Arguments are used for defending choices, not making them


We don’t have conscious access to our real decision-making processes. But we do have access to a model which is very good at explaining our own and others' choices. A German experiment shows just how far we bend to make our choices consistent and how we take on board as beliefs all the steps we think we need.


The German researchers asked volunteers whether they thought Germany should be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Before asking them, they gave the volunteers some moderately persuasive arguments for membership: it would help German reunification, many UN institutions are based in Germany, and it would indicate international appreciation of Germany’s efforts. Half of the volunteers were told that the arguments were made by Gerhard Schroeder, the other half that Edmund Stoiber was making the case (at the time, the two politicians were running against each other for Chancellor).


Participants who supported Stoiber thought that the arguments were stronger when they believed he’d made them than when they thought Schroeder had. Those who preferred Schroeder thought his arguments were stronger. Afterwards the volunteers were asked not about the strength of the case they’d heard but about whether they themselves thought that Germany should have a seat on the Security Council. Those who’d just heard arguments from the politician they supported were more in favour than those who hadn’t. They’d been persuaded.


If we’re at all logical, it shouldn’t make any difference who makes the arguments: either they’re valid or they’re not. We ought to choose politicians with the best plans. Instead we pick our policies once we’ve selected our leader. We’re back-to-front.


It’s sometimes said that you can tell when a politician is lying because his lips move. But once we’ve chosen a political candidate we have a remarkable capacity to deceive ourselves.


Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.

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