Week 14: Mercier (2011) On the universality of argumentative reasoning

We read this paper to try and flesh out some of the criticisms that several members of the group had voiced in regards to the papers we had discussed in previous weeks on cultural psychology and cultural neuroscience.

Based on the current trend in psychology for a dual-process approach (system 1 = fast and unconscious responses); system 2 = slower and deliberative responses), Hugo Mercier has developed what he calls the “argumentative” view of the evolutionary origins of reason – i.e. that the main biological function of reason (that for which it is selected as a trait (see Mercier & Sperber 2011, p. 59)) is that of communicating with others in debates and being able to take up positions in these debates. This involves forming opinions and beliefs and then being able to defend these whilst also trying to convince others. Mercier claims this leads to a number of novel predictions about what features our reasoning capacities will have:

  • This approach explains the robust finding of confirmation bias in a novel manner (Mercier & Sperber 2011, pp. 63-66). For example, as a useful heuristic, we seek confirmatory strategies to exploring a hypothesis rather than how to falsify it (e.g. if you are looking for your keys you looks were you expect to find them, not where you would not expect to them to be). But this useful heuristic sometimes becomes unstuck as shown in the notorious Wason selection task which almost all people fail (less than 20% right answers). Mercier points out that in these sorts of studies if one changes the context to one which requires negation then participants will adopt falsifying strategies. Furthermore, if one alters the scenario to make the hypothesis belong to another agent then the participant becomes much more critical. Lastly, when these types of tasks are performed in groups then this leads to a situation in which debate takes place. And since this is the primary function for which reason has evolved, performance is dramatically improved: with correct answers rising from below 20% up to over 80% (Mercier & Sperber 2011, pp. 62-63). This is an example of an assembly bonus effect – in which the group performance exceeds that of the best member and is “…able to achieve collectively something which could not have been achieved by any member working alone or by a combination of individual efforts” (Collins & Guetzkow 1964, p. 58).
  • This leads on to a second claim: Reason will be best in argumentative and debating circumstances – particularly group discussions (Mercier & Sperber 2011, p. 62). Indeed Mercier emphasises that a key point of differentiation of his position and others in the literature is that whereas they point to reason as being a trait that evolved to “enhance” individual cognition, that his position makes reason a social or group level trait tied to improving communication within a group – by making communication stable for both senders and receivers (Mercier & Sperber 2011, p. 60). As such, he classifies other approaches as having a Cartesian vestige, which he criticises because rather than correcting intuitive inferences, conscious reasoning often merely only seeks to justify them with post hoc explanations (see Evans & Wason 1976) [There is an obvious link here to Hume’s comments about reason being a slave of the passions]
  • Reasoning is motivated and leads to biased evaluation and polarisation (Mercier & Sperber 2011, pp. 66-68). Polarisation is the situation in which members of a group who all share an opinion will reinforce these opinions so that they become stronger. Mercier’s approach contends that this is due to the fact that reason is biased towards generating arguments in favour of one’s views and does not generate arguments that would undermine this view. Many theorists have pointed to group polarisation as a crucial phenomena for understanding issues in contemporary politics. The algorithms involved in forming non-overlapping bubbles in social media have created echo chambers in which agents just increase the strenght of one another’s beliefs and don’t expose them to competing beliefs.

In this paper Mercier defends his approach against the notion that there are “qualitatively different” reasoning styles (Nisbett et al 2001, p. 305) by attacking two major strands in the literature:

  1. Evidence relating to supposed deficiencies in the reasoning capacities of illilerate populations
  2. Historical and behavioural evidence relating to supposed differences in reasoning capacities between *East Asian* and Western (henceforth, WEIRD) human agents.

[**As previously discussed, I find the term “East Asian” to be deeply unhelpful since it is a long standing finding of anthropological research that culture is not a homogeneous trait across a population – hence why we have advocated a patterned practices approach (see Roepstorff et al 2010). And the grouping ‘East Asian’ makes this error on a grand scale by amalgamating over one billion people from myriad language and cultural groups that are markedly different. And it is often the case in the cultural pyschology and cultural neuroscience literature that this designation is unfortunately used without further refinement or clarification. So although I use the term ‘East Asian’ throughout this review merely to report what is discussed by others, I am doing so whilst highly sceptical of the merit of this term as scientifically useful.]

