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Rational People Are More Self‑Serving, While Reasonable People Are More Considerate: Research

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Jan 15, 2020

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Imagine walking into a family function, bracing for the eventual debates you’ll have to endure. What’s your game plan — are you the rational, facts person who has to win or the reasonable, chalega compromise person? It may depend on what your goal is — would you rather be right or reach a consensus?

According to new research published in Sciences Advances, rational people are perceived as more self-serving and reasonable people are seen as way more considerate by the people on the other side of a debate. This also means that we’d prefer rational people on our side of any debate, and reasonable people on the opposing side, according to researchers — mainly because it’s much easier to win a debate when the facts are on your side and the other side is open to listening and reaching a consensus.

“Rationality and reasonableness lead people to different conclusions about what constitutes sound judgment in dilemmas that pit self-interest against fairness,” Richard Eibach, professor of psychology at Waterloo and a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “People view rationality as absolute and preference-maximizing, whereas they view reasonableness as paying attention to particulars and fairness.”

With respect to judgments or decisions, we’re all aiming to make rational or reasonable ones. The words rational and reasonable are often used interchangeably, considering they have the same etymological origin. Yet, people do tend to subtly perceive the two as different. Researchers collaborated transcontinentally, creating the first systematic attempt to understand what people consider to be sound judgment, along the lines advocated by experts in economics, law, and other social sciences.

In doing so, the researchers realized they weren’t just understanding what makes for rational and reasonable discourse, they also understood why people chose to be irrational in certain situations. “These findings cast prior demonstrations of people’s irrationality in a new light,” said Igor Grossmann, professor of psychology at Waterloo and lead author on the study, in a statement. “People may choose to be irrational when (something) violates their preferred standard of reasonable, socially-conscious behavior.” A prime example of this would be having an argument with someone who refuses to understand your point of view (unreasonable), which then leads to you doing texting and driving (irrational) as you try to convince them.


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Researchers had people from North America and South Asia play 13 different economics games while studying players’ considerate and selfish behaviors. They also administered surveys to understand people’s stereotypes about rational and reasonable behavior. They also drew from game theory, legal scholarship, web-based news, U.S. Supreme Court opinions, popular soap opera scripts, and books, all in languages currently spoken around 1/6th of the world in order to understand the subtle differences between what people viewed as rational versus what they viewed as reasonable.

Rationality and reasonableness do have common connecting threads in people’s minds, like concern, thoughtfulness, calmness, and intelligence. However, subtle differences came up in individual perceptions of the two words. Rational individuals displayed more abstract characteristics like logic, emotional suppression, methodical behavior, and analytical thinking. Whereas, reasonable individuals displayed socially conscious characteristics like kindness, honesty, fairness, and interpersonal sensitivity. Rational people were also most likely to search through all alternatives to find the best option, while reasonable individuals were likely to accept the most suitable option.

“The concept of rationality that we found laypeople have… emphasizes abstract logic and pursuit of self-interest,” added Grossmann. “We also found people tend to uphold a distinct standard of reasonableness … encouraging [a] context-specific balance of self-interest with fairness.”

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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