Naturalism Science & Philosophy

Introduction to Instrumental Rationality

Find it difficult to keep New Year resolutions? Want to lose weight and plan for it but have failed more than once? Finding your wardrobe full but frequently find lack of event-appropriate clothes? Let’s get introduced to instrumental rationality, a concept that might be the key for succeeding at such tasks.

What is Instrumental Rationality?

The definition of instrumental rationality, as given by Keith Stanovich in his book titled Robot’s Rebellion, goes as follows

Instrumental rationality is behaving in the world so that you get exactly what you most want, given the resources (physical and mental) available to you.

It is clear from the definition that Instrumental Rationality is all about finding ways to achieve the defined goals. Given the resources, an instrumentally rational person chooses the most optimal route to attain the sought goals. The concept sounds extremely simple and obvious. But research shows that humans typically suffer from dysrationalia and frequently show disability in aligning actions with desired goals. That is the reason why it is easier to decide to lose weight but rather hard to implement it. Reflection on instrumental rationality can uncover the pitfalls in our thinking that can help us rectify this behavior. But before we get into more details we need to first understand its limitations.

How is Instrumental Rationality different from Rationality?

It is important to understand that instrumental rationality is not the same as plain rationality. Instrumental rationality is the ability to use available resources in accordance with beliefs to achieve the desired goals. But it leaves the value system, i.e. beliefs and desires, unchallenged. It does not bother whether the value system in itself is rational or not. Thus a person who believes s/he is a dog might be considered an instrumentally rational person as long as the person acts in accordance with the held beliefs and desires. By being instrumentally rational one might get what one wants, but one needs to be sure what one really wants. Evaluation of beliefs, desires and their consistency has to be done to be a rational person. Consider a typical 80s Bollywood movie where a character is so much after riches that he loses all his near and dear ones in that process and ends up alone and unhappy. What went wrong? S/He went after money, but actually wanted money and love. Instrumental rationality failed because of incorrect goals.

But once goals are properly decided, the playground for instrumental rationality opens up. Defining goals is only half the job, achieving them in an optimal fashion is the interesting bit, which is what instrumental rationality is about. Cultivation of instrumental rationality thus becomes important.

Why is Instrumental Rationality needed?

Humans are not ‘wired’ for instrumental rationality. We do not tend to track our progress and that is why most things get done at the 11th hour. We suffer from huge confirmation bias and do not systematically evaluate all options. We involve in probability matching resulting in sub-optimal gains. We also tend to conform to our group and succumb to peer pressure. To all this add the distractions gifted by modern technology and we have a being that is largely limited in instrumental rationality. To overcome all these shortcomings a deliberate and conscious effort towards imbibing instrumental rationality is needed. We need to constantly check whether our actions are instrumental. “Am I inculcating right habits and unlearning the wrong ones?” “Am I undergoing relevant skill acquisition?” “Am I sure about what I want?” “Is this an efficient way to achieve that?” We need to constantly ask such questions and seek answers for them. We have to be aware of our deficiencies and work on them. The irony is that the concept of instrumental rationality sounds extremely obvious, but we find it hard to be instrumentally rational. Our dysrationalia is that acute and instrumental rationality that essential.

The graphic shows a sprightly person with a briefcase ascending a staircase with steps labeled 'Define goals', 'Naturalism', 'Discipline' etc., leaving behind steps with labels like 'Tomorrow' and 'Procrastination'.

Design : Bala Bhaskar

Instrumental Rationality and Naturalism

Naturalism, a perspective that humans are fully caused beings, has interesting insights to offer with respect to instrumental rationality. Naturalism rids us of our belief in a ‘supernatural soul’. Naturalists can no longer rely on some contra-causal free-will that they can exercise and behave differently under exactly same circumstances. It leads to a raised awareness of the critical role that our environment plays in governing our actions. Being conscious about this fact and incorporating it in the belief system can significantly improve our chances of achieving our goals.

I would like to present to freethinkers an interesting personal revelation about effect of naturalistic perspective on rational thinking ability. I claim that rational analysis is useful only at the right time and right place, and it is not always a good idea to think. This would sound against tenets of freethinking, but its not so. We rarely bypass thinking process and act solely on emotions, but we need to accept the fact that emotions can tamper our process of thinking. Humans crave to rationalize their actions, and thinking at the wrong time can lead to pseudo-rationalizations. The reason people mostly fail at resisting temptations or tackling procrastination is seldom because some chemical process overpowered the conscious brain rendering a person as just plain emotional being. It is mostly because even the thinking brain starts rationalizing in favor of a temptation or procrastination.

