Argumentative Theory & Reasoning

Argumentative Theory & Reasoning

Negotiating with one’s self seldom produces a bar-room brawl    ~Warren Buffett

When I first came upon this quotation I was fixated on the word, negotiating. It was clear we cannot negotiate against ourselves. We hold our point of view. We have formed an argumentative basis that supports our reasoning. We cannot find the problems in our own reasoning alone. That is what other people are for, to challenge us, criticize us, play the contrarian, and allow us to more carefully vet our reasoning.

Dan Sperber is a brilliant cognitive scientist who created The Argumentative Theory. He challenged the premise that reasoning should help us to make better decisions. In fact, he maintains that reasoning is for argumentation. His basic notion is that the evolution of reasoning is to help us convince other people (sell our position) and to be careful when others try to convince us (defend our stance). This is the essence of the debate team, where you must take one side of an argument, but your side isn’t determined until the debate is set to begin.

There are problems with individual reasoning. One is confirmation bias (also referred to as myside bias). We all hold beliefs and values. These values may be political, religious, nutritional, self, social and family, among others. These compose the basis for our biases, our positive and negative feelings about people, things and ideas. Confirmation biases support the ideas we create.  We seek to find reasons that support us, to justify our position. It is natural to not challenge ourselves. Whether the topic is civil rights, capital punishment, immigration, social responsibility, global warming, interest rates, or even the hiring and termination of employees, we have a confirmation bias and need other viewpoints to challenge ours. When people are able to discuss their ideas with others who disagree with them (i.e., hold their own confirmation bias!), the group is in position to make a better decision. People reason better when they reason together.

A second problem with individual reasoning is motivated reasoning. When we are motivated by something we are more apt to build our reasons to support that motivation. When we see an athlete get depicted as a “dirty player,” those on his or her own team might say they play the game hard as they all are motivated to win. We’ve witnessed political candidates attacking each other as they are motivated to win at all cost. Across the landscape of companies, we see decisions led by the motivation to arrive at a desired outcome as the basis for reasoning. When a company is motivated by greed, as was Enron, claiming $111 billion in revenues during 2000 and filing bankruptcy in 2001, there weren’t enough strong dissenting motivators to dissuade the corrupted majority. Even in the face of mounting factual evidence, motivated reasoning will find other reasons to maintain their belief.

So what’s the bottom line here?

We should all welcome dissenting views inside our circle of reasoning. I have had a number of clients that did not respect the alternate views of their leadership team. This action destroys confidence in the leader, as the team is forced to “follow along to get along.” They are subjugated at every turn, on every decision. When we have formed the basis for our decision, we should use our ears to listen to what others have to say, forcing ourselves to not get defensive. Respect that you might just be wrong this one time. And if it happens to be true that both roads lead to the same successful destination, why not let the team take the lead? They will feel the success in reasoning and hold themselves highly accountable to deliver the expected results.

2 thoughts on “Argumentative Theory & Reasoning

  1. Rory Weber - December 16, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Good points and, coincidentally, I find them repeated, under different terms, in articles about how successful companies stay successful.

    • Mike Jones - December 24, 2015 at 7:23 pm

      Thanks, Rory. I, too, share the view that cognitive bias needs to be understood and accepted around the table from everyone. I believe it was today that Tom Peters said something along the lines of, “I need to throw away anything I read and believe to be true.” I think what he’s saying is we will tend to agree with all things that support our bias. We need contrarians in th conversation.


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