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Human reason has nothing to do with finding the truth

A new paper argues that human reason has nothing to do with finding the truth, or locating the best alternative. Instead, it’s all about argumentation.

Wilson and Schooler argue that “thinking too much” about strawberry jam causes us to focus on all sorts of variables that don’t actually matter. Instead of just listening to our instinctive preferences, we start searching for reasons to prefer one jam over another. For example, we might notice that the Acme brand is particularly easy to spread, and so we’ll give it a high ranking, even if we don’t actually care about the spreadability of jam. Or we might notice that Knott’s Berry Farm has a chunky texture, which seems like a bad thing, even if we’ve never really thought about the texture of jam before. But having a chunky texture sounds like a plausible reason to dislike a jam, and so we revise our preferences to reflect this convoluted logic.

And it’s not just jam: Wilson and others have since demonstrated that the same effect can interfere with our choice of posters, jelly beans, cars, IKEA couches and apartments. We assume that more rational analysis leads to better choices but, in many instances, that assumption is exactly backwards.

These studies represent an important reevaluation of the human reasoning process. Instead of celebrating our analytical powers, these experiments document our foibles and flaws. They explore why human reason can so often lead us to believe blatantly irrational things, or why it’s reliably associated with mistakes like cognitive dissonance or confirmation bias. And this leads me to a wonderful new paper by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber (I found it via this insightful talk by Jonathan Haidt) that summons a wide range of evidence – such as the strawberry jam study above – to argue that human reason has nothing to do with finding the truth, or locating the best alternative. Instead, it’s all about argumentation.

Continue Reading @ Wired.