A weight loss plan gets ruined because the rational brain starts shouting “how bad can a scoop of ice cream be” or “don’t I deserve to indulge myself” or “we live just once” or “just this time” or “what harm can biscuits do.” These pseudo-rationalizations are bound to happen when certain emotions get triggered. The best way to tackle such a problem is to not rely on thinking on such occasions, but rather adhering to a discipline. The thinking part should be done when brain is free for rational reflection. Once the plan has been drawn, sticking to the pre-deliberated decision with discipline is the best bet at success. At a restaurant pick the already known healthy dish without looking at the rest of the menu. Plan your grocery shopping in advance when you don’t have chips and fries right in front of your eyes.  Plan your meals upfront, do not decide them on the table at the last minute. By not thinking when one is surrounded with temptations and distractions, there is lesser likelihood of giving in to pseudo-rationalizations. Thinking might be second nature to freethinkers, but using it when one really can and controlling it when one can’t is being instrumentally rational.


About the author

Kanad Kanhere

I am an Electronics Engineer working in the Semiconductor industry. I am interested in Physics, Philosophy and Freethought.


  • A very precise and accurate analysis of the problem. “The reason people mostly fail at resisting temptations or tackling procrastination is seldom because some chemical process overpowered the conscious brain rendering a person as just plain emotional being. It is mostly because even the thinking brain starts rationalizing in favor of a temptation or procrastination.” Exactly so!

    May I take the liberty of adding in a lighter vein that the ‘thinking brain’ can be really clever and devious on occasion, when it wants to outwit instrumental rationality? When one by-passes (by careful prior planning of the route) the racks displaying chips and fries in a supermarket or food store, and looks forward to commendation by the higher authority for having successfully avoiding temptation, the ‘thinking brain’ invokes quantum teleportation to have these undesirable entities tunnel through intervening shelves and aisles and land under the (approved) bags of oats and green vegetables on one’s cart. They lie there concealed and mysteriously get checked out at the counter before rationality can be exercised to detect and discard them…

  • Lovely!
    Been waiting for such topics to be discussed over our blogs since a long time, hopefully many more such articles will follow 🙂
    Too bad this topic is so often hijacked by quacks and woo-peddlers(not my words, links to youtube channel of chaser’s war on everything, don’t sue me 🙂 .

    I really want to know if there are any productive people who know fairly well why they are productive who have consciously worked to change themselves and have been fairly successful
    In real life, I have seen people share some secrets right out of some silly self-help books, which do not and obviously cannot apply to anyone, and given how inaccurate they are about several facts, I wonder if they work even for the speakers themselves mostly because if they did, they should also work for speaker in other domains similar to the one they are good at, someone who is good at resisting hunger binges should also be able to resist gaming binges and vice-versa if their technique helps in resisting temptations as they claim.
    Or perhaps their success is a result of some habit they acquired in childhhod, good parenting/ environment/schedule which they can’t reproduce.

    Glad to see that we are finally taking the naturalist approach, and looking forward to a lot more articles in the future

    Though again, what bugs me is, I do make the choices,but knowing what choice I should be making does not help much, even when I know that I should not be thinking much , I do, thought it is important that we know it, just like it is important that we know that we are fully caused, knowing that I should not be rationalizing has not helped me any more than knowing that I should not be trying to beat swarm control, moreover, it is not the case I am able to fool myself very well, there is always a part of me that keeps shouting in muffled voice, you know very well that you will not be studying even after finishing the game, you know very well you will not be able to finish this chapter in 2 hours, you know very well you will not be logging off facebook right after posting that.

    In my long struggle against self, I have never stood strong for long, and I have moved on to trying to cheat myself than beat myself, if we are fully caused beings, we can cause something that we do not find difficult to do but at the same time, that does not take much effort but will ricochet back at me when I am at my vulnerable self.

    Pretty similar to what you suggested, choose the first healthy dish, plan grocery in advance, though again, as V. bala’s comment jokishly tells us, even then sometimes,we do end up choosing the unhealthy dish, because not just are we not wired well, but ironically yes “The universe conspired to feed me chips” , smart marketing on part of supermarkets who put those attractive chips at the right places, sometimes right at the counter.

