Reason, Stories Tuned for Contests

Humans have a capacity to reason, i.e., to find and weigh reasons for and against conclusions. While one might expect this capacity to be designed to work well for a wide variety of types of conclusions and situations, our actual capacity seems to be tuned for more specific cases. Mercier and Sperber:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. … Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. … People turn out to be skilled arguers (more)

That is, our reasoning abilities are focused on contests where we already have conclusions that we want to support or oppose, and where particular rivals give conflicting reasons. I’d add that such abilities also seem tuned to win over contest audiences by impressing them, and by making them identify more with us than with our rivals. We also seem eager to visibly hear argument contests, in addition to participating in such contests, perhaps to gain exemplars to improve our own abilities, to signal our embrace of social norms, and to exert social influence as part of the audience who decides which arguments win.

Humans also have a capacity to tell stories, i.e., to summarize sets of related events. Such events might be real and past, or possible and future. One might expect this capacity to be designed to well-summarize a wide variety of event sets. But, as with reasoning, we might similarly find that our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence.

Consider some forager examples. You go out to find fire wood, and return two hours later, much later than your spouse expected. During a hunt someone shot an arrow that nearly killed you. You don’t want the band to move to new hunting grounds quite yet, as your mother is sick and hard to move. Someone says something that indirectly suggests that they are a better lover than you.

In such examples, you might want to present an interpretation of related events that persuades others to adopt your favored views, including that you are able and virtuous, and that your rivals are unable and ill-motivated. You might try to do this via direct arguments, or more indirectly via telling a story that includes those events. You might even work more indirectly, by telling a fantasy story where the hero and his rival have suspicious similarities to you and your rival.

This view may help explain some (though hardly all) puzzling features of fiction:

  • Most of our real life events, even the most important ones like marriages, funerals, and choices of jobs or spouses, seem too boring to be told as stories.
  • Compared to real events, even important ones, stories focus far more on direct conscious conflicts between people, and on violations of social norms.
  • Compared to real people, character features are more extreme, and have stronger correlations between good features.
  • Compared to real events, fictional events are far more easily predicted by character motivations, and by assuming a just world.
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  • endril

    If reasoning is mostly artillery for social combat, what’s changed in the last few centuries to allow our reasoning power to give us complex models and explanations of all sorts of things?

    • Our reasoning abilities haven’t changed, but sci/tech/etc subcultures and institutions have arisen to channel those abilities in new directions.

      • IMASBA

        You’re not actually saying the only function of reasoning skills is social competition? Reasoning skills offer many other advantages that humans require to survive (our big brains are our main survival mechanism) and have taken advantage of to for example figure out how to control fire, use elaborate traps and tools to hunt, figure out the hygiene and medicinal properties of certain materials and eventually to develop modern technologies. I highly doubt that all of these things are merely tiny side effects (I get that manipulating social affairs is terribly important but to do that the species first has to survive at all among predatory animals that are stronger and faster than humans).

      • Doesn’t the length of time required for these inventions to emerge in prehistory tend to show that invention wasn’t the driving force of evolution?

        Perhaps our social nature is our main survival mechanism. It’s not as though the reason we developed big brains is well understood.

      • IMASBA

        Using fire to cook meat and keep predators away or simply using tools, plans and traps to hunt are very old inventions, older than modern humans. Some of our anatomical features only evolved after those inventions because they could not have been sustained otherwise. I don’t see how that can be ingored in any theory that wants to explain the evolution of the human mind. Even further in the past reasoning skills could be used to convey complicated messages (for example a lookout could not only signal that there was danger but also what kind of danger, when it would arrive and from what direction), so even using these skills for social reasons doesn’t just entail only manipulation and scheming against fellow members of the species.

      • brendan_r

        IMASBA, regarding brains you said: “…figure out the hygiene and medicinal properties of certain materials and eventually to develop modern technologies. I highly doubt that all of these things are merely tiny side effects.”

        But those very recent things are merely side effects, right? Evolution can’t select for benefits bestowed on future generations.

        The idea that reason is mostly about persuasion violates my intuitions, too, but how do we explain this (below) away:

        Miller, Mating Mind:

        “…there was a very long lag between the brain’s expansion and its apparent survival payoffs during human evolution. Brain size tripled in our ancestors between two and a half million years ago and a hundred thousand years ago. Yet for most of this period our ancestors continued to make the same kind of stone handaxes. Technological innovation was at a standstill during most of our brain evolution. Only long after our brains stopped expanding did any tradition of cumulative technological progress develop, or any global colonization beyond the middle latitudes, or any population growth beyond a few million individuals. Arguably, one could not ask for a worse correlation between growth in a biological organ and evidence of its supposed survival benefits.”

