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Why We Reason

Last year Huge Mercier and Dan Sperber published an paper in Behavioral and Brain Science that was recently featured in the New York Times and Newsweek. It has since spurred a lot of discussion in the cognition science blogosphere by psychologists and science writers alike. What’s all the hype about?

For thousands of years human rationality was seen as a means to truth, knowledge, and better decision making. However, Mercier and Sperber are saying something different: reason is meant to persuade others and win arguments.

Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade…. reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found (2010).

Though Mercier and Sperber’s theory is novel, it is not entirely original. In the western tradition, similar theories of human rationality date back to at least ancient Greece with the Sophists.

Akin to modern day lawyers, the Sophists believed that reason was a tool used for convincing others of certain opinions regardless of them being true or not. They were paid to teach young Athenians rhetoric so they could have, as Plato says in Gorgias, “the ability to use the spoken word to persuade the jurors in the courts, the members of the Council, the citizens attending the Assembly – in short, to win over any and every form of public meeting.”

So why is Mercier and Sperber’s paper seen as groundbreaking if its central idea is thousands of years old? Unlike ancient Greece, Mercier and Sperber have a heap psychological data to support their claims. At the heart of this data is what psychologists call confirmation bias. As the name indicates, confirmation bias is the tendency for people to favor information that conforms to their ideologies regardless of if it is true or not. It explains why democrats would prefer to listen to Bill Clinton over Ronald Reagan, why proponents of gun control are not NRA members, and why individuals who are pro-choice only listen to or read sources that are also pro-choice. In addition, confirmation bias greatly distorts our self-perceptions, namely, it describes why “95% of professors report that they are above average teachers, 96% of college students say that they have above average social skills… [and why] 19% of Americans say that they are in the top 10% of earners.”

If we are to think of rationality as having to do with knowledge or truth, like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes did, confirmation bias is a huge problem. If rationality really was about discovering objective truths, then it seems like confirmations bias would be ripe for natural selection; imagine how smart we would be if we actually listened to opposing opinions and considered how they may be better than ours. Put differently, if the goal of reasoning was really to improve our decisions and beliefs, and find the truth, then there should be no reason for confirmation bias to exist.

Under the Sophist paradigm, however, confirmation bias makes much more sense, as do similar cognitive hiccups such as hindsight biasanchoring, representativeness, the narrative fallacy, and many more. These biases, which began to appear in the psychological literature of the 1960s, provide “evidence, [which] shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions.” And it is from this point that Mercier and Sperber have built their ideas from. Instead of thinking of faulty cognition as irrational as many have, we can now see that these biases are tools that are actually helpful. In a word, with as many opinions as there are people, our argumentative-orientated reasoning does a fine job of  making us seem credible and legitimate. In this light, thank God for confirmation bias!

Of course, there is a down side to confirmation bias and our rationality being oriented towards winning arguments. It causes us to get so married to some ideas – WMD’s in Iraq and Doomsday events, for example – that we end up hurting ourselves in the long wrong. But at the end of the day, I think it is a good thing that our reasoning is so self conforming. Without confirmation bias, we wouldn’t have a sense of right or wrong, which seems to be a necessary component for good things like laws against murder.

Finally, if you were looking to Mercier and Sperber thesis’ to improve your reasoning, you would be missing the point. Inherent in their argument is the idea that our rationality will forever be self-confirming and unconcerned with truth and knowledge. And for better or for worse, this is something we all have to deal with.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. “… our rationality will forever be self-confirming and unconcerned with truth and knowledge.”

    That would mean we’d rather be right than true – right?

    August 13, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      yes – you nailed it.

      August 14, 2011
    • Phil:The book I mentioned prvieously is an attempted construction of what perhaps this would have turned out to be. What I find as ultimately interesting is that is for each having and maintaining a true dialogue is the most critical requirement of science and philosophy more generally.Yes I see there is difficulty here….of what “perhaps it could have turned out to be” and a “true dialogue.”Point taken:)How could something indeed exist that has not had the potential to be otherwise if there is not the other perspective, yet, in death the other perspective seemed to live. Non! QUI? And then, a book written?:)Phil:So although they had opposing views about the relevancy of the foundations in seeking the truth, each agreed about one key aspect of its methodology, which is not an axiom, yet required as a prerequisite before any can be postulated or denied there being necessity to do so.The point is ,the written word lived on, and constructively used in opposition toward directing our attention to this very moment as to recognize some place for which any argument can ever begin? So yes, I get your point here.Best,

