Rationality and the true human condition

The fifth in a series of excerpts from Minds, Models and Milieux: Commemorating the Centennial of the Birth of Herbert Simon.

Ron Sun

The notion of rationality is important to many fields in social and behavioral sciences. Herbert Simon’s seminal work on “bounded rationality” and “satisficing” led to broadened conceptions of rationality, which significantly impacted a number of fields in social and behavioral sciences. In this article, I would like to further explore the notion of rationality on the basis of Simon’s work.

First, in this regard, I believe that it may be necessary to go beyond Simon’s notions of “bounded rationality” and “satisficing”, for example, in dealing with limitations and variations in actual human rationality. Furthermore, I believe that it may be necessary to go beyond the notion of rationality as optimization of a utility function. I will argue that we need to take into serious consideration the true human condition in this regard, that is, actual human nature (especially the actual human psychology), in defining or understanding the notion of rationality.

In the 1950’s, Herbert Simon proposed his theory of “bounded rationality” that tried to reflect real human abilities to reason and to make decisions, in relation to his work in economics and organization theory (Simon, 1957, 1991). This notion of a limited kind of rationality of Simon’s might have in some way enabled the social sciences to move beyond the then prevailing theories in economics and in other branches of social sciences. But the questions now are: does it go far enough in “respecting” human reality? What is the true human condition in this regard? Is the true human condition sufficient captured by Simon’s theory of rationality?

It is my belief that the true human condition (human psychology) was, unfortunately, not sufficiently addressed yet in this line of work. This point applies to Simon’s treatment of rationality, and also to Simon’s approach to studying cognition within the realm of cognitive science and artificial intelligence (which paralleled his work in economics and organization theory). In contrast, in this article, what I want to emphasize is exactly such true human condition that I believe has not been sufficiently examined in Simon’s approach. I will do so based on the framework of a comprehensive computational theory of the human mind, that is, a computational cognitive architecture, taking into account some very human facets of human nature.

In this chapter, I will first discuss what rationality means in various contexts (while questioning this very notion). Then I will discuss some findings regarding the unconscious mind, which shows various tendencies that appear to contradict the notion of rationality. I will then present a theoretical framework that addresses all of these facets in mechanistic and process-based way (but not necessarily mathematically). The application of this framework in exploring issues in social, cultural, political, and organizational contexts are then briefly sketched. This discussion will draw upon the ideas from Reber (1989) regarding the unconscious mind, H. Murray (1938) regarding basic needs or desires, as well as others, in addition to Simon’s own ideas.