Arguments work! (Hugo Mercier)

Today, I have the honor of speaking with Hugo Mercier. He’s one my favorite cognitive scientists, workin at the French National Center for Scientific Research. Most of his work so far has focused on the function and workings of reasoning.

According to the argumentative theory of reasoning, which he lays out in his book The Enigma of Reason, the function of reasoning is argumentative: to find and evaluate arguments so as to convince others and only be convinced when it is appropriate. This, in fact, works quite well: Hugo has found a lot of evidence that people are good at producing and evaluating arguments, and change their minds accordingly. So, in effect, one of Hugo’s messages is: arguments work! We talk about this in detail. We also discuss his other book, Not Born Yesterday, which argues against the idea that people are guillible. In fact, says Hugo, it’s quite hard to persuade people, and you need good arguments to do it.

Our conversation starts with me asking Hugo what, in his first book, he means with the “enigma” of reason. What is the enigma, or the riddle, the puzzle, of reason? What’s the mystery here? Enjoy our conversation!

Here’s what we talk about:

  • How can reason work so well in some contexts and so terribly in others?
  • The individualistic versus the collectivistic view of reasoning
  • What the function of reason is (The Enigma of Reason)
  • Cool evidence that people recognize strong arguments against their opinions and then change their mind accordingly
  • When discussion leads to the truth, and when it leads to polarization
  • Why people are not guillible (Not Born Yesterday), for example campaigns and advertisements have very small effects on people’s attitudes
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