Everyone a Lawyer?

We human beings like to pride ourselves on being, uniquely, the reasoning animal. Yet we are actually poor at reasoning in a lot of contexts, if the aim is to produce good outcomes. We do badly at judging risks, for instance , as when we shun cucumbers because of an e-coli outbreak on the other side of the Atlantic yet yak on the phone about it while driving. So psychologists have started asking themselves with increasing frequency why, if reasoning developed to help us, does it lead us to screw up so often. Now a group of researchers has proposed that reasoning wasn’t favoured by selection because it led to “the truth,” but instead because it helped to win arguments.

In other words, evolution has ensured that all human beings are lawyers.

This “argumentative theory of reasoning” — that reasoning is a social phenomenon meant to enable us to persuade others and be sceptical when persuasion is turned on us — is explored in a recent Edge conversation with Hugo Mercier. Apparently, says Mercier, a number of researchers see this theory as explaining quite well the confirmation bias we all exhibit, in which we seek justifications for our ideas or decisions rather than notions that challenge them.

when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution.

Sound a bit like the adversary system?

Interestingly, in the conversation, which you can read via the link above or see on the video below, Mercier mentions education and politics, but not law, as arenas where this argument-as-a-social-pheomenon make sense (perhaps because he and his co-author Dan Sperber are French and see the legal system somewhat differently).

Of course, there’s more to the theory than Mercier covers here. And if you’re interested, you can get that more by reading the seminal paper by Mercier and Sperber, “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.”


  1. As a fan of Slaw and Fodden, glad to see you make the same connection we made from Mercier, in “Does Evolution Program Us to be Lawyers?” http://sbmblog.typepad.com/sbm-blog/2011/05/does-evolution-program-us-to-be-lawyers.html I never leave a visit to Slaw without a smile.

  2. Hey, Janet, it’s cool that we both “got it right.” We’re a little slower up here, but a month behind isn’t too bad. The State Bar of Michigan Blog is now on my RSS reader and on the list of folks I follow on Twitter: now we’ll only be a day behind you.