Why We Are So Poor At Arguing

This blog is devoted to understanding why we are not very good at handling conflict and by extension, not very rational or good at arguing.  There is a great piece on the Edge Website today and I print the summary below. In summary: ‘Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.’

The full article referred to by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber is at:

https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.dan.sperber.fr%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2009%2F10%2FMercierSperberWhydohumansreason.pdf

THE ARGUMENTATIVE THEORY

A Conversation with Hugo Mercier

—————————————————

Introduction

Last July, opening the Edge Seminar, “The New Science of Morality”, Jonathan Haidt digressed to talk about two recently-published papers in Behavioral and Brain Sciences which he believed were “so important that the abstracts from them should be posted in psychology departments all over the country.”

One of the papers “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory,” published by Behavioral and Brain Sciences, was by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.

“The article,” Haidt said, “is a review of a puzzle that has bedeviled researchers in cognitive psychology and social cognition for a long time. The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?”

“Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

“Now, the authors point out that we can and do re-use our reasoning abilities. We’re sitting here at a conference. We’re reasoning together. We can re-use our argumentative reasoning for other purposes. But even there, it shows the marks of its heritage. Even there, our thought processes tend towards confirmation of our own ideas. Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out.”

Dan Sperber, an influential French social and cognitive scientist, is widely recognized as being among the most brilliant cognitive scientists writing about reason, language, culture, and human evolution. Hugo Mercier, his former student, is a post-doc atUniversityofPennsylvaniaand coauthor with Sperber of a number of papers.

Their Argumentative Theory has already generated much excitement in the academic community. Reaction — from heated rejection to enthusiastic acceptation — have never been indifferent. The paper has created a storm of interest and controversy and has has attracted attention well beyond academic circles. Sharon Begley (Newsweek) and Jonah Lehrer (Wired) were among the many journalists who wrote stories.  In addition, many leading thinkers have taken note.

Gerd Gigerenzer finds this view on reasoning is most provocative as “reasoning is not about truth but about convincing others when trust alone is not enough. Doing so may seem irrational, but it is in fact social intelligence at its best.” Steven Pinker notes that “The Argumentative Theory is original and provocative, has a large degree of support, and is strikingly relevant to contemporary affairs, including political discourse, higher education, and the nature of reason and rationality. It is likely to have a big impact on our understanding of ourselves and current affairs.”

And Jonathan Haidt says the “the article is one of my favorite papers of the last ten years. I believe that they have solved one of the most important and longstanding puzzles in psychology: why are we so good at reasoning in some cases, but so hopelessly biased in others? Once I read their paper, I saw the argumentative function” of reasoning everywhere — particularly in the reasoning of people I disagreed with, but also occasionally even in myself. They’re on to a very powerful idea with many social and educational ramifications.”

The rest of the Edge piece is at:

http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge342.html

This is Hugo


And this is Dan


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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).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict Processes, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why We Are So Poor At Arguing

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