Learning and The Contaminated Mind

August 23, 2018

Mindware is defined as rules, procedures, and other forms of knowledge that are stored in the brain and can be retrieved to make decisions and solve problems (a term coined by cognitive scientist David Perkins) (Stanovich 2009).

Mindware is important when it comes to rational action. The right type of mindware—scientific thinking, probabilistic reasoning, and logic—is essential for rational thinking. A mindware gap occurs when those very tools of rationality are not fully learned or not acquired at all.

Not all mindware is beneficial, especially in the context of rational thinking. The wrong type of mindware can contribute to irrationality. The wrong type, also referred to as contaminated mindware, impedes an array of cognitive processes involved in rational thinking/behavior.

There are key characteristics of contaminated mindware, according to Coert Visser (2011): it is not based on evidence; it is potentially harmful to the one who has acquired it; it is sticky; and it spreads with ease. Contaminated mindware is often acquired by intelligent people. Think of the otherwise intelligent and rational people you may know, who in specific contexts, demonstrate bad thinking.

Dysrationalia, a term coined by Keith Stanovich (2009), is defined as “the inability to think and behave rationality, despite adequate intelligence.” To further elaborate on dysrationalia, consider the problem of privileged myths. Myths as defined in the context of this article are widely held beliefs or claims that are not true.

What makes a belief myth? Criteria used in the determination of a myth include beliefs/claims that are refuted by evidence; beliefs/claims that lack evidence; and/or beliefs/claims that deviate drastically from the rules, principles, foundations, and theories that govern nature.

When discussing myths, I mention both beliefs and claims, and sometimes they don’t correspond. Often people perpetuate a myth they don’t believe, or they claim they don’t believe something even though they do believe it.

This type of incongruent behavior sometimes occurs in an effort to identify with a group, facilitate social cohesion, or preserve self-identity. Privileged myths meet the criteria for myth, but in a particular domain(s) the criteria is irrelevant to the one claiming belief. Consider the following. These items were formerly part of National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Engineering Indicators report (Kahan 2016):

EVOLUTION. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals (True/false).

BIG BANG. The universe began with a huge explosion (True/false).

The correct answer is true for both. They are both supported by scientific evidence, but they were dropped from the indicators report. Why were they dropped if they are scientifically valid? “

The probability of a correct response to the items increased substantially more for relatively non-religious individuals than for relatively religious ones” (Kahan 2016, 16). The higher people rated in religious belief, the less likely they were to answer correctly.

Religious belief overrides scientific thinking in this context for those who rate high in religiosity.  

The NSF received heavy criticism for omitting the items. Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education asserts that “discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice” (Bhattacharjee 2010, 150).  I have discussed the issue with numerous researchers, and all agree that it is unreasonable to drop items relevant to biological evolution and cosmology from a device constructed to test general scientific knowledge.

Measures of Contaminated Mindware

A large proportion of irrationality is attributed to pseudoscientific beliefs; they reflect contaminated mindware. There are four subtests on the CART (Comprehensive Assessment of Rationality) used to measure contaminated mindware (Stanovich et al. 2016). Three of the tests (superstitious thinking[1]; anti-science attitudes, and conspiracy beliefs) measure clusters of pseudoscientific belief. A fourth test taps instrumental rationality and is concerned with the presence of personal beliefs that block one’s ability to attain goals.

The response scale used for each test is a six-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “agree strongly.” Some of the items are reverse scored. Reverse scoring means that the numerical scoring scale runs in the opposite direction. As an example, a reverse scored item of one would be converted to six.

Sample items from CART:

Superstitious Thinking: “A person’s thoughts can influence the movement of a physical object.”

Anti-science Attitudes: “When a scientific finding conflicts with my intuitions, I would rely on my intuitions.”

Conspiracy beliefs: “Mind-controlling technology has secretly been built into television broadcast signals.”

Dysfunctional Personal Beliefs: “I worry a lot that I am unlikable.”

Scientific literature is replete with examples of different assessments of contaminated mindware. Not all measures of contaminated mindware explicitly state they are evaluating contaminated mindware. It is reasonable to claim any sort of measure assessing the sort of beliefs mentioned here is a measure of contaminated mindware. Cavojova and Mikuskova (2014) developed a long item Contaminated Mindware Measure (CMM) that was derived from existing scales. CMM long version consists of 146 items. Many of the measures were similar to those used on the CART. Some of the measures included those of conspiracy theories, paranormal beliefs, beliefs in homeopathy, and paranoid and schizoid tendencies.

Measures of contaminated mindware can be useful for measuring tendencies that reflect unsatisfactory processing of information that can potentially lead to irrational actions, such as forming non–evidence based beliefs and acting in a manner that is detrimental to achieving goals. These measures have an implication for education; they illuminate the importance of teaching the skills necessary to attain the appropriate mindware, while also identifying developmental strategies that can be used to avoid the acquisition of contaminated mindware.

How to Avoid Contaminated Mindware

Stanovich (2009) offers the following advice for avoiding contaminated mindware:

Avoid acquiring mindware that may be physically harmful

Regarding beliefs that provide models of the world, attempt to only install mindware that is true (it is calibrated with reality-dependent on the preponderance of evidence)

Don’t acquire mindware that persuades against evaluation

Avoid mindware that short circuits goal achievement

Be extremely cautious of mindware that has evaluation-disabling characteristics. If you have acquired this sort of mindware ask yourself why abandon the cognitive tools that served you so well in other areas. The right mindware is needed for good thinking. The wrong mindware can directly contribute to a contaminated mind.



[1] Superstitious thinking is synonymous with magical thinking, supernatural thinking, the paranormal, and other terms that extend beyond the rules, processes, and laws that are foundational to naturalism. Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm (2012) conducted a literature search comparing conceptualizations and measures of the terms associated with superstitious thinking. They concluded that paranormal, superstitious, supernatural, and magical essentially mean the same thing. They often have different connotations, but they are the same concepts.


Bhattacharjee, Y. 2010. NSF board draws flak for dropping evolution from indicators. Science 328(5975): 150–151.

Cavojova, V., and E.B.  Mikuskova. 2014. Developing contaminated mindware measure. INTED Proceedings, 2530–2537.

Kahan, D. 2016. “Ordinary science intelligence”: A science-comprehension measure for study of risk and science communication, with notes on evolution and climate change. Journal of Risk Research, 1–22, doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2016.1148067.

Lindeman, M., and A. Svedholm. 2012. What’s in a term? Paranormal, superstitious, magical and supernatural beliefs by any other name would mean the same. Review of General Psychology. doi 10.1037/a0027158.

Stanovich, K. 2009.  What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought.  London: Yale University Press.

Stanovich, K., R. West, and M. Toplak. 2016. The Rationality Quotient: Toward a Test of Rational Thinking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Visser, C. 2011. Contaminated mindware: How can we protect against it? Available online at http://solutionfocusedchange.blogspot.sk/2011/01/contaminated-mindware-how-can-we.html; accessed August 16, 2018.