Identifying and Avoiding Contaminated Mindware: Keith Stanovich

I have always found the work of Canadian psychologist Keith Stanovich useful in my conflict research and my friend John recently posted this on his site dedicated to Keith’s work and it then links into an article by Jamie Hale from Psych Central:

“The term mindware was coined by Harvard cognitive scientist David Perkins to refer to the rules, knowledge, procedures, and strategies that a person can retrieve from memory in order to aid decision making and… problem solving. . . .” “What Intelligence Tests Miss by Keith Stanovich”(p.40)

“The tools of rationality – probabilistic thinking, logic, scientific reasoning – represent mind ware that is often incompletely learned or not acquired at all.  This incomplete learning represents a class of causes of irrationality that I label a ‘mindware gap.’  A different type of mindware problem arises because not all mind ware is helpful – either to attaining our goals (instrumental rationality) or to having accurate beliefs (epistemic rationality).  In fact some acquired mindware can be the direct cause of irrational actions that thwart our goals.  This type of problem I term ‘contaminated mindware.’
“What Intelligence Tests Miss”(p. 67)


Check out this article on Psych Central that explains how to identify and avoid contaminated mindware.

Identifying and Avoiding Contaminated MindwareBroadly speaking, there are two key problems that contribute to irrational thoughts and behaviors: processing problems and content problems.

The processing problem is reflected in our tendencies to be cognitive misers.  We naturally engage in thinking that is rapid and computationally inexpensive.  This cognitive thriftiness often serves us well, but at other times it can lead to less than optimal decisions.  Content problems include- mindware gaps, and mindware contamination.

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


A mindware gap occurs when the tools of rationality — scientific thinking, probabilistic thinking and logic — are not fully learned or not acquired at all.

Contaminated mindware creates a different problem.  This type of mindware contributes to irrationality.  Acquiring contaminated mindware can be the direct cause of irrationality.

The main objective of this article is the discussion of contaminated mindware; it will be the focus for the reminder of the article.  More detailed discussions on cognitive miserliness and mindware gaps are provided here:  Why Intelligent People Do Foolish Things

Characteristics of contaminated mindware (Visser, 2011):

Contaminated mindware includes beliefs that:

  • Are not grounded in evidence
  • Can be harmful for the person who holds it and for society
  • Are attractive and sticky
  • Spread easily throughout the population

While it may be surprising to some people, intelligence does not protect against contaminated mindware. In fact “[b]y making narratives complex, highly intelligent people can even become extra attracted to them” (Visser, 2011).

Strategies for avoiding contaminated mindware (Stanovich, 2009):

To avoid contaminated mindware:

  • Do not install mindware that could be physically harmful to you
  • Regarding mindware that may affect your goals, be sure the mindware does not preclude a wide range of future goals
  • Seek to install mindware that is truly evidence-based
  • Do not acquire mindware that resists evaluation, mindware that’s based on blind faith and requires that you do not question

In further discussion of mindware that resists evaluation, it is important to ask why we should not rely on blind faith.  This type of mindware renders itself unfalsifiable.  Blind faith is used as a safeguard against falsifying and evaluation.

Faith-based mindware tells us that wonder and mystery are virtues (a trick used to de-emphasize evaluation). “One really should ask of any faith-based mindware why it is necessary to disable the very tools in our cognitive arsenal (logic, rationality, science) that have served us so well in other spheres.” (Stanovich, 2009, p.169)

To reiterate,  intelligence does not protect us from contaminated mindware.   In an effort to avoid irrationality, learning to identify and avoid contaminated mind ware can go a long way.


Stanovich, K. (2009).  What Intelligence Tests Miss: the psychology of rational thought.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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