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The Role of Culture and Meaning in Rational Choice


  • Adam Gifford



The Wason card selection and the Tversky & Kahneman frame anomaly are examined in the context of a probabilistic, constructivist biological model of decision-making. Rational choice requires that decision-makers understand the meaning of the choices they confront. In fact, the determination of meaning and the process of rational choice represent two sides the same coin. Further, perception, cognition and action are ill-posed problems. To solve these problems ‘missing data’ must be supplied by the brain. This data is acquired by both ontogenetic and phylogenetic processes. These evolutionary processes facilitate the determination of meaning and as a product of that process also facilitate the construction of rationality. Two interrelated brain systems involved in this construction process are examined: an emotional system that rapidly and non-consciously assigns reward expectancy values to objects in the environment and a sensory-motor system that participates in the discovery of more general information that facilitates environment/body interactions. Jointly, these systems help a naïve agent to find ‘meaning in an unlabeled world’ and to predict the outcomes of future interactions with that world by supplying ‘background’ information, i.e., by supplying the missing data necessary for rational choice. This ‘background’ represents the imprint of the statistical structure of the world on the brain and, as such, embodies the individual’s Bayesian priors. Lack of sufficient background capacities can result in systematic judgment errors and seemingly irrational decisions. Complex culture is a key aspect of the environment that facilitates the construction of rationality, in part, by becoming internalized as background. Culture facilitates the creation of complex social constructs that contribute to cultural evolution, reduce uncertainty, and increase rationality; however, cultural evolution can get ahead of itself—potentially leading to background failure and errors in judgment and choice. Finally, it is not simply complexity or lack of hands-on experience that lead to error: an additional component that might be called semantic opacity is necessary. Copyright Springer 2005

Suggested Citation

  • Adam Gifford, 2005. "The Role of Culture and Meaning in Rational Choice," Journal of Bioeconomics, Springer, vol. 7(2), pages 129-155, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:kap:jbioec:v:7:y:2005:i:2:p:129-155
    DOI: 10.1007/s10818-005-0495-9

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    Cited by:

    1. Gifford Jr., Adam, 2009. "Cultural, cognition and human action," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 38(1), pages 13-24, January.
    2. Adam Gifford, 2009. "Rationality and intertemporal choice," Journal of Bioeconomics, Springer, vol. 11(3), pages 223-248, December.
    3. Adam Gifford, 2009. "Don Ross, Economic theory and cognitive science: Microexplanation," Journal of Bioeconomics, Springer, vol. 11(3), pages 299-304, December.

    More about this item


    decision anomalies; decision making; uncertainty; A12; D83;

    JEL classification:

    • A12 - General Economics and Teaching - - General Economics - - - Relation of Economics to Other Disciplines
    • D83 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Search; Learning; Information and Knowledge; Communication; Belief; Unawareness


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