The Selective Laziness of Human Reasoning

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The Selective Laziness of Human Reasoning
By Tania Lombrozo for NPR
Tania Lombrozo, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, explores the
psychological elements that contribute to a person’s inclination to value his or her own opinions over the
opinions of others. As you read, take notes on how the experiments the author references support her claim.
Democrat: “Those arguments by Republicans are
Republican: “Those arguments by Democrats are
Sound familiar?
There are plenty of reasons why political disputes
can be divisive,1 and a host of psychological
mechanisms that contribute to a preference for
one’s own views.
For one thing, political preferences aren’t just
reasoned opinions; they’re often markers of personal and cultural identity with strong emotional
resonance.2 For another, we tend to expose ourselves to sources that support our own views,
reinforcing rather than challenging our beliefs.
An article forthcoming in the journal Cognitive Science3 adds another mechanism into the mix: We’re
more critical of arguments offered by others than of those we produce ourselves. Authors Emmanuel
Trouche, Petter Johansson, Lars Hall and Hugo Mercier describe this as the “selective laziness of
reasoning.” We reserve effortful scrutiny for others and often give ourselves a free pass.
To test this idea, the researchers exploited a phenomenon known as choice blindness: Under the right
conditions, many people fail to recognize that a choice they made previously has been swapped with
an alternative. For example, people who choose one of two photographs as more attractive will often
fail to notice when the photograph they’re subsequently presented isn’t the one they chose, and will
nonetheless go on to explain why they found the (non-chosen) option more attractive. The
phenomenon has been replicated for choices in a variety of domains, including jam and tea
preferences, moral judgments and political attitudes.
Trouche and colleagues adapted this technique to the case of arguments and, in so doing, created
situations in which people were asked to evaluate arguments that they didn’t recognize as their own.
This revealed that people were willing to generate arguments that — when presented as coming from
another person — they could readily recognize as flawed.
1. Divisive (adjective): tending to cause disagreement or hostility between people
2. Resonance (noun): the quality of a sound that stays loud, clear, and deep for a long time
3. Cognitive Science is a journal for the study of minds and other intelligent systems.
©2016 Tania Lombrozo for National Public Radio, Inc. News report titled “The Selective Laziness Of Human Reasoning” was originally
published on on August 1, 2016, and is used with the permission of NPR. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited.
Here’s how it worked. Across two studies, more than 400 participants recruited online were presented
with word problems that required them to draw inferences from limited information. For example,
they might read about a fruit and vegetable shop that carries apples as well as other products and
learn that none of the apples are organic. They would then be asked what follows “for sure” from this
information, and were given a variety of options to choose from: that all the fruits are organic (false),
that none of the fruits are organic (unknown), that some of the fruits are not organic (true), and so on.
Participants made a selection and provided an argument to justify their choice.
In a subsequent phase of the experiment, participants were presented with the same problems, along
with choices and arguments purportedly4 provided by other participants. In each case, the choice was
presented as an alternative to what the participants had selected initially, and participants were invited
to reconsider their own choice in light of the argument.
But within this set was a fake: a problem for which the participant’s original choice had been swapped,
such that the “alternative” response was the one that the participant had actually provided, and the
corresponding argument was the participant’s own. About half of participants failed to notice the
swap: They were the victims of choice blindness. For these participants, the experimenters succeeded
in creating the conditions they were after, putting people in the position of evaluating arguments they
had produced as if they had been produced by someone else.
And what they found was this: that people rejected their own arguments over 50 percent of the time,
failing to find them sufficiently compelling to change what they thought was their initial response. In
other words, people were less critical of the very same arguments when they produced them
themselves than when they were later presented as coming from another person. Evaluating these
arguments also led to an overall improvement in performance: Accuracy increased from around 40
percent in the initial phase to around 60 percent after participants evaluated their own argument in
There are several ways to interpret these results. The authors of the study take them as evidence for a
theory according to which human reasoning is principally geared towards effective argumentation
rather than knowledge-seeking. But for present purposes, we can draw a timely, if more modest,
conclusion: that when it comes to evaluating arguments across the political spectrum — especially
those that challenge our own views — we would do well to bear in mind the selective laziness of
It makes sense to evaluate other people’s arguments with careful scrutiny, but we should apply the
same consideration to our own.
4. Purportedly (adverb): as appears or stated to be true, though not necessarily so

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