Pseudo-ra­tio­nal­ity is the so­cial perfor­mance of ra­tio­nal­ity, as op­posed to ac­tual ra­tio­nal­ity. Here are some ex­am­ples:

  • Be­ing overly skep­ti­cal to demon­strate how skep­ti­cal you are

  • Always fight­ing for the truth, even when you’re burn­ing more so­cial cap­i­tal than the ar­gu­ment is worth

  • Op­ti­mis­ing for char­i­ta­bil­ity in dis­cus­sions to the point where you are con­sis­tently be­ing exploited

  • Re­fus­ing to do any so­cial sig­nal­ling or ever bow to so­cial norms to sig­nal that you’re above them

  • Spend­ing too much time read­ing ra­tio­nal­ity con­tent or the kinds of things ra­tio­nal­ists are in­ter­ested in

  • Adopt­ing tech­niques like po­modoros or TAPs merely be­cause all the cool (ra­tio­nal­ist) kids are us­ing them, in­stead of ask­ing if they are re­ally helping you

  • Hat­ing things like post-mod­ernism be­cause other ra­tio­nal­ists hate them and not be­cause you’ve ac­tu­ally thought about it for your­self (but yes, post-mod­ernism is mostly in­co­her­ent)

  • Over-analysing unim­por­tant de­ci­sions so that you can prove you made the ra­tio­nal decision

Why does this hap­pen? Sta­tus and so­cial norms dis­tort the way we see the world. Even if it doesn’t fool ev­ery­one, it will fool some peo­ple. Or if it fools no-one, you’ll at least fool your­self. Here are some thought pat­terns:

  • All the other ra­tio­nal­ists think I’m a good ra­tio­nal­ist, surely I must be (all so­cial in­cen­tive sys­tems have loop­holes)

  • All the other ra­tio­nal­ists do this, so it must be ra­tio­nal (can be ap­plied even if you are do­ing it to a much higher de­gree)

  • I am so much more ra­tio­nal than those other peo­ple who are wrong/​bow to so­cial norms/​aren’t at all skep­ti­cal (more ra­tio­nal does not equal ra­tio­nal)

Why did I write this post? Well, it seems the next thing you need af­ter be­com­ing a ra­tio­nal­ist, is some­thing to help you figure out if you’re do­ing any of it wrong. I hope this helps, but let me know if I should add any­thing else to the list.

Reflec­tion based on com­ments:

Where this gets com­plex is when you de­sire the suc­cess­ful so­cial perfor­mance of ra­tio­nal­ity as a goal that holds up af­ter re­flec­tion. Some peo­ple may value this to a level that seems ex­ces­sive to most peo­ple and so may not be act­ing ir­ra­tionally. More gen­er­ally, it seems that ev­ery ra­tio­nal­ist should value suc­cess­fully perform­ing ra­tio­nal­ity to some de­gree, even if only in­stru­men­tally. Th­ese con­sid­er­a­tions com­pli­cate dis­cus­sions of what is or is not pseudo-ra­tio­nal, but do not in­val­i­date the gen­eral con­cept as most of­ten they are not in line with some­one’s con­sid­ered val­ues. Fur­ther, this con­cept has util­ity as iden­ti­fy­ing a pat­tern of be­havi­our that we might want to dis­cour­age as a com­mu­nity.


This is very similar to Straw Vul­cans ex­cept that Straw Vul­cans are about how the me­dia rep­re­sents be­ing log­i­cal/​ra­tio­nal, while pseudo-ra­tio­nal­ity is broader and in­cludes mis­con­cep­tions that may not be preva­lent in the me­dia. Another differ­ence is that Straw Vul­cans are about defend­ing ra­tio­nal­ity/​logic from be­ing straw-manned, while pseudo-ra­tio­nal­ity is en­courag­ing ra­tio­nal­itists to con­sider whether they are re­ally as ra­tio­nal as they think they are.

Also see: Mythic val­ues vs. folk val­ues. Pseudo-ra­tio­nal­ity is very similar to folk val­ues, pseudo-ra­tio­nal­ity is not about im­press­ing other peo­ple, but about fool­ing your­self.

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