In regards to the first of these, Mercier outlines the wide range of evidence that seems to suggest that illilerates often fail to complete logical syllogisms. This finding is taken by some theorists to indicate that abstract and logical reasoning is dependent on schooling rather than a more ‘innate’ capacity. However, upon reviewing this evidence, Mercier skillfully reveals how one can reinterpret these findings in a number of ways. Firstly, the failings of illiterates in these logic tasks is not a deficit of reason but of willingness to go along with unfamiliar premises. Indeed, when this was taken into account, less than 2% of wrong answers were associated with the participant accepting the premises – either empirically or theoretically (see Mercier 2011, p. 91). Secondly, in a series of studies on children and illiterates it was found that participants were more willing to make abstract inferences if the entire scenario became illusory or highly imaginative – e.g. the syllogism involves being on another planet (ibid). In these circumstances, participants were far more willing to begin from unfamiliar inferences, and performance in these trials was not much different from literates. In our group discussion, one possible reason we hypothesised for this change was that in a purely illusory or imaginative context it might be the case that participants feel more willing to go along with the experimenter because they are less afraid of ridicule (see Sunstein 2005, pp. 985-986 for a discussion of how this can constrain epistemic behaviour in decision making and reasoning). But it was also speculated that there could be some link between imagination and abstract reasoning (a link that has certainly been made by some philosophers). And it was also noted in our group discussion that an under-discussed element of these experiments is the power-dynamics and relationship between foreign experimenters and their subjects.

Mercier also analyses a second set of empirical evidence relating to the cultural relativity of reasoning capacities which falls along the rightly maligned East-West dichotomy. Mercier’s critique is split along two fronts of attack. Firstly, he delves into the overly-coarse grained and simplistic accounts of the history of philosophy and logical systems in China and other ‘East Asian’ countries. And contrary to Nisbett and colleagues (2001) and others’ claims that there is a general lack of rigorous debate, Mercier finds numerous counter examples from many places across history that show that debate was a serious matter. My favourite two examples: [1] in China “Debates between “Taoists, Confucians, and Buddhists” were taken very seriously, with their looser [sic] being “defrocked, and their temple properties confiscated” (Collins, 2002, p. 67)” (cited in Mercier 2011, p. 98). And [2] Mercier’s observation that purges and book burnings in China far from indicating a civil, peaceful, and debateless society implies exactly the opposite because these are the drastic actions of a society frothing with debate! (2011, p. 99). Secondly, Mercier considers a range of cultural psychology experiments which purportedly show that ‘East Asians’ engage in much less reasoning than WEIRDs. In particular, some cultural psychologists claim that these experiments show that ‘East Asians’ a more prone to “dialectical thinking” which accepts and accomodates contradiction rather than selecting one of the horns of such a dilemma. However, Mercier proposes that this finding can be explained without having to appeal to contradiction and instead by appealing to the context of the problem. Indeed, in problem scenarios that were culturally relevant to participants from Japan and China they were far more willing to have a stake in one of the options of a dichotomy and behaved exactly as European participants. Mercier writes: “By varying the degree of interest for the topics, it was possible to have Western participants behave in a ‘Chinese’ manner (rating both statements equally only when presented together) and Chinese participants behave in an ‘Western’ manner (increasing the ratings of the stronger of the two statements presented together)” (2011, p. 103). Additionally, Mercier (2011, pp. 101-102) points out that these studies are limited because: [i] there has been failure to replicate (a general issue plaguing the field of psychology); and [ii] the size of the studies themselves were quite small and so it is dubious to make such large generalisations (especially since this overlooks a range of other complicating factors – see below on the notion of ‘cargo cult science’ and the failings to consider alternative hypotheses).

Although I have only given a cursory review of Mercier’s paper and his overall project, I would like to conclude by noting that this paper is exemplary in regards to how relentless he treats positions that he is disputing. His marshalling of extensive amounts of evidence to make his point is very enjoyable to read. And it was noted in our debate that a worthy defence of this position has implications for how we regard the universal capacity for all people to take part in political and ethical debates. This is something that is especially important in light of recent decisions (e.g. Trump and Brexit) that have been regarded as the ‘wrong’ ones by many commentators in the media – with some even discussing limiting universal sufferage (for example, see here and also here for a more general and philosophical discussion).






Collins & Guetzkow 1964 A social psychology of group processes for decision-making. New York: Wiley.

Evans & Wason 1976 Rationalization in a reasoning task. British Journal of Psychology 67 (4), 479-486.

Mercier 2011 On the Universality of Argumentative ReasoningJournal of Cognition and Culture 11, 85-113.

Mercier & Sperber 2011  Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 34, 57-111.

Sunstein 2005 Group Judgments: Deliberation, Statistical Means, and Information Markets. New York University Law Review 80 (3), 962-1049.


Additional links:

Here is a TED talk by Mercier on his argumentative approach to the evolution of reason.

It was noted that Mercier’s universalist approach which emphasises the link between reason and communication has similarities to the work of Jurgen Habermas on communicative action.

Mercier discusses the work of  Daniel Everett on the wonderfully bizarre Piraha; a small tribe in Brazil who have become a scientific and political battleground in linguistics and psychology because of the severe limitations of language which seemingly go against Chomsky’s notions of language universals.

There was an interesting extended discussion about whether humans had evolved to have some basal level revulsion / emotional distress pattern associated with killing other humans (this being linked to our pro-social behaviour; and recent reports about the unwillingness of soliders to want to kill their enemies).

And we also discussed Richard Feynman’s acerbic critique of psychology as cargo cult science(!).


[artwork credit to the excellent xkcd online comic]


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