One more exorcism: there is no force in reason

We like to think that reasoning, logic and argument can compel a change of belief and force others to agree with us. This presumption is so deeply and widely accepted that we too easily overlook the spooky magic at the core of the standard characterization of reasoning, logic, argument, and, ultimately, thinking itself. Our beliefs certainly do change but there is no reason to believe that reasoning, logic or argument forces us to do it.

In the standard account of a well-reasoned and logical argument, someone makes their case by articulating premises that are probably true. Then, they illustrate how a conclusion is a natural consequence of those premises. Finally, they assert that the conclusion must also be true because the premises are true.

At this point, the other person involved in the argument must accept that the conclusion is true. If they are not so inclined to make this concession, they must demonstrate that the premises aren’t true or that the conclusion is not a natural consequence of those premises. However, in the end, if the premises are determined to be true and it is agreed that the conclusion follows from the premises, in the standard account, the conclusion must also be true and must be accepted as true. At this point, everyone who previously thought the conclusion to be false promptly accepts that it is true and realigns their other beliefs accordingly.

Now, if you have ever been in argument with anyone about anything, you know that arguments rarely if ever play out in this fashion. Even when the people involved in the argument agree in principle with the standard model of argumentation that I’ve just outlined, they will rarely change their minds in this way, especially if anything of any value or importance is at stake in the argument. At best, they may concede that the opposing argument is sound or plausible but they will almost always insist that there is something wrong with it that, for the moment, they are overlooking.

Logicians, philosophers and know-it-alls of every ilk generally characterize this as a consequence of the inherent fallibility of humans. For them, we humans know the ideal form of reasoning, logic and argument but, like fallen angels everywhere, we simply can’t measure up to it. A few gods amongst can, perhaps, but most mere mortals can’t.

This, of course, is absurd. If there really is some kind of force at work in reasoning, logic, and argument, it should consistently work in predictable ways and not only in trivial or paradigm cases.

Today, we now know enough about brains to predict with some certainty that the fundamental mechanism of belief change will almost certainly be neurological. If that is the case, the notion that reasoning, logic, and well-formed arguments have any role to play in belief change looks even more dubious. Are we too imagine that some neurons are especially attuned to the sweet harmonies of reasoning, logic and well-formed arguments? Of course not.

Instead and much more plausibly, because we know that the connections between brain cells strengthen when the same cells frequently communicate with each other, it seems much more likely that our beliefs change in response to stimuli that make the very same neurons communicate with each other in new ways over and over again. We may already see this mechanism in action today, thanks to cable news and the echo chamber of social media. It certainly seems like people change their beliefs simply because they hear a statement, claim or talking point repeated over and over again.

Because we are primates and the most important stimuli in our environment are other humans, I suspect, the experience of belief change will always feel sociological to us, even if it really is neurological. The people you associate with, listen to, and identify with will ultimately determine what counts for you as reasonable premises, sound reasoning, and appropriate evidence. If people in your tribe repeat a claim over and over again, I suspect you will also eventually believe it too, with or without argument. This isn’t something that only happens to those whackos who watch Fox news. It happens to all humans everywhere — including you and me. It isn’t an aberration or a moral failing . It is just the way humans create, reinforce, and change their beliefs.

Don’t Be Mean! We Regress to the Mean With or Without Scolding.

Thinking-Fast-and-Slow-CoverYou’ve probably had this experience, and made the very same mistake that most people make.

You perform a task exceptionally well, compliment yourself for a job well done, and then notice your next attempt at the very same task is much less effective. Compliments, you decide, affect your performance for the worse!

On the other hand, you’ve probably had the opposite experience, too. You do something very poorly, scold yourself for your poor performance, and then notice that your next attempt at the same task has improved. Aha! A good scolding, you decide, affects your performance for the better!

Before you know it, you’re trying not to jinx yourself with compliments and cursing at yourself like a drill sergeant whenever you make a mistake.

Unfortunately, your assessment of what’s happening is totally wrong! Rewarding improvements in performance is always more effective in the long run than punishing mistakes — no matter what your experience seems to suggest!

What’s happening is that your brain’s instinctive desire to make sense of the world around you, quickly and easily, is overlooking the statistical phenomenon known as regression to mean.

The key factor in your misunderstanding of the situation is the exceptionally good or poor performance that prompts you to compliment or berate yourself. Whenever you deviate exceptionally from normal performance, the next time you undertake the very same task, you’re much more likely to perform at levels more typical for you — that is closer to your average or mean performance.

This will almost always happen whether you compliment yourself or not! Perform a task exceptionally well, and you can expect the next attempt to be less successful and closer to your mean. Perform a task very poorly, and you can expect your very next attempt to be better and closer to your mean performance.

Your brain, unfortunately, isn’t a statistician by nature, and its love of easy answers makes it hard for you to resist your hunch that compliments jinx and scolding improves performance simply because you’re much more likely to compliment exceptional performance and scold its very poor cousin.

Useful nuggets like our tendency to misunderstand the role of regression to mean are found throughout Thinking, Fast and Slow, written by Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics and, unfortunately, not for Literature. It may seem like a cheap shot, but I doubt this book would have gone to press in its present form, if its author didn’t have the highly marketable stamp of approval from the Nobel committee.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a hard slog of a read, and, in places, downright crippling. Not because the subject matter it covers is necessarily difficult or esoteric but because it’s not terribly well written. It’s tone and style varies so much, it’s difficult to understand even who this book is intended for. At times, it’s far too detailed and academic for the casual reader, but, because it’s ultimately a rehash of well-known and widely accepted research, I doubt any experts in the field will want to read it just to discover the personal anecdote Kahneman uses to explain the common mistake I described at the outset.

I can’t recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, especially when there are many well-written books that cover the same ground. If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious systems of the brain, start with Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson.  If you want to learn more about the ineffective shortcuts our brain often makes when reasoning, I’d start with You Are Not So Smart or You Are Now Less Dumb by David McRaney. Or check out his site.

If you want to explore and discuss in greater detail the ideas and research in these books, I can help.