Embedded rationality

Brad C. Anderson

Embedded rationality recognizes that what is rational depends on the social context in which you operate. For example, a friend saying, “You’re fired,” when you bring the wrong potato chips to a party, means something different than when your boss says it at work. Embedded rationality takes three forms: institutional, contextual (cultural), and situational.

Institutional Rationality

Within society, many spheres of activity exist, such as government, church, law, banking, healthcare, and so on. What individuals consider rational varies from one sphere of activity to another. Institutional rationality governs what is rational within a sphere of human activity.

Individuals may face multiple institutional rationalities as they go about their day. For example, someone may go from their work at a bank to a medical appointment at a doctor’s office during their lunch break. They then follow this by attending a meeting with the Parent-Teacher Association at their child’s school that evening.

The actions seen as ‘rational’ differ in each of these spheres. You may entrust your banker with tens-of-thousands of dollars, but not your doctor. You may share with your doctor deeply personal aspects of your body, but you would never share those details with your child’s teacher.

Each sphere determines what its desired ends are and the appropriate means to achieve those ends. An individual must adapt to each of these rationalities as they move from one sphere to the next to operate effectively.

Contextual (Cultural) Rationality

Contextual (cultural) rationality presumes that what is rational can only be determined from within the social context (that is, culture) in which it occurs. Members of a culture share values and beliefs. It is a community–what people hold in common.

Cultures exist across national and ethnic lines. They also exist within organizations, occupations, and neighbourhoods. Any collective of human activity will form a unique culture over time.

Through their shared values and beliefs, cultures become a means of coordinating activity. Members of a culture expect other members to act in certain ways and maintain specific attitudes. Thus, one can only determine what is rational from within a cultural framework.

Situational Rationality

Situational rationality occurs when we assign reasons to other people’s actions in an attempt to make those actions understandable. Generally, we believe that people will act rationally. Thus, whenever we witness a person doing something, we develop reasons that explain their action.

For example, we might see someone give another person money. We immediately start to think of reasons why.

Perhaps the first person is paying off a loan from the second. Maybe the first person recently bought something from the second and is now paying for it. Perhaps the second person is homeless, and the first is giving them money out of charity.

We assign a reason to other people’s actions that render those actions rational.

We do not come up with our reasons for others’ actions randomly but rather through two sources.

  • The first source of our explanations come from everyday knowledge. We gain everyday knowledge through our experiences, which we then use to judge what is probable in a given circumstance.
    • For example, consider if the person giving money was well dressed, while the person receiving payment was sitting on the street wearing ragged clothing.
    • Based on most people’s experiences with the homeless problem, you might conclude that what you are observing is someone giving money to a homeless person.
  • The second source of our explanations comes from common sense. Common sense is the unexamined assumptions we gain through our experiences.
    • For example, if we see a person sitting on the street wearing ragged clothes and begging for change, common sense leads us to believe they are homeless.

Key Takeaways

  • Embedded rationality recognizes that what is rational depends on the social context in which you operate. It takes three forms.
    • Institutional rationality
    • Contextual (cultural) rationality
    • Situational rationality


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Embedded rationality Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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