We Hold Other People's Arguments to a Higher Standard than Our Own

Author: Bahar Gholipour


You may be a more reasonable person if you could hear your own thoughts coming from someone else.

As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as rational beings with well-thought–out reasons behind our arguments, numerous experiments have shown that that's not the case. We make a lot of bad choices, produce many wrong answers with obvious logical errors, and then come up with lousy arguments to defend them. We do have a critical thinking system to scrutinize claims and statement, but the problem is that this system, as psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it, is sometimes busy, and often lazy.

But a new experiment suggests there may be an exception to our frequent bad use of reasoning: we're more likely to use sound reasoning when evaluating our arguments if we're tricked into thinking they're actually proposed by someone else .

Cognitive scientist Emmanuel Trouche and his colleagues call this "the selective laziness of reasoning" in their study published recently in Cognitive Science. To demonstrate the effect, the researchers asked people to choose an arguments in response to reasoning problems, and they were then asked to evaluate other people's arguments about the same problems.

First, the participants selected their answers to each question and explained their reasoning behind their answers. Then, they were shown a series of arguments given by other participants and were asked to evaluate them. But unknown to them, in some of the round they were presented with their own argument as if it was someone else's.

Now you might ask how it's even possible to forget your own answer. This is thanks to another problem we all suffer from, called choice blindness. We tend to be unaware of our own choices and preferences, even about the most primitive matters. In one experiment, for example, people had to choose which person they found more attractive in pairs of photographs. Then, they were shown the same pairs of photos and asked to explain why they think one person in the photo is more attractive than the other. Sometimes researchers actually switched the photos. Yet, people happily went on to explain the seemingly solid reasoning behind a choice that wasn't even theirs, saying things like "I just prefer blonds," when they had actually picked a brunet.

In this new experiment, too, a striking 50 percent of the people fell for the trick and didn't notice their argument was changed. Over a course of a few minutes they had forgotten the arguments they had just typed down.

"We knew from previous choice blindness experiments that people can be surprisingly easy to trick in this way. Still, with the arguments we thought more people might detect the change," co-author Hugo Mercier, a researcher at the Center for Cognitive Sciences in Switzerland, told Braindecoder.

Among these people, more than half ended up rejecting the arguments that were in fact their own. Interestingly, they were more likely to reject their own arguments for wrong answers than for correct answers. In other words, they were better at spotting faulty reasoning behind a wrong answer. "This demonstrates that people are more critical of other people's arguments than of their own, without being overly critical," the researchers said.

It's not surprising to start out with a more critical eye when facing other people's arguments, because it can contain misleading information. But why don't people hold themselves to the same standards? In fact, such laziness about one's own arguments may not be so bad, the researchers say. It may be that at first, we come up with the easiest argument without bothering too much, just to open the conversation. "It saves the trouble of computing the best way to convince a specific audience, and if the argument proves unconvincing, its flaws can be addressed in the back and forth of argumentation."

But how can you avoid the trap of your own faulty arguments? "The best way to do this is to actually face counter-arguments, and so to exchange arguments with other people,"Mercier said. "In particular with people who disagree with us."