Boundaries of Rationality - Course is closed

Department: Cognitive Science

Instructors: Adrian Seeley and Emma Duncan 
Instructors' Emails: and 
Prerequisites: None

Course Description

Imagine you’re in need of a coat. You’ve found two that have everything you want but they’re overpriced. You don’t think either coat is worth more than about $75 so you wait until they’re on sale. Soon you find the first is on sale at 50% off its original $150 price, and the other is 25% off its original $100 price. Which do you choose? Chances are that 50% off sounds like the better deal, but why? Each coat now costs $75 and you’re not exactly saving any money since you wouldn’t have paid more for either one.

For some reason “50% off” just seems like a better deal, but is that rational? Boundaries of Rationality will explore this sort of question using insights from psychology, logic, psycholinguistics, philosophy, behavioral economics, and more. You probably won’t walk away with the answer, but you’ll certainly leave with a better understanding of how we think and how others use that knowledge to influence the choices we make.

We will focus in depth on the heuristics, biases, logical fallacies, and implicit assumptions we use when making everyday decisions. Grades will be based on course participation, a course project, quizzes, and a bit of homework.

Join us in exploring the boundaries of our rationality and what we can do about them!

Course Goals / Learning Objectives

By the end of the program, students should have an appreciation for the many ways our mental shortcuts, fallacious reasoning, and other cognitive blunders impact the structure of our social institutions, as well as our ideas and behaviors, both as individuals and in groups.

A (non-exhaustive) list of (tentative) topics includes the following biases and fallacies:

  • Confirmation bias
  • Implicit biases (especially racial and gender)
  • Implicit Attitude Test (IAT)
  • Hindsight bias
  • Status quo bias
  • Base-rate fallacy
  • Correlation-causation fallacy
  • Logical Fallacies (e.g. ad hominem, slippery-slope, )
  • Diffusionof responsibility


The final grade for this course will be calculated as follows:

  • Participation (incl. group work): 30%
  • Quizzes: 30%
  • Homework (in- or out-of-class assignments): 10%
  • Exams: 30%

Topical Outline

Week 1 - Intro, Cognition, Heuristics: “Who’s in Control, You or Your Brain?”


  • Introduction: How we think, for better or worse!
  • System 1 and System 2-thinking (Kahneman)
  • Systems conflicts: Conscious cognition automaticity: attention, performance, etc.

Week 2 -Cognitive biases and logical fallacies: “Putting the ‘I’ in Irrationality!”


  • Quantification and numbers (including framing effects, probability judgments)
  • Overestimation and exaggeration
  • Practical impacts of biases: susceptibility to persuasion, misinformation, propaganda, fake news, future discounting,

Week 3 - Biases and Society: "Climbing Back up the Rabbit Hole"

We will explore the further implications of the mental shortcuts discussed in weeks 1 and 2. Emphasis will be placed on scientific methodology and publishing — the problems therein and the improvements already being made.


  • Publication biases among journals and some new safeguards in place to combat them
  • (Un)likely journals will publish negative results
  • failure to replicate
  • File-drawer problem
  • Researcher’s vulnerability to Confirmation bias
  • P-value fallacy
  • Education and hiring practices


*Courses vary by experience and exposure to content. Instructors have the ability to change content and pace to serve the needs of students.


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