not an apologia intended to place the rational mind on a pedestal for admiration. Rather, it promises practical outcomes including a clearer view of the architecture of systems for judgment and decision making, and exposure of clashes between adaptations designed for the ancestral past and the demands of the present.

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