Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mercier and Sperber's article on reason and Darcia's commentary

Target Article:
Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason: Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, volume 34, issue 02, 57-74.

Here is their abstract:

Abstract: 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.
Link to their abstract; their article can be downloaded from here:

Narvaez, D. (2011). The world looks small when you only look through a telescope: The need for a broad and developmental study of reasoning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(2), 83-84.

Commentary/Mercier & Sperber: Why do humans reason?

The world looks small when you only look through a telescope: The need for a broad and developmental study of reasoning
Darcia Narvaez
Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.   

Abstract: If the target article represents the summary findings of the field, reasoning research is deeply flawed. The vision is too narrow and seems to fall into biological determinism. Humans use reasoning in effective ways apparently not studied by researchers, such as reasoning for action. Moreover, as the brain develops through adulthood and from experience so do reasoning capabilities.

My two critiques address the limited scope of the research and the neglect of human development. These undermine the generalizability of Mercier and Sperber’s conclusions.

First, the way reasoning is defined and studied leads to narrow, incomplete findings. Mercier and Sperber cite research that ignores a great deal of reasoning behavior. For example, at the sociopolitical level humans use reason to design and change laws, constitutions, institutions, and visions such as the Declaration of Human Rights. Reasoning at the everyday level includes figuring out what course of action to take: for our ancestors, when to migrate to the next foraging ground; for us, how to balance the daily demands of work and family. Nor is there any reference to how people reason after a poor outcome: For our ancestors, why was the hunt unsuccessful today and what can we do differently tomorrow? For us, how did I lose my cool with my child and how can I avoid that in the future? The authors make no distinctions among types of goal-motivated reasoning, excluding pre-hoc (planning – what should my plans be today?), post-hoc (reflecting—how did things go?), and online executive reasoning (e.g., this plan is not working, what should I do?). Even children employ reasoning for action when they consider how to climb a tree, how it is going, and reflect on their failure or success.
            The authors describe reasoning as a process more akin to rhetoric, completely leaving out practical reasoning. They claim that human reasoning evolved to competitively persuade others of one’s viewpoint rather than for making the best decision. This astonished me – how adaptive would it be to follow a rhetorically gifted con man or inexperienced group member in the Pleistocene? The experience-based wisdom of the elders was much more advantageous.
            The research tasks used and interpretations employed seem to presume that humans are primarily self-interested, a notoriously implausible view outside the West (Sahlins 2008). Of course there can be situations that press individuals to be competitive rather than cooperative in decision making, but from anthropological accounts our ancestors were cooperators within their groups, not the ego-driven competitors described by the authors (Fry 2006). It seems important to distinguish between self-interested cognition and cognition motivated by other concerns. For example, how do the authors explain the efforts of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates ( to persuade wealthy individuals to contribute half of their wealth towards charity and the common good? Certainly they used rhetorical skills in their mission but whence the motivation? How would the authors explain the reasoning skills and motivations of the likes of Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln in solving their society’s challenges?

