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Subtracting “ought” from “is”: Descriptivism versus normativism in the study of human thinking

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2011

Shira Elqayam
Division of Psychology, School of Applied Social Sciences, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester, LE1 9BH, United Kingdom.
Jonathan St. B. T. Evans
School of Psychology, Faculty of Science, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus, Plymouth, PL4 8AA, United Kingdom.


We propose a critique of normativism, defined as the idea that human thinking reflects a normative system against which it should be measured and judged. We analyze the methodological problems associated with normativism, proposing that it invites the controversial “is-ought” inference, much contested in the philosophical literature. This problem is triggered when there are competing normative accounts (the arbitration problem), as empirical evidence can help arbitrate between descriptive theories, but not between normative systems. Drawing on linguistics as a model, we propose that a clear distinction between normative systems and competence theories is essential, arguing that equating them invites an “is-ought” inference: to wit, supporting normative “ought” theories with empirical “is” evidence. We analyze in detail two research programmes with normativist features – Oaksford and Chater's rational analysis and Stanovich and West's individual differences approach – demonstrating how, in each case, equating norm and competence leads to an is-ought inference. Normativism triggers a host of research biases in the psychology of reasoning and decision making: focusing on untrained participants and novel problems, analyzing psychological processes in terms of their normative correlates, and neglecting philosophically significant paradigms when they do not supply clear standards for normative judgement. For example, in a dual-process framework, normativism can lead to a fallacious “ought-is” inference, in which normative responses are taken as diagnostic of analytic reasoning. We propose that little can be gained from normativism that cannot be achieved by descriptivist computational-level analysis, illustrating our position with Hypothetical Thinking Theory and the theory of the suppositional conditional. We conclude that descriptivism is a viable option, and that theories of higher mental processing would be better off freed from normative considerations.

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