Wednesday, June 15, 2011

We Reason to Win, Not to Find Truth

Today the New York Times profiles a provocative new stream of research, with important implications for those interested in how we can improve our decision-making as leaders.    In the article, :Patricia Cohen examines the work of Hugo Mercier and other cognitive scientists.   Cohen explains that many philosophers and scientists have argued over the centuries that humans developed their ability to reason so that they could search for "truth."  Cognitive biases, such as the confirmation bias, get in the way of the search for truth.  They have always been viewed as flaws to be corrected.  However, this new stream of research suggests that perhaps humans developed their thinking and analytical skills simply because they wanted to, and needed to, win arguments to survive and thrive in the world.  Traps such as the confirmation bias aren't really traps according to this view; presenting only the data that confirms your existing view of the world can be one strategy for winning an argument, for instance. Cohen writes,

"According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth... What is revolutionary about argumentative theory is that it presumes that since reason has a different purpose — to win over an opposing group — flawed reasoning is an adaptation in itself, useful for bolstering debating skills."   

I must say that I'm always intrigued by these sorts of evolutionary arguments, though often I find the evidence underwhelming.  In my view, I'm not sure why it must be either/or in this case.  Why couldn't evolutionary adaptation have led humans to develop reasoning skills for both the search for truth and the winning of important debates? 


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