Made to measure: Ecological rationality in structured environments

Seth Bullock, Peter M. Todd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)
283 Downloads (Pure)


A working assumption that processes of natural and cultural evolution have tailored the mind to fit the demands and structure of its environment begs the question: how are we to characterize the structure of cognitive environments? Decision problems faced by real organisms are not like simple multiple-choice examination papers. For example, some individual problems may occur much more frequently than others, whilst some may carry much more weight than others. Such considerations are not taken into account when (i) the performance of candidate cognitive mechanisms is assessed by employing a simple accuracy metric that is insensitive to the structure of the decision-maker's environment, and (ii) reason is defined as the adherence to internalist prescriptions of classical rationality. Here we explore the impact of frequency and significance structure on the performance of a range of candidate decision-making mechanisms. We show that the character of this impact is complex, since structured environments demand that decision-makers trade off general performance against performance on important subsets of test items. As a result, environment structure obviates internalist criteria of rationality. Failing to appreciate the role of environment structure in shaping cognition can lead to mischaracterising adaptive behavior as irrational.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)497-541
Number of pages45
JournalMinds and Machines
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1999


  • adaptive behavior
  • decision making
  • externalism
  • frequency structure
  • rational synthesis
  • significance structure


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