      • IMASBA

        Fire was controlled as early as 400k years ago, stone tools and communicative advantages even earlier. Our ancestors DID use their brains to survive. Merely learning to reproduce something from your parents already requires a big brain, but it also gives tremendous advantages over other animals that we humans take for granted. Most of the (absolute) brain growth took place in the latter stages of our evolution.

      • Of course I’m not saying that.

      • IMASBA

        Ok, just clearing that up.

  • efalken

    I think this holds among nonfiction writers as well. Compared to the real world, social theorist models are better described by extreme characters: class, the 99%, the ‘people.’ They assume a just world too, if not now, then in the near future, and so striving for one’s conception of justice is not naive (and certainly never counterproductive) but rather prescient.

    I think people are generally pretty good at looking out for their self-interest (rational), more so the shorter the payoff. But when it comes to ideas about what is good for the group, most people are well-described by Mencken’s boobousie, gullible and stupid, rationalizing ideas to signal and form coalitions.

  • brendan_r

    In support of Robin’s claim re fiction:

    I’ll use Cryptonomicon as an example. It’s been awhile since I read it, so the plot is fuzzy, but what do I remember vividly? The kinds of people Neal Stephenson likes and dislikes. For example, Stephenson butchers Randy Waterhouse’s postmodernist wife and her obnoxious friends. He admires the pragmatic smarts, candidness and toughness of the Marine Shaftoe. And obviously Stephenson idolizes nerds.

    I forget the details of fiction read long ago; but easily recall the groups the author identifies w/, or against. And I take pleasure if their likes align w/ mine.

    Starship Troopers provides an even easier example.

    Stories need to take sides to be interesting.

    • efalken

      So an interesting follow up is why isn’t it more interesting to highlight a certain truth–such as in Cryptonomicon, that certain logic problems are interesting and important–and not spend much time on good and bad?

      I think it’s because as Cicero said, the purpose of wisdom is to know ‘the good.’ So, at the end of the day, if you can’t delineate ‘good’ and ‘bad’, you don’t have anything important to say. Good and bad archetypes help highlight the importance of your theme in delineating these characters.

      • brendan_r

        Well, the obvious, not so interesting answer is that the logic problem has no coalition politics salience.

        “Good and bad archetypes help highlight the importance of your theme in delineating these characters.”

        Reminds me of Paul Graham’s essay on Wisdom vs. Intelligence (or general knowledge&discipline vs. specific-creative-insight). He observes that people in the distant past respected wisdom (over creative intelligence) because innovation was so rare that it wasn’t expected. Great men were those that knew the right thing to do had the discipline to do it. Now, with rapid innovation, we expect our great men to create great new things. Past respected wisdom; present respects creative intelligence.

        Point is, the Wise fictional archetype is easy to write interestingly. But the creative genius archetype isn’t.

        Be like George Washington or Ben Franklin or Gandhi; easy to write.

        Be like Elon Musk; not so much.

  • ShardPhoenix

    It seems to me that social signalling must be fundamentally honest more often than not, or we would have evolved to filter it out.

    > Most of our real life events, even the most important ones like marriages, funerals, and choices of jobs or spouses, seem too boring to be told as stories

    I don’t think this statement is true at all. There are many famous and popular stories where “choice of spouse” is a major feature. Also, there are several I can think of involving marriage ceremonies. I’ve even seen a show that spent several episodes on choice of job.

    • I mean the specific events that we particular folks are involved in. I mean *your* choice of spouse doesn’t make an interesting story.

      • ShardPhoenix

        Doesn’t it? I’ve heard other people’s stories about such things (how they met their partner, how they ended up in their current job) and they didn’t come across as *especially* uninteresting relative to anything else that might happen in the life of an ordinary boring person.

        I guess such things don’t normally follow the “funny thing that happened one time” story template that the most entertaining personal stories usually do, but not everyone is good at those.

      • Try writing down a transcript of your friend telling you about how they met their partner, and uploading it to website where people post their stories. See how low it gets rated.

      • ShardPhoenix

        Any randomly chosen story on any subject is likely to be low-rated. I don’t see how this subject is different.

  • Sam Dangremond

    I too enjoyed the finale of “How I Met Your Mother.”

  • anon

    You claim that we’re evolved to tell stories rather than to tell the truth. But for that to make sense the storytellers audience needs to have already evolved an appreciation for fictional tropes, otherwise there would be no distinction. And the only mechanism I can think of that would lead to an appreciation for fictional tropes is limited cognitive resources. But that’s sufficient in itself to explain the poor quality of our reasoning. So your explanation seems to have a huge complexity penalty.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    If this is true, I would expect to solve math problems better if I frame them to my brain as an argument I’m having, and I’d expect to think about issues more effectively & creatively if I argue for one side, then the other side instead of just dispassionately analyzing.

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