Building the Theory of Ecological Rationality

Peter M. Todd, Henry Brighton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


While theories of rationality and decision making typically adopt either a single-powertool perspective or a bag-of-tricks mentality, the research program of ecological rationality bridges these with a theoretically-driven account of when different heuristic decision mechanisms will work well. Here we described two ways to study how heuristics match their ecological setting: The bottom-up approach starts with psychologically plausible building blocks that are combined to create simple heuristics that fit specific environments. The top-down approach starts from the statistical problem facing the organism and a set of principles, such as the bias– variance tradeoff, that can explain when and why heuristics work in uncertain environments, and then shows how effective heuristics can be built by biasing and simplifying more complex models. We conclude with challenges these approaches face in developing a psychologically realistic perspective on human rationality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9–30
JournalMinds and Machines
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Ecological rationality
  • Bounded rationality
  • Heuristics
  • Bias/variance dilemma
  • Statistical learning theory
  • Uncertainty
  • Optimality


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