BEACON Seminar: Tethered Rationality: A Model of Behavior for the Real World

In a December 2021 interview, Francis Collins, the departing director of the NIH noted “to have now 60 million people still holding off of taking advantage of lifesaving vaccines is pretty unexpected. It does make me, at least, realize, ‘Boy, there are things about human behavior that I don’t think we had invested enough into understanding.’ “
Decision-making models—intended to explain and predict volitional behavior— are extreme abstractions from the biology of Homo sapiens. They invariably pick out only cognitive/rational mechanisms. To the extent that an abstraction captures salient features it is valuable. To the extent that it fails to do so, it can be misleading. It is proposed that by picking out only cognitive/rational mechanisms models of decision-making are far too abstract and removed from the biology to accurately capture behavior. A case is made for tethering cognitive/rational decision-making models to “lower level” noncognitive systems. Volitional behavior is then a blended response of these various systems.

To make this case I appeal to (i) data from cooperative economic decision-making tasks to support the blended response hypothesis; (ii) evolutionary and anatomical evidence for the tethered brain; and (iii) the neuroscience literature on affect and arousal to propose a lingua franca of communication and a control structure for the tethered mind. I conclude by explaining some real world behaviors with tethered rationality.