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Collective Rationality Could Impact Health Care Recommendations

MU philosopher applies theories of individual rationality to collective rationality

Dec. 18, 2009

Story Contact(s):
Kelsey Jackson, JacksonKN@missouri.edu, (573) 882-8353

Paul Weirich, professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Science, has developed new theories about decisions that involve collective rationality, or the consensus of several individuals.

Paul Weirich, professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Science, has developed new theories about decisions that involve collective rationality, or the consensus of several individuals.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – When the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their breast-cancer screening recommendations last month, they decided the risks of mammograms outweighed the benefits for women in their 40s. This decision set off a debate among advocates, doctors and politicians who questioned the rationality of this decision. A University of Missouri philosopher has developed new theories about decisions that involve collective rationality, or the consensus of several individuals, and hopes to develop standard procedures for institutions that need to consider multiple perspectives, especially for institutions that make important health technology mandates and recommendations. 

“Making decisions about medical technology that impact public policy and federal mandates requires collective rationality,” said Paul Weirich, professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Science. “Many groups, including experts and the public, have stakes in medical technology and their agendas might not be the same. Unlike individual rationality, collective rationality requires coordination and communication among individual entities. Standards of rationality should be consistent when making decisions that have important consequences.”

In his new book, Collective Rationality:  Equilibrium in Cooperative Games, Weirich argues that if all members of a group act rationally, then the collective action is rational.

“Groups of people, such as a committee or board, consider the rationality of a decision before they act,” Weirich said. “For example, a committee may sensibly award fellowships or may irrationally award them in violation of its own policies. Theories of collective rationality help define what acts are rational and how these acts can be evaluated for rationality.

Some of the same theories applied to individual rationality can be applied to collective rationality. For example, individuals often anticipate another’s move and think ahead, such as in a chess game. Boards and institutions also can make decisions based on what they think another individual or group is going to do. Also, people don’t always vote for their preference. For example, when people don’t want to waste their votes on an independent candidate, they might vote for either the Democrat or the Republican candidate who has a better chance of winning.

Standards of rationality are lower for informal groups of people, such as people riding a bus together. As long as they’re avoiding catastrophe, they are doing a pretty good job, Weirich said.

“Rationality does not always produce good results,” Weirich said “For example, even if people consult Consumer Reports and asks friends for advice before they purchase a new television set, he or she could still get the one defective television. It is impossible to eliminate all risk, and this is true for medical technology. Should we eliminate a technology that has a very small chance of doing harm even if it will help many others? Having standards of rationality will help agencies make these decisions. ”

Weirich is author of Collective Rationality:  Equilibrium in Cooperative Games published by Oxford University Press.

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