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 bias, anchoring, 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.