      August 1, 2013
    • Bee,I left a comment in your “Stronger than the unseirve” blog entry and is waiting for moderation.It applies here as well….it’s all about gravity?Socratic realism and how have we incorporated them into our everyday society? Teaching(liberal art constructivism), and law? Law more so, as in “logical deduction?” An Inductive /deductive approach as to one’s goal in life, questions and lessons? Teacher and student.In the end, what is your Truth, what have you surmised, “is your measure” (however you got there) is your worth about what has been done according to what you have accepted before hand. A “little sentence” can be loaded?:)There may be judges sitting in “the wings” but that is not what matters? How do you “measure truth?”You ever “felt like” you were floating on air? Impossible right?Best

      September 1, 2013
    • IQs in a meeting add like ohms in parlelal resistors. …the evolutionary purpose of argumentation is to win an argument hence the bankruptcy of diplomacy versus a well-waged war. Three human endeavors play close to the big, hot fire that is Truth: humor, war, and science. Bureaucracy, the science of argument qua argument, has ruined two of three.Given a pile of road apples 10^500 universes in hypervolume, string theory demands there is a pony in there somewhere. It is a better strategy than tactic, a better process than product. Contemporary theory exists to write more theory. That is inarguable.

      November 7, 2013
    • You’ve really impressed me with that answer!

      April 27, 2015
  2. Anonymous #

    “Without confirmation bias, we wouldn’t have a sense of right or wrong, which seems to be a necessary component for good things like laws against murder.”

    There’s no such thing as “good things” without assuming some specific conception of right and wrong in the first place. Just saying.

    April 18, 2012
  3. Hi Plato,Actually what I’m proposing is to see the end of argument, as to be replaced with dialogue. It is therefore interesting and should be noted that it was Imre Lakatos who first proposed to Paul Feyerabend that they should have an open dialogue and made available to all with the publishing of it. Feyerabend agreed and set to work on it and yet Lakatos died before it could be fully realized. The previously is an attempted construction of what perhaps this would have turned out to be. What I find as ultimately interesting is that is for each having and maintaining a true dialogue is the most critical requirement of science and philosophy more generally. So although they had opposing views about the relevancy of the foundations in seeking the truth, each agreed about one key aspect of its methodology, which is not an axiom, yet required as a prerequisite before any can be postulated or denied there being necessity to do so. I then find it intriguing as somewhat curious , that empathy rather than sympathy being what’s required and that in some ways in respect to phenomena such as invariance co-variance, nonlocalness and entanglement this appears to be the same for nature. So I would ask is the universe and with it reality to be framed as to be captured in being the simple revelation of discourse or an empathetic dialogue of necessity?“A dialogue is a discourse consisting of question and answer on some philosophical or political subject, with due regard to the characters of the persons introduced and the choice of diction. The dialectic is the art of discourse by which we either refute or establish some proposition by means of a question and answer on the part of the interlocutors.”-Diogenes Laertius (as quoted in) “For and Against Method”, page 1Regards,Phil

    August 30, 2013
  4. The differences of my parnets are their appearances, ways of educating children and personalities. My father enjoys jogging every weekend. While my mother, she likes to be couch potato when she is off work. Through their life style, you can imagine that my mother is fatter and unhealthier than my father. Their personality traits reflect the way they educate us. My mom is a sensitive woman who cares about everything related to us including our wealth and academic work. Whenever there is a symptom of sickness such as sneezes and sore throats, my mom is the one who gives us a hot ginger tea. She notices our efforts on study and thus she does not set many standards of our grades. While my father who pays our education fee tend to asked us to have higher academic performances so that we can have more opportunities to get a good job. He always looks into the distances and has many preparations for future rather than look into the present as my mom does. They only have one common that is enjoy cook desserts such as chocolate cake and cheese cake when they are in good moods.

    September 1, 2013
  5. Finding this post. It’s just a big piece of luck for me.

    October 9, 2013
  6. Lee #

    Per usual, Friedirch Nietzsche was there first. Particularly in an 1873 unpublished essay, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, avliaable Money quote: What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

    November 1, 2013
  7. Life is short, and this article saved valuable time on this Earth.

    December 24, 2013

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