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I am experiencing chest pains:

The psychologists then repeated the jam taste test with a separate group of college students, only this time they asked them to explain why they preferred one brand over another. As the undergrads tasted the jams, the students filled out written questionnaires, which forced them to analyze their first impressions, to consciously explain their impulsive preferences. All this extra analysis seriously warped their jam judgment. The students now preferred Sorrel-Ridge—the worst tasting jam according to Consumer Reports—to Knott’s Berry farm, which was the experts’ favorite jam. The correlation plummeted to .11, which means that there was virtually no relationship between the rankings of the experts and the opinions of these introspective students.

What happened? 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.

The evolutionary aim of human reasoning apparently has little to do with finding the truth, but a whole lot to do with simply having the better argument:

Mercier and Sperber argue that reason has nothing to do with reality. Instead, it’s rooted in communication, in the act of trying to persuade other people that what we believe is true. And that’s why thinking more about strawberry jam doesn’t lead to better jam decisions. What it does do, however, is provide up with more ammunition to convince someone else that the chunky texture of Knott’s Berry Farm is really delicious, even if it’s not.

In all seriousness, the idea that we are often more focused on having the better argument than on finding the truth is actually something I can easily agree with.  The fact that we may be psychologically predisposed to such behavior is both plausible and frightening.  I wouldn’t call this a net-win for humanity, but it sure does explain a lot.

However, I am curious if it is really this cut and dry.  Might the focus on argumentation simply be a factor of relational decision making, i.e. making a decision and being forced to defend it to another party?  If one makes a decision in isolation I wonder if their rational analysis might not have the negative effects found in the study.

Needing to defend one’s choice to others (particularly those that hold the purse strings and in comparison to other choices fighting for dollars) certainly requires as much ‘rationalization’ as it does rational analysis.  Getting things done is as much scientific as it is political.  I think the Mercier and Sperber’s research is tapping into that.

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