    I have tried up a few hacks but there has not been much success, something that did work was when I woke up , and mostly pee and return back to the bed, I started putting my sports shoes and wear on the bed( I don’t really mind putting shoes on the bed and my parents are not around in my hostel to scold me 😀 )
    Yes removing the shoes is easy, but still their mere sight and wee bit of effort to remove them tweaks the parameters in my favor to resist sleeping when I return after relaxing myself, to push this further I put those shoes blocking the door at the night, If I have to remove them, I might well put them on the bed.

    Obviously it would not work for many others, and obviously it fails for me in my bad days, but if universe can conspire to fail us, it should also conspire to help us, the longest I had held onto exercising schedule was when I had a friend who I could jogging with, together and when shit really hits the top, I get myself banned from MMOs, or get my friends to kick me out of wi-fi.

    It was much easier to get myself to study when I had my parents and teachers scolding me into it, we grow old and learn to have a better control of ourselves and learn better ways to handle the situation, but even in adult life friends play a major role, too bad company in hostel isn’t actually motivating, more so when praying is considered to have an casual effect on results or when I am constantly asked to spoke pot and not take life so seriously, though nirmukta community has been very helpful including the author 😉

    So yes, kanad I’d be getting back to my stuff now 🙂

    Though sometimes I wonder if we should have a community of such sort, of naturalist friends, who push each other and discuss hacks, I thought less wrong could give me that but didn’t work.

    Though just the last thing, I do think, or perhaps I just hope that rationalists do have an advantage in the game, it might be much use, rationalizing at that moment even if we could easily stop us from doing it, it does help analysing when we are away, as this article by tom clark on a similar topic, he suggests, we can analyse the causes and influencing factors rationally and scientifically, and work at the opportunities of intervention, what he calls BDSB( belief, desire, situation and behavior), if not anything else we can atleast work on finding better and more credible sources of knowledge(fiber, salt sugar etc.) ref: this nirmukta article and NN’s comments.

    And if we are good at refuting pseudoscience , we must also be good at refuting our excuses, they might have an advantage when they are in the head, with all the temptations helping them but let’s see how they fare when we put them on paper, I haven’t tried this and would ask anyone if they have, about their experience but the theory of Cognitive behavior therapy suggests that writing down your irrational thoughts and then refuting them rationally , practicing this periodically is supposed to help, will tell you if it worked 😀
    And please share your experiences, everyone.

    • Lalit,
      We cannot undermine the importance of knowledge of our deficiencies for modifying actions. It can be a contributory cause ( Although its also important that Knowledge won’t be a sufficient condition. Its just another variable in the equation and as correctly pointed out, brain might figure out ways to circumvent that as well. But knowledge is unlikely to worsen the situation. So its instrumentally rational to want the knowledge 🙂

      The part about analyzing rationally, when away, is extremely critical although I haven’t brought it out in my article. Rational analysis is utmost for devising a good plan. Its only at times when thinking abilities are compromised, the discipline should be invoked.

    • When I analyse, I realize that I indulge often in procrastination but I rationalize by saying that it was because I was busy doing something equally important or more interesting. 🙂

      The author’s suggestion “The thinking part should be done when brain is free for rational reflection. Once the plan has been drawn, sticking to the pre-deliberated decision with discipline is the best bet at success” sounds good.
      Will try that and tell you if I have become instrumentally rational. 🙂

  • The last paragraph is very good. Being a chronic procrastinator I would like to add this: Sticking to the pre-deliberated decision also fails after a while. The brain reasons you out of it. Only thing that works is pressure from parents, seniors or friends who can jolt you out of the falsehood that everything can wait.

    • A third party perspective always helps a lot. Humans do show tendencies to get set in their ways and not change even post all the analysis. That is the very reason why to the questions like “Why do you do pooja?”, the answers are on the lines “Whats the harm?”. They indicate that we have some kind of law of inertia with our behavior and need impetus for any kind of change.

  • No, you don’t "make friends" with someone who can get you a What kind of friendship would that be? But you can ask around in the group of friends you already have for tips on jobs they’ve heard about in their I know many people, including myself, who found good jobs like

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