Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Reasoning and Justifying

Reasoning is largely done by automatic pattern recognition somewhere in our brains submerged beneath conscious thought. Justification of our conclusions is another matter, and requires our conscious and verbal apparatus. This is one of the themes of Jonathan Haidt's fascinating new book: The Righteous Mind. It sounds likely to me.

I going to speculate that when Wolfgang reads Krugman (if he reads Krugman) he doesn't need to do line by line textual analysis to decide Krugman is wrong. Contrariwise, when I read Krugman, my subconscious pattern recognizers can tell right away that he's probably right, as usual. It's when we try to convince each other that our rhetorical brains get involved.

If persuasion were impossible, most speech would be superfluous. It it were easy, most would be unnecessary. People do change their minds, even about very important things, but not very easily. I've seen a few such changes propagate across the nation during my life, and that process has been glacial, but at an individual scale, sometimes not.

When I was a high school student I attended a summer speech camp, as it was called, where various students yakkers from around the State and country were drilled on the finer points of debate, and various other rhetorical activities. One student, from Georgia, walked into our first dance party and discovered that the entertainer was Black. This, recall, was back in the days of hard core segregation in the South, and he immediately stormed out in protest.

For reasons that I don't recall, he wound up in my dorm room, pursued by a dozen or so of our colleagues. He proceeded launch angry racist rhetoric, including stories of how he chased Blacks away from his fathers restaurant, and the rest of us, or at least the more articulate among us - not me - proceeded to challenge his racism with logic, persuasion, and appeal to humanity. Somehow it seemed to work. He calmed down, listened, and even bent a bit to the persuasion. I might be wrong, but I had the impression that he left our Summer camp a few weeks later with a considerably revised world view. It took the country a few years more, but it changed too, not completely, but largely.

Another story of similar theme was one I heard told by an older southern man. He had always been a hard line segregationist, he said, and strong backer of racism. That began to change, he said, when he got two half-black grandchildren. These kinds of profound changes are very gradual, and usually have deep emotional roots.

So how *does* persuasion work? Darned if I know. But if Wolfgang becomes a Krugmanite, I'd surely like to know why.