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We Argue to Reason

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

I received an interesting e-mail from a colleague (thank you, Gary Weiner, Esq.!) the other day passing along a new theory about confirmation bias. In the words of my colleague, confirmation bias is “a mental shortcut that makes us seek out evidence that confirms our views, and overlook and/or fail to notice evidence that contradicts our views.” In day to day terms, what this means is:

“. . . when [people] have an idea and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They’re going to come up with reasons why they’re right, they’re going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They’re not going to challenge themselves.”

“And the problem with the confirmation bias is that it leads people to make very bad decisions and to arrive at crazy beliefs. . . .”

(Edge 342- May 3, 2011, The Third Culture, “ The Argumentative Theory: A Conversation with Hugo Mercier”( at p. 3.)

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, two researchers in cognitive psychology and social cognition, have developed a theory about “ “ why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?” ” (Id. at p. 2).

The rationale is to provide the critical and very necessary ability to argue with each other. Pursuant to their argumentative theory, Messrs. Mercier and Sperber contend:

“. . .[I]f you take the point of view of the argumentative theory, having a confirmation bias makes complete sense. When you’re trying to convince someone [i.e. being argumentative], you don’t want to find arguments for the other side, you want to find arguments for your side. And that’s what the confirmation bias helps you do.”

“The idea here is that the confirmation bias is not a flaw of reasoning, it’s actually a feature. It is something that is built into reasoning; not because reasoning is flawed or because people are stupid, but because actually people are very good at reasoning – but they’re very good at reasoning for arguing. . . .”

“People mostly have a problem with the confirmation bias when they reason on their own, when no one is there to argue against their point of view. . . . [W]hen people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution. . . or to make a good decision. . . .”

“On the other hand, 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. . . .” (Id. at p.3-4).

In sum, our confirmation bias requires a group dynamic in which we can argue our way to the “best solution” which may not always equate to being the “right” or “most correct” solution. (Id. at p. 4).

Two examples are education and politics. Educators have noticed that when it comes to teaching abstract topics to kids such as mathematics or physics, they learn much better in a group dynamic. That is, “. . .[i]f you take a group of kids and you give them a problem to solve together,. . . you obtain a much, much deeper understanding than you would ever obtain if the kids were on their own.” (Id. at p. 4).

Similarly, this group dynamic works well in deliberative democracy – people discuss and argue their ideas, sharing their own viewpoints and criticizing each other’s viewpoints, to arrive at a “best solution”. (Id.) (Indeed, President Obama uses this dynamic by inviting open discussion and contrary viewpoints in his conversations with his advisors.)

Consequently, argument is not such a bad idea. Arguing is actually a very good way to get disputes resolved. I know a lot of mediators who cringe at the notion of allowing the parties to argue or debate with each other. But, according to this new theory – arguing is precisely what is needed for the parties to reason their way to a solution.

. . .Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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