Tag Archives: confirmation bias

The argumentative theory

The argumentative theory of argumentation maintains that reasoning is for arguing–actually, for winning arguments (but not in the philosophy way). Here’s the idea (from here):

Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

Here’s an interview with Hugo Mercier I stumbled across that gives a shorter and less formal version of the idea. A sample:

And the beauty of this theory is that not only is it more evolutionarily plausible, but it also accounts for a wide range of data in psychology. Maybe the most salient of phenomena that the argumentative theory explains is the confirmation bias.

Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They’re going to come up with reasons why they’re right, they’re going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They’re not going to challenge themselves. 

But maybe these people are terrible at reasoning.  Ok, joking (sort of). The interview is well worth reading. There’s even a little video.

The confidence man

Nate Silver, nerdy statistician at 538.com, correctly predicated the outcome of the recent election (with the exception, by the way, of one Senate race in North Dakota).  Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, "numbers" guys by their own descriptions, did not.  An article at CBS.com (my first time there too!) had this to say:

Romney and his campaign had gone into the evening confident they had a good path to victory, for emotional and intellectual reasons. The huge and enthusiastic crowds in swing state after swing state in recent weeks – not only for Romney but also for Paul Ryan – bolstered what they believed intellectually: that Obama would not get the kind of turnout he had in 2008.

They thought intensity and enthusiasm were on their side this time – poll after poll showed Republicans were more motivated to vote than Democrats – and that would translate into votes for Romney. 

As a result, they believed the public/media polls were skewed – they thought those polls oversampled Democrats and didn't reflect Republican enthusiasm. They based their own internal polls on turnout levels more favorable to Romney. That was a grave miscalculation, as they would see on election night.

Those assumptions drove their campaign strategy: their internal polling showed them leading in key states, so they decided to make a play for a broad victory: go to places like Pennsylvania while also playing it safe in the last two weeks.

What is interesting about this account is that the Romney campaign found a way to convince itself of the power of confidence, motivation, and enthusiasm over simple numbers.  But that is why we have numbers, because those things are meaningless

Here was Romney's approach to the economy (from, by the way, the same tape where he made the "47 percent" comment):

If it looks like I'm going to win, the markets will be happy. If it looks like the president's going to win, the markets should not be terribly happy. It depends of course which markets you're talking about, which types of commodities and so forth, but my own view is that if we win on November 6th, there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We'll see capital come back and we'll see — without actually doing anything — we'll actually get a boost in the economy.

I'm glad he did not win, for his losing has been so instructive.