Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Reason and Emotion Revisited

Here's a follow up to my earlier posts on reason and emotion and the efficiency of emotion. It's an example of where our gut response is better than our thoughtful one:
Let me tell you a story about strawberry jam. In 1991, the psychologists Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler decided to replicate a Consumer Reports taste test that carefully ranked forty-five different jams. Their scientific question was simple: Would random undergrads have the same preferences as the experts at the magazine? Did everybody agree on which strawberry jams tasted the best?

Wilson and Schooler took the 1st, 11th, 24th, 32nd, and 44th best tasting jams (at least according to Consumer Reports) and asked the students for their opinion. In general, the preferences of the college students closely mirrored the preferences of the experts. Both groups thought Knott’s Berry Farm and Alpha Beta were the two best-tasting brands, with Featherweight a close third. They also agreed that the worst strawberry jams were Acme and Sorrel Ridge. When Wilson and Schooler compared the preferences of the students and the Consumer Reports panelists, he found that they had a statistical correlation of .55. When it comes to judging jam, we are all natural experts. We can automatically pick out the products that provide us with the most pleasure.

But that was only the first part of the experiment. 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.
Here's what they think is happening:
Reasoning is generally seen as a mean to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology or reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively with the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow the persistence of erroneous beliefs. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all of these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and favor conclusions in support of which arguments can be found.

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