Psychologists have known for a while that, when evaluating the strengths of an argument, people tend to be a lot harder on others than they are on themselves.
For instance, if you were the one to say that “organic food is better for you,” you wouldn’t necessarily go to lengths to try to prove yourself wrong. But if your friend made the same statement, you might scrutinize his perspective thoroughly until you found some flaws.
Now, research suggests that people are so interested in being right that they will reject their own argument if they’re made to believe it came from someone else.
For the study, led by Emmanuel Trouche, Ph.D., and published in the journal Cognitive Science, researchers recruited 237 people through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. They presented those participants with a series of syllogisms and asked them to choose the correct answer out of five options.
For example, the participants might see the following:
In the fourth fruit and vegetable shop which carries, among other products, apples:
None of the apples are organic
What can you say for sure about whether fruits are organic in this shop?
Then they would have to select which one of the following answers was valid and explain why they picked that answer.
– All the fruits are organic
– None of the fruits are organic
– Some fruits are organic
– Some fruits are not organic
– We cannot tell anything for sure about whether fruits are organic in this shop
(The correct answer is “Some fruits are not organic.”)
Immediately after completing the syllogisms, the participants saw the same problems again, this time with an answer and an explanation presumably submitted by another participant. They were reminded of the answers and the arguments they had given, though they weren’t permitted to change their answers.
Here’s where things got really interesting. In some cases, participants were told that they had given an answer different from the one they had really given. The answer and argument they actually gave was presented as if they had come from another participant.
Researchers wanted to know: Was the other participant’s answer valid?
In the final phase of the experiment, the researchers told the participants that one of their answers had been switched and asked if they’d noticed. More than half said they had. Of those who hadn’t noticed, a whopping 56% rejected their own argument as incorrect.
Moreover, although only 41% of the non-noticers had chosen the correct answer the first time, 62% figured out which answer was correct when they were evaluating the “other participant’s” feedback.
Of course, it’s possible that these results wouldn’t play out in the real world, because participants didn’t really have time to think carefully about their arguments. So the researchers ran a second experiment that was largely the same, except this time participants had the chance to change their answers and arguments when they were reminded what they had chosen.
Most people didn’t change their answers, suggesting that having limited time to mull over their arguments wasn’t to blame for the results.
Again, about half the participants said they’d noticed that their answers were switched. Of those who hadn’t noticed, 58% rejected their own arguments when they thought they were someone else’s. And the number of non-noticers who picked the right response changed from 43% to 64%.
The study authors label this phenomenon “selective laziness of reasoning.” In other words, we’re a lot more rigorous when evaluating other people’s perspectives than we are when evaluating our own beliefs.
They write: “When reasoning produces arguments, it mostly produces post-hoc justifications for intuitive answers, and it is not particularly critical of one’s arguments for invalid answers. By contrast, when reasoning evaluates the very same arguments as if they were someone else’s, it proves both critical and discriminating.”
While these findings might seem disconcerting, the researchers say they could reflect an evolutionary adaptation. Because an argument is typically deployed in a discussion between two or more people, the researchers say, the argument’s “flaws can be addressed in the back and forth of argumentation.”
As Cathleen O’Grady on Ars Technica points out, it’s hard to generalize these findings to everyday arguments about political issues like taxation or abortion rights. But O’Grady says it’s heartening to know that we at least have the potential to be persuaded to see the right argument when we’re wrong.
In other words, there could be an upside to getting into a heated political debate around the Thanksgiving dinner table — you might help each other reach sensible conclusions.
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