The short answer is yes: you can learn to think more rationally but only about specific subjects. Enhancing rational thinking overall is much more difficult.

Before exploring the question in more depth, we first need to define rational thinking. For this discussion, let's stick with a relatively straightforward interpretation—rational thinking encompasses our ability to draw justifiable conclusions from data, rules and logic.

Schooling can indeed improve rational thought, research suggests. A recent analysis of many studies showed that college courses contribute to critical thinking abilities. But decades of research have also consistently found that students improve only in the type of reasoning skills emphasized in the course, not in other tasks. That is, if students work on logic puzzles, they get better at logic puzzles but not at other things, such as forming coherent arguments or winning debates.

This pattern makes sense. Rational thinking requires different skill sets in different situations. The logic we use when interpreting a science experiment is not the same logic we need when buying a car or following a new recipe.

In general, our brain did not evolve to think in this logical fashion, and some types of reasoning are simply a bad fit for what our brain can do. We are, for instance, pretty good at understanding the frequency of events (how often commercial airplanes crash) but not so good at gleaning probabilities (the likelihood that our plane will crash).

Rational thinking is also a challenge because we instinctively harbor a range of irrational biases. We tend to fear a loss more than we relish an equivalent or greater gain. For example, most people would turn down a favorable gamble in which they could earn $22 if a coin lands on heads but lose $20 if it settles on tails. Although most recognize that taking such a bet makes sense, people often choose not to because the potential pain of losing often outweighs the pleasure of winning. These types of reasoning problems are widespread and interfere with our ability to cultivate rational skills.

So, although we can learn to think rationally, it is important to understand how that learning works. Becoming a more rational thinker across the board is not really a feasible goal. We will find the best results by focusing on the areas we value most.

Question submitted by Adolfo Castañeda, Mexico 

Do you have a question about the brain you would like an expert to answer? Send it to