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January 26, 2006


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Half the battle, if you want to be a critical thinker, is to be aware of your own biases and of your own rationalization processes
...and then, when you have successfully reached a conlusion in defiance of your native prejudices, you can enjoy the tingly buzz of that reward centre stimulation:)

One of the reasons I've been cutting down on the number of political beliefs I have is because politicians don't like to display data.

I remember reading in some compendium on A.I. and human brain behaviors that ultimately ALL human decision making is based on un-reasoned choices. If memory serves, the model is that people spend some ammount of effort "reasoning" and then finally decide emotionally. The book discussed one clinical patient in particular who's ability to make that kind of emotional choice had been damaged. Apparently he would spend an unlimited amount of time "reasoning," for example, whether to make his next appointment for Tuesday or Thursday. If someone else would suggest one or the other, he would immediately agree with complete satisfaction. A true "Fish or Cut Bait" tragedy.

If this pathology reflects the normal mental reasoning processes, then it seems that humans are actually physiologically incapable of fully reasoning anything. Needless to say, even such bounded reasoning capacity has proved useful <smirk>...

My point here is not whether some people are reasoning and others emotional, or which mechanism is driving this decision or that. Rather, I suggest that when considering whether a decision is "well reasoned" (our own or of others) we should look at the "depth" of reasoning and the "soundness" of the (emotionally based) axioms it is founded upon.

One of the interesting outcomes of this model is that it widens the channels of communication. To wit, rather than limiting a discussion to “reasoned arguments” we should also include sharing the emotional bases. From my own personal experience (sample size 1), I’ve found myself more effective when I share my own (and elicit other’s) emotional bases as part of a conversation.

Note: I’m using vocabulary rather loosely, which is why I feel all the quoted words should be that way. Also, in particular, by “emotional” I hope to evoke the full gamut of mental process other than reasoning. This includes personal experience, body “memory,” internalized culture (family, community, national, religious, etc. etc. etc.).

PS: I’m reminded of an old joke about how mathematicians’ minds work. I don’t remember the joke itself (and I'm sure it wasn’t actually funny…), but I do recall its structural essence. Basically, “true mathematicians” don’t solve problems. They convert problems into other problems which already have known solutions. (Never mind that such a conversion itself could rightly be considered “the problem” or that some fraction of problems actually require novel solutions.) Perhaps the human reasoning process is too much like that (or rather it’s how it is and most people don’t embed that understanding into their reasoning process – “Gödel, rescue me!”).

This is probably the joke/story you have in mind, Stevel:

A math professor gives his class a word problem: On the floor is a pan, next to a stove with a lit burner. How would you heat up the pan?

The class agreed the answer would be to put the pan over the lit burner.

He then asked the same question, except this time, the pan was on a table. One student responded that the correct answer was to put the pan on the floor, thereby reducing the problem to one that was already solved.

I have always thought that humans are rationalizing rather than reasoning beings. The real problem is knowing when you're rationalizing and when you're reasoning. What most people think of as "thinking", that is, essentially the formation of a mental dialogue involving unspoken words, is not really thinking; it's more like an expression of the result of thinking. I think real thinking takes place below (or on the side, or on top) of what we call the conscious mind. Thus the process is not readily accessible to the conscious mind. At least that's what I think.

Color me skeptical (of the article, I guess, since to be fair I haven't read the actual study).

I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm pretty sure we don't know enough about how reasoning operates in the brain to make the bold claims that this study does. As Steve mentions, there is evidence that emotional circuits are involved in reasoning generally. I'm not familiar with the compendium he mentions, but the story about the man who became pathologically indecisive after losing some connections between his emotional circuits and frontal lobe sounds like it comes from Antonio Damasio's "Descartes Error". Damasio's argument was not that all reasoning was compromised by emotion, but simply that emotional response was integral to reasoning, even when the decision seemed to have no emotional bearing at all.

Also, a notable quote from the article:

Other relatively neutral candidates were introduced into the mix, such as the actor Tom Hanks. Importantly, both the Democrats and Republicans reacted to the contradictions of these characters in the same manner.

Hmmm. So, basically, the "control" showed the same response as the experiment?

Richard, I'm disappointed. You should have titled this, in true Skeptico style, "Tom Hanks Defies Reason".

Damn that would have been a good title!

btw, by "both the Democrats and Republicans reacted to the contradictions of these characters in the same manner" - I think they mean the same as each other. Not the same as in the experiment. The wording is ambiguous though.

Ah, it's so easy to criticize political opinion. What I wonder is whether we skeptics would also show the emotional response and lack of reasoning as we tread our well-worn mental paths to our conclusions about pseudosciences and the like.

Perhaps only if we had to construct an original argument.

It would also be very interesting to see what's happening with judges and juries along these lines.

I try to show my work in dismissing bad arguments. That's why I typically label fallacies and propaganda tactics. Now, if woos would show me properly controlled tests, rather than repeatedly asking me to take their word for it, yes, I might have to put in more thought than usual.

But since our opponents seldom, if ever, do that, I don't see any need to change my defenses. Still need to work on methods of attack, since the defenses around their emotions and ego are quite thick.

A draft of the paper is available on request, "The neural basis of motivated reasoning": http://www.psychsystems.net/lab/type4.cfm?id=400&section=4&source=200&source2=1

Ron Zeno -

You missed one of the amps. The corrected (and linkified) URL is


PS: I don't wanna hafta getta password, can't we just (ab)use yours? <snicker>

Skeptico says:

btw, by "both the Democrats and Republicans reacted to the contradictions of these characters in the same manner" - I think they mean the same as each other.

Ah, you're right, probably they did mean it that way. Sadly, they don't describe any actual differences in the neurologic response. Guess I'll just have to read the real thing.

Just to point out - as several bloggers out there (such as Tara over at Aetiology, Coturnix, and CogDaily's Dave) have noted, this paper has not as yet been peer-reviewed or published and all this comes from perhaps premature press reporting. Yes, it rings true; but we should perhaps be wary of it for precisely that reason.

Yeah. The conclusions match my own anecdotal experiences, but I'm not going to swallow it whole, at least not yet.

At least it's trying to address one critical problem I see with society: Nowadays, bias is bad if it's opposed to you, but "That's just my opinion" is considered the most virtous of defenses when you're found to be flat out wrong.

There's a bit more complete (aka technical) information at http://news.emory.edu/Releases/PoliticalBrain1138113163.html
This guy hardly seems like a "hack" considering the volume (and overall dryness) of his peer reviewed papers.

As an FYI, the blue-red state divide was a hot topic at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Conference where this study was probably released from.

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