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. 2013 May 29;8(5):e65111.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065111. Print 2013.

Communicative Versus Strategic Rationality: Habermas Theory of Communicative Action and the Social Brain

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Communicative Versus Strategic Rationality: Habermas Theory of Communicative Action and the Social Brain

Michael Schaefer et al. PLoS One. .
Free PMC article


In the philosophical theory of communicative action, rationality refers to interpersonal communication rather than to a knowing subject. Thus, a social view of rationality is suggested. The theory differentiates between two kinds of rationality, the emancipative communicative and the strategic or instrumental reasoning. Using experimental designs in an fMRI setting, recent studies explored similar questions of reasoning in the social world and linked them with a neural network including prefrontal and parietal brain regions. Here, we employed an fMRI approach to highlight brain areas associated with strategic and communicative reasoning according to the theory of communicative action. Participants were asked to assess different social scenarios with respect to communicative or strategic rationality. We found a network of brain areas including temporal pole, precuneus, and STS more activated when participants performed communicative reasoning compared with strategic thinking and a control condition. These brain regions have been previously linked to moral sensitivity. In contrast, strategic rationality compared with communicative reasoning and control was associated with less activation in areas known to be related to moral sensitivity, emotional processing, and language control. The results suggest that strategic reasoning is associated with reduced social and emotional cognitions and may use different language related networks. Thus, the results demonstrate experimental support for the assumptions of the theory of communicative action.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Statistical map showing brain activations for the contrasts communicative relative to strategic reasoning and control relative to strategic reasoning (random-effects analysis, FDR corrected).
Results demonstrate increased activations for communicative reasoning (with respect to strategic rationality) including prefrontal cortex (BA10) and precuneus. Strategic reasoning revealed less activation for prefrontal cortex (BA10) and precuneus compared with a control task. Areas of significant fMRI signal change are shown as color overlays on the T1-MNI reference brain. See text and Table 1 for details.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Statistical maps for conditions relative to resting baseline at MNI coordinates −42 −56 32.
Note increased BOLD responses for communicative reasoning and less activation during strategic reasoning.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Signal changes of BOLD response relative to rest (with standard errors) for left prefrontal cortex (BA10, −24 52 32), right insula (34 22 0), left STS (−52 −42 −2), and precuneus (22 −58 28) (contrast communicative reasoning relative to strategic reasoning).

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Grant support

This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Scha105/6-2). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.