Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, 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.A very interesting idea, but why does reasoning have to have one function? Certainly people often reason as a way of arguing rather than to a way of getting to the truth, but sometimes they also use reason to solve problems, impress potential mates, and so on. Perhaps "argumentative reasoning" is not really a primary ability of our brains, but a sort of fusion of problem solving and language.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Why Do We Reason?
Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, "Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory," is being hailed as one of the most important psychological papers in years. The abstract: