News flash: people argue to win

by David Alm on June 15, 2011

According to a groundbreaking new study into the mysterious workings of the human mind, and reported by the New York Times, our species developed its well-honed capacity for reason and argument not to seek out truth, however nuanced or elusive it may be, but rather for a decidedly more selfish purpose: to win.

Lest my sarcasm escape detection, I meant the preceding sentence as a joke. Why should this be such a revelatio n? It strikes me as obvious as saying that men start wars to impress women, or that the 21st Century workforce is getting fatter because people spend so much time in front of computers. (The first example can’t be proven, per se, but the second was also reported recently by the New York Times, whose motto, of course, is “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”)

I get that the Times has an obligation to print relevant news of all stripes, and revolutionary insights into human behavior should certainly get their share of precious ink — or less-precious pixels — but surely someone’s done a study, somewhere, that might actually change the way we think about the world, our place in it, or even just the way we debate with our domestic partners over which kind of toothpaste to buy.

The study’s findings aren’ t en tirely mundane, of course. I found it interesting that people respond more to certitude than logic, for example, explaining perhaps how the Tea Party developed such a fanatical following. I also found it interesting that people tend to remember things that confirm their beliefs over things that don’t, which also explains a lot about the political quagmire we’ re in today.

Beyond politics, perhaps this study could help us navigate our personal lives as well, or at least better understand what we’re doing when we get into it w ith a co-worker over whose turn it is to change the water cooler jug, or with the lady in line who insists she was there first.

Then again, I always knew in such situations that I was arguing to win.

Jeff McMahon June 15, 2011 at 9:28 am

And this is particularly a problem in academia, in the humanities, where the aim is ostensibly knowledge but the discourse, which is argumentative, aims to win. Olivia Frey:

“Literary criticism driven by the adversarial paradigm… necessitates treating literature as problems to be solved, and critics will frequently go to great lengths to solve them, sometimes at the expense of knowledge and understanding. We want to be right, and don’t want to be attacked. But when we are attacked, we hunker down and erect a wall in front of us. We direct all of our creative efforts toward protecting ourselves and defending our theories. It is very difficult to put our heads together under these circumstances.”

David Alm June 15, 2011 at 9:35 am

How did you come across that? Olivia was one of my most influential professors in college, and she taught both my freshman seminar on religion (a required course for everyone in the “college within the college” that I was enrolled in) and one of the best English courses I’ve ever taken, on insanity.

She was a visionary educator, an instrumental part of the aforementioned “paracollege,” which was a revolutionary approach to a liberal arts education that dispensed with grades and “classes,” favoring evaluations and team-taught seminars, tutorials, and independent projects. We didn’t even have majors, but “concentrations,” which were defined individually and completed in the final two years, after an initial period of intellectual exploration, or in the parlance of the program, “necessary floundering.”

My point is, that program — and Olivia as an educator — represented a very different take on academic pursuits, one defined less by argument and far more by discussion, and discovering a shared purpose.

Thank you for sharing this.

Jeff McMahon June 15, 2011 at 9:40 am

She was one of a group of feminist scholars who challenged the argumentative discourse in the humanities—unsuccessfully—20 years ago. Every year when I’m teaching problem construction and argument I quote Olivia Frey to students. So that we’re not just teaching them how to win, but also teaching them what’s wrong with winning.

She goes on to say:

“And yet, in spite of my efforts to reject the method… the very basis of my essay is adversarial. All I want is that we value other knowledge constructions, other ways of writing about literature. I didn’t think I could just say that, or do that. I felt compelled to make my case: I imagined the other guys, who would oppose my suggestion or refuse to publish my writing if it were different.”

Bob Shanbrom June 15, 2011 at 12:27 pm

A favorite professor at FIU used to say that in academia the bigger the brouhaha the smaller the issue.

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