Research Topic

From is to ought: The place of normative models in the study of human thought

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In the study of human thinking, two main research questions can be asked:
Descriptive Q: What is human thinking like?
Normative Q: What ought human thinking be like? ...

In the study of human thinking, two main research questions can be asked:
Descriptive Q: What is human thinking like?
Normative Q: What ought human thinking be like?
For decades, these two questions have dominated the field, and the relationship between them generated many a controversy. Empirical normativist approaches regard the answers to these questions as positively correlated – in essence, human thinking is what it ought to be (although what counts as the ‘ought’ standard is moot). In contemporary theories of reasoning and decision making, this is often associated with a Panglossian framework, an adaptationist approach which regards human thinking as a priori rational.
In contrast, prescriptive normativism sees the answers to these two questions as negatively correlated. Normative models are still relevant to human thought, but human behaviour deviates from them quite markedly (with the invited conclusion that humans are often irrational). Prescriptive normativism often results in a Meliorist agenda, which sees rationality as amenable to education.
Both empirical and prescriptive normativism can be contrasted with a descriptivist framework for psychology of human thinking. Following Hume’s strict divide between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’, descriptivism regards the descriptive and normative research questions as uncorrelated, or dissociated, with only the former question suitable for psychological study of human behaviour.
This basic division carries over to the relation between normative (‘ought’) rationality, based on conforming to normative standards; and instrumental (‘is’) rationality, based on achieving one's goals. Descriptivist approaches regard the two as dissociated, whereas normativist approaches tend to see them as closely linked, with normative arguments defining and justifying instrumental rationality.
In this research topic, we aim to bring together diverse contributions to this ongoing debate. The division between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ touches on most areas in human thinking: reasoning, judgement and decision making, moral judgement, epistemology, philosophical logic, meta-ethics – to name but a few. The list of potential issues includes (but is not limited to):
What is the relationship between normative models, computational-level models (in Marr’s sense), and processing and neurological models?
What is the relationship between normative and instrumental rationality?
How can conflicting normative models be decided?
What can empirical evidence contribute to normative models and vice versa?
What is the relationship between rational norms and moral norms?
Can human rationality be improved? If so, how?
How can normative standards be determined in applied science context, such as problem gambling?
We welcome contributions from across the cognitive and behavioural sciences, from philosophers, economists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other relevant disciplines. Contributions can focus on a general question, or explore a specific model, theory, or a set of findings, and its contribution to the debate. We welcome all types of papers suitable for Frontiers: Original Research, Methods, Hypothesis & Theory, Reviews, etc.


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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