For argument’s sake

ebook cover
I have (self) published an ebook For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds. It is the collection of two essays that were originally published on Contributoria and The Conversation. I have revised and expanded these, and added a guide to further reading on the topic. There are bespoke illustrations inspired by Goya (of owls), and I’ve added an introduction about why I think psychologists and journalists both love stories that we’re irrational creatures incapable of responding to reasoned argument. Here’s something from the book description:

Are we irrational creatures, swayed by emotion and entrenched biases? Modern psychology and neuroscience are often reported as showing that we can’t overcome our prejudices and selfish motivations. Challenging this view, cognitive scientist Tom Stafford looks at the actual evidence. Re-analysing classic experiments on persuasion, as well as summarising more recent research into how arguments change minds, he shows why persuasion by reason alone can be a powerful force.

All in, it’s close to 7000 words and available from Amazon and Smashwords now

12 thoughts on “For argument’s sake”

  1. Well, since I’m logged in, I may as well respond:
    To the Q? of are humans rational or irrational, I have to say, absolutely, YES. We are BOTH. That’s the problem. Most of us are stuck in a binary world view. We are told that it must be one or the other, and we are often forced to choose one or the other. This works for buying products in a store, and it’s required for voting. So being forced to choose one, but not the other, isn’t always all bad. But, as we humans develop, some of us are realizing, and living, with the “both/and”. Maybe call it the
    “either/or/both/and”. Sometimes, rational, cerebral cortex arguments win the day, and sometimes our irrational, arbitrary, emotional, limbic system calls the shots. I only recently found this Mindhacks site, and I like it so far, so THANK-YOU, Tom.

  2. Freud and the huge post-freudian tradition says both reason and non-reason. Norman Doidge in The Brain That Can Change Itelf) says you yourself can push balance- to an optimum degree -in favour of reason. (Why would one strive for TOTAL reason???) We’d end up being another species.

    1. Both of these assume a reason/non-reason (rationality/irrationality) dichotomy, which I reject. The evidence is more interesting if you look at is as showing us how human reason works, actually, than as showing us where human reason falls down against an impossible standard

  3. Tom,

    I thought the article in Contributoria was good.

    I didn’t know about the research on collaboration on solving a Wason problem.

    (Here is an ungated version:

    This also struck me as a particularly interesting observation.

    “So striking is the success of reason when deployed in the service of argument that two cognitive scientists, Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, have even proposed that this is what reason evolved to do – convince other people in arguments, a legacy of our biological nature to live in social groups.

    This explains the success of groups on problems that confound individuals, and also explains why we are so good at thinking up reasons why we’re right, even when we’re wrong.

    If the purpose of reason is to persuade others that we’re right, rather than find the truth directly, then this is just what you’d expect.”


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