My Next Point of Inquiry Guest: Hugo Mercier on the Argumentative Theory of Reason

By Chris Mooney | August 12, 2011 7:56 am

Earlier this year, Hugo Mercier and his colleague Dan Sperber (of the Jean Nicod Institute in France) came out with one of the more intriguing evolutionary psychology ideas in quite some time. They argued, in a paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, that the human capacity for reasoning evolved not so much to get at truth, as to facilitate argumentation:

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.

Mercier blogs for Psychology Today and is a postdoc at U. Penn. I’ll be interviewing him at 11 for a show that airs Monday. If you have any thoughts, or anything you’d like to hear asked, post them here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, point of inquiry

Comments (8)

Links to this Post

  1. The function of reason : Dangerous Intersection | August 15, 2011
  1. Michelle Colder Carras

    Seems to fit in well with a topic my neuroscientist brother is very interested in, emulations. (See his paper Emulation as an Integrating Principle for Cognition at Might be worth it to ask how our preconceived positions tie into an emulation-based framework for cognition and reasoning.

  2. Is there a spectrum of responses & rationales that people go through in the course of an argument? For example, assuming both people start from the perspective that they are correct and their side of a argument best resembles the truth – is there a pattern or sequence to the way they respond as the argument progresses? Are there consistencies in the way behaviours and standpoints change while a person is attacking someones viewpoint and/or defending their own? If they exist, are these changes conscious, unconscious or a mix?

    Apologies for the poor structuring of these questions – I’m scrambling to try and get them submitted, hopefully they make sense and aren’t redundant.

  3. Chris Mooney

    Damn. I missed these in time for the show….

  4. Crapenfest – Oh well, I’ll have to quicker on the draw next time :)

  5. anon


    Are you coming to bed?

    I can’t, this is important.


    Someone is wrong on the Internet

  6. Don

    The venues of some arguments are simpler than others. In science, arguments are the simplest of all. In science the basic rules of argumentation are objectivity, rationality, testing (falsification), and transparency. The most complex venues of argumentation are found in religion, politics, and ideology where the rules are highly subjective and changing. The rules in these unconstrained venues are basically, “what works.” They are based upon appeal to emotion (evil other) rather than to reason, they can virtually ignore objectivity (cherry picking, straw men, invidious comparison), they absolutely ignore falsification (fill in your favorite example), and transparency is beyond the question. The most interesting areas of argumentation are those in between, in social science, where science is highly valued but works within a profoundly subjective matrix. Economics is a good example; different people have widely different economic models based upon the subjective space within which they find themselves. Line up the Nobel Prize winners to illustrate this. The subjective orientation of the winners describes a vast subjective space. Compare Amartya Sen with the Chicago School for one axis, then throw in Elinor Ostrom for another.

  7. Incredulous

    “They argued, in a paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, that the human capacity for reasoning evolved not so much to get at truth, as to facilitate argumentation”

    This is much like the argument about the development of wings for flight. It is easy to see that they work quite well for flying but when you examine the argument, it fails. With wings, it comes down to what would a wing be that doesn’t provide enough lift even to glide? Steven J. Gould had quite a few essays on this type of reasoning. If you look from the other perspective and say that the development comes from getting a more and more complete picture of their environment it makes a lot more sense. Then, when communication developed, the transfer of knowledge and providing proof for it’s acceptance by others created argumentation. Argumentation without communication is pointless.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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