On Developing Human Reason

You don’t have to be a psychologist to acknowledge that seemingly rational people will sometimes make totally irrational decisions. People don’t always think straight, a fact that seems especially relevant in today’s current world…

But how did this “trait” develop? Why are certain people convinced of something that seems so totally wrong to the rest of us?

Psychologists and cognitive scientists have been studying these types of questions, and their evolution, a lot in the past few years. And the basic argument seems to comes down to this: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate.

Cooperation is not only difficult to establish, but it’s also extremely difficult to sustain. With that, some speculate that our human reason developed not as a means to solve abstract, logical problems, but rather to resolve the problems that arose by living in collaborative, social groups.

We can see this development take shape through confirmation bias — which is the tendency for people to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts it. Confirmation bias is one of the more common types of faulty thinking. This bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or under-appreciated threats and, therefore, should’ve been selected against in the natural world (where new threats were popping up all the time).

Seemingly so unnatural, scientists argue that the confirmation bias must have had some sort of adaptive function among primitive man. And they’ve found that the function is related to our “hypersociability.” Basically, reason in humans evolved to prevent us from getting screwed over by the other members of our group — we wanted to feel included.

Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives out on the hunt while others idled around back home in the cave.

Jumping forward to present day, people believe that they know way more than they actually do (just take a scroll through your Facebook newsfeed). And what allows us to persist in this belief is other people. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, and we’ve begun to collaborate so well that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.

The challenge now comes with changing minds — how do we do it if reason is based on a feeling and a sense of status among others? As sad as it sounds, providing people with real, accurate information doesn’t seem to help, but appealing to someone’s emotions or social standing just might…