Second, the authors seem to assume that people don’t develop in reasoning capacities and that the college student represents human capability. There seems to be an implicit biological determinism in the target article, a view that is empirically untenable (Lewontin et al. 1987).
            The research findings are circumscribed by the population usually studied – college students – giving a false impression of human capabilities. Wisdom is found more typically in mature adults, not sophomores. Brain development after the teenage years is fundamental for mature reasoning capabilities. In the mid to late 20s humans acquire greater executive function capacities (Luna et al. 2001), which allow for the ability to move past the subcortical decision-making system, highly influenced by the situation, and use prefrontal capacities that facilitate perspective taking and empathy with greater awareness of consequences (Goldberg 2001). In middle age, adult brains undergo further myelinization, peaking in inductive reasoning (Schaie & Willis 2010).
            One cannot draw any firm conclusions about reasoning without examining mature adults in ecologically valid tasks. Researchers should study reasoning in adults as they perform their roles as experts: experienced parents, judges, ministers and counselors, shopkeepers and community leaders, umpires and zookeepers. These experts learn to merge self and moral interests or they falter in their roles. Experts develop in reasoning capabilities, tapping into intuitions, explicit knowledge, and domain-specific paradigms that novices lack (Hogarth 2001). Instead, the focus in psychological studies seems to be on what underdeveloped minds and brains of a certain sort do well – make quick judgments and use words to manipulate others to get one’s way. Elsewhere I criticize this shortsighted focus in moral judgment research (Narvaez 2010).
            Further, it’s not at all clear that the researchers are studying optimal brains even at the college level. The prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive functions, apparently can be damaged prior to its maturation from addictive use of drugs (Bechara 2005) and activities that keep the more primitive parts of the brain active, such as violent video games (Mathews et al. 2005), suggesting that reasoning capacities may be diminished in those who engage deeply in such activities. Sociocultural factors also affect reasoning, such as deteriorating child-rearing practices (Narvaez 2008), which may play a role in the lower rates of empathy (Konrath et al., in press) and moral reasoning (Thoma & Bebeau 2008), and in greater egocentrism if not the narcissism (Twenge & Campbell 2009) reported in college students today.
            Finally, it is highly questionable whether it is appropriate at all to generalize to human nature from the study of westerners or Americans. Henrich et al. (2010) point out how the vast majority of psychological studies and conclusions are based on western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) participants who represent less than 12% of the world population (college students, a subset of that).
            The review leaves this reader unsatisfied with the work in the field. Reasoning needs to be defined more systematically and holistically by those who study it. In light of the narrow definition, the limited task set, and the population usually studied, it is not surprising that the findings are so pessimistic. Humans use reason in many more adaptive ways than described here. People and brains develop; experience and culture matter. Rather than a review of human capabilities, we have a glimpse into a narrow slice of reasoning by immature reasoners from an abnormal culture.

Bechara, A. (2005) Decision making, impulse control and loss of willpower to resist drugs: A neurocognitive perspective. Nature Neuroscience 8:1458–63.           
Fry, D. P. (2006) The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. Oxford University Press.   
Goldberg, E. (2001) The executive brain. Oxford University Press.         
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. & Norenzayan, A. (2010) The weirdest people in the world? Brain and Behavioral Sciences 33:61–135.        
Hogarth, R. M. (2001) Educating intuition. University of Chicago Press.
Konrath, S., O’Brien, E. H. & Hsing, C. (in press) Changes in dispositional empathy over time in college students: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review.   
Lewontin, R. C., Rose, S. & Kamin, L. J. (1987) Not in our genes: Biology, ideology, and human nature. Pantheon.        
Luna, B., Thulborn, K. R., Munoz, D. P., Merriam, E. P., Garver, K. E., Minshew, N.J., Keshavan, M. S., Genovese, C. R., Eddy, W. F. & Sweeney, J. A. (2001) Maturation of widely distributed brain function subserves cognitive development. NeuroImage 13(5):786–93.   
Mathews, V. P., Kronenberger, W. G., Wang, Y., Lurito, J. T., Lowe, M. J. & Dunn, D. W. (2005) Media violence exposure and frontal lobe activation measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging in aggressive and nonaggressive adolescents. Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography 29(3):287–92.
Narvaez, D. (2008) Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities. New Ideas in Psychology 26:95–119.          
Narvaez, D. (2010) Moral complexity: The fatal attraction of truthiness and the importance of mature moral functioning. Perspectives on Psychological Science 5(2):163–81.  
Sahlins, M. (2008) The Western illusion of human nature. Prickly Paradigm Press.         
Schaie, K. W. & Willis, S. L. (2010) Handbook of the psychology of aging, 7th edition. Academic Press.           
Thoma, S. J. & Bebeau, M. (2008) Moral Judgment competency is declining over time: Evidence from 20 years of defining issues test data. Paper presented to the American Educational Research Association, New York.         
Twenge, J. & Campbell, R. (2009) The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. Free Press.  

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