Winning is better than being right

April 20, 2012 

It seems like when we are in a presidential election year, as we are now, there is more discussion and debate about what’s wrong with the country and what should be done about it than at any other time.

You might think, then, that with all that discussion going on this would be a time when lots of good, useful ideas about how to solve those problems would be hashed out and agreed upon. You might think that if you were from another planet and totally unfamiliar with how people on this planet interact with one another. But if you’re from Earth you know that when a politician engages in a discussion he’s not trying to solve a problem or seek the truth, he’s trying to either make you feel good or cast his opponent in a bad light.

But let’s not be too hard on politicians, as fun as that may be. You can hear the same kind of pointless “discussions” going on wherever you go, and I don’t just mean on talk radio. In offices and living rooms around the country you can hear people engage in their own one-sided, seemingly pointless debates where no one ever seems to change their mind or even thoughtfully consider a point of view that disagrees with their own.

So what’s wrong with us? Why do we always have to “win” every argument, when deep down we must realize that we are all fallible creatures who couldn’t possibly know everything?

One possible answer to that question (detailed in the April issue of The Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science) is the argumentative theory of reasoning. This theory asserts that humans didn’t evolve their ability to reason to seek the truth or to solve difficult problems but to establish their dominance over others by winning arguments.

The idea is that once we learned to communicate, those who had the ability to persuade others to follow their ideas (regardless of how valid or true those ideas were), gained a survival advantage over those who were less persuasive. And hundreds of thousands of years of advantageous breeding of people who were persuasive, but not necessarily correct, has given us President Barack Obama?

I guess I can see their point. Actually, their theory might explain a lot. It has long been known that people tend to exhibit something called confirmation bias. That is what happens when someone is confronted with apparently valid data that contradicts a deeply held belief. No matter how good that contradictory data is our brains will find a way to ignore it, discount it, or discredit the messenger. We don’t want to change our minds about the things that are really important to us.

That would seem like a strange and counterproductive use of our ability to reason if that ability was designed to seek out the truth in all cases. But, if it was evolved to come up with arguments that would defeat our opponents and establish dominance in a peer group, it would make a whole lot of sense.

If you pay attention to people when they engage in a disagreement, you might be surprised at how seldom logic and superior intelligence seems to determine the apparent “winner” of said disagreement. Instead, it is usually persuasiveness, charisma and appeal to emotion that sways the mob when a war of words is waged.

It’s fun to note this trait in others, but somewhat less fun to realize that it applies to me as well. It makes me wish we had evolved the ability to forget things that we learn that force us to admit that we are a lot more irrational than we’d like to think that we are.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.

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