Many faces of rationality: Implications of the great rationality debate for clinical decision-making




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Given that more than 30% of healthcare costs are wasted on inappropriate care, suboptimal care is increasingly connected to the quality of medical decisions. It has been argued that personal decisions are the leading cause of death, and 80% of healthcare expenditures result from physicians' decisions. Therefore, improving healthcare necessitates improving medical decisions, ie, making decisions (more) rational. Drawing on writings fromThe Great Rationality Debate from the fields of philosophy, economics, and psychology, we identify core ingredients of rationality commonly encountered across various theoretical models. Rationality is typically classified under umbrella of normative (addressing the question how people “should” or “ought to” make their decisions) and descriptive theories of decision‐ making (which portray how people actually make their decisions). Normative theories of rational thought of relevance to medicine include epistemic theories that direct practice of evidencebasedmedicine and expected utility theory, which provides the basis for widely used clinical decision analyses. Descriptive theories of rationality of direct relevance to medical decision‐making include bounded rationality, argumentative theory of reasoning, adaptive rationality, dual processing model of rationality, regret‐based rationality, pragmatic/substantive rationality, and meta‐rationality. For the first time, we provide a review of wide range of theories and models of rationality. We showed that what is “rational” behaviour under one rationality theory may be irrational under the other theory. We also showed that context is of paramount importance to rationality and that no one model of rationality can possibly fit all contexts. We suggest that in context‐poor situations, such as policy decision‐making, normative theories based on expected utility informed by best research evidence may provide the optimal approach to medical decision‐making, whereas in the context‐rich circumstances other types of rationality, informed by human cognitive architecture and driven by intuition and emotions such as the aim to minimize regret, may provide better solution to the problem at hand. The choice of theory under which we operate is important as it determines both policy and our individual decision‐making.


open access article




Djulbegovic, B. and Elqayam, S. (2017) Many faces of rationality: Implications of the great rationality debate for clinical decision-making. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 23 (5), pp. 915-922


Research Institute

Institute for Psychological Science