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Argumentative Theory: How Reasoning Evolved In Humans

    Couple sitting on brown wooden bench and having an argument.

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    Why do people end up arguing with us when we try to convince them with reasoning and facts? It turns out that reasoning in humans evolved more for the sake of winning arguments than to guide us with decision making.

    This book, The Enigma of Reason, discusses the Argumentative Theory on the evolution of reasoning. It is authored by two renowned cognitive anthropologists, Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier [1].

    This is significant research that we all should pay attention to because it helps us understand a well know human conundrum. Why do people become more resistant, the more we try to persuade them with our reasoning? Even in cases we are certain we are right?

    According to these new findings, it happens because we are the ones triggering argumentation in them when we force them to consider our reasons. They can’t help it. It’s in all our DNA!

    Cognitively, human decision making still relies on primitive brain processes. It does not involve reasoning, which evolved later to help us prevail in arguments. Sperber and Mercier further outline this in an important and highly-cited paper in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences [2].

    What This Means For Us And How Should We Best Persuade People

    Firstly, don’t waste your time trying to influence or sell an idea to someone by directly reasoning with them. This will likely frame their cognition to argue with the proposal and resist you.

    Instead, bring people to a more receptive emotional state prior to influencing them and then engage the primitive decision making in their brains.

    I’ve already discussed the ways to get people more likely to agree with our requests in my previous articles. You may want to read them because these are the most effective ways to persuade people. They work because they engage an automatic response in people to feel like saying yes to you. The reasons you provide are essentially used as an excuse for agreeing with you.

    1. Use Cialdini’s Principles (Mental Shortcuts) Of Influence

    Cialdini’s 6 Principles Of Persuasion: Weapons Of Influence Explained

    2. Get People Focused On Concepts That Are Directionally Aligned With Your Proposal (Pre-Suasion)

    Pre-Suasion Book Review: Robert Cialdini’s Revolutionary Way To Influence And Persuade Others

    3. Use Pacing and Leading

    How To Influence People: Be The Most Influential Person At Work

    With these techniques, people are usually unaware that they are being persuaded in the first place. Thus, they cannot resist what they don’t detect and it is now much easier to influence them.

    Once aligned with you, they will use the reasoning you now provide to justify a decision you already had them make – to agree with you.

    Our subconscious first makes the decision and our conscious mind looks for reasons to justify it. Since we are not aware of the subconscious workings, we think we’ve made a rational decision based on facts.


    1. The Enigma of Reason By Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2017
    2. Mercier, H.; Sperber, D. “Why do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory” Behavioral and Brian Sciences, 2011, 34, 57-111.

    If you want to get deeper insights and advice on these topics, here are some books that will help you.

    Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at [email protected].


    Persuasion, Influence, Decision Making, Cognitive Sciences

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