The purpose of reason versus the search for truth?

From the NYT:

For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment.

Now some researchers are suggesting that reason evolved for a completely different purpose: to win arguments. Rationality, by this yardstick (and irrationality too, but we’ll get to that) is nothing more or less than a servant of the hard-wired compulsion to triumph in the debating arena. According to this view, bias, lack of logic and other supposed flaws that pollute the stream of reason are instead social adaptations that enable one group to persuade (and defeat) another. Certitude works, however sharply it may depart from the truth . . .

“Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” Truth and accuracy were beside the point.

What are the implications of this for football, and football decisionmaking and strategy in particular?

  • Charles

    Surely football is analogous to an argument, and football rationale and the logic of football strategy is very much about making the other person wrong?

  • Matt Siple

    But don’t arguments presuppose reason?  Do unreasoning species argue at all?  Without reason, there is no such thing as “convincing”, only overpowering.

  • Billy@ATVS

    I certainly think this idea plays into the analysis of the sport. Every time I hear somebody on TV tell that “perception is reality” when it comes to a football player or coach I want get stabby.

  • Hey Chris,

    If I understand this correctly, the difference here is that the Cartesian view holds that we can take a belief/idea and use reason to put it under a microscope to determine its validity. In contrast, the argumentative theory holds that we use reason instead to craft arguments in favor of an idea for the purpose of dialogue with others. As such, we arrive at better conclusions through discussion with others and competition among ideas than we do on our own. The biases/fallacies inherent in our individual positions are exposed and evaluated, enabling us to reach a better conclusion in the end.

    Let’s assume this to be true. That would mean that the best decisions would most likely come from collaboration among a coaching staff, as opposed to more top-down information/decision structures. When preparing a gameplan, for example, the best ideas would arise when the entire staff sits down in a room together and debates the best ways to attack an opponent. Contrast that with something like assigning coordinators to develop gameplans and then pass that on to the rest of the staff to execute.

    It would also suggest that coaches may be well-served soliciting input from players more often, as opposed to just giving them directions or assigning them tasks.

    (It reminds me of a story from the Oklahoma-Nebraska game in 2000. OU struggled to move the ball to open the game. At one point in the first half, OC Mark Mangino took the play card for that game over to QB Josh Heupel and told him to pick out what he liked best. Rest is history.)

  • “Simple” answer: coaches may find it more important to use the right color cat than to catch mice.  After all, if you have the right cat, then there’s no way you can’t catch mice.
    Complication: football has more clearly immediate measures of success than many other ventures.  Having a black cat that goes 3-and-out every other drive and doesn’t score points gets you fired.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean the coach will stop using the black cat, if he really believes in the black cat.

    Building gameplans in a team only works in the right environment.  Groups, after all, all talk about what they already know.

  • Tyler Sellhorn

    One implication further down the line is the assumption that people have the ability to change their minds (or not) in the face of a “superior” argument.  Coexistent with that assumption is that people have the ability to change who they are.  

    One well documented case of “mind changing” in football coaching is Tiger Ellison and his “season with the Lonesome Polecat.”  After observing the way boys play backyard football, Ellison famously built the run and shoot offense around the idea that the players are the best people to make the decisions on how a play should be run in the moment, identical to the way they naturally play on the sandlot.   Ellison had previously been a true believer (and successful) in a 3 and 4 back offense with lots of faking and hiding the ball.  If there could be an opposite to run and shoot philosophy, that is it.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe the researchers are right that the winning a debate impulse is the base, reason and progressively more rational thought is the next evolution built right on top of that impulse.

  • LHill

    Reasoning  presupposes that there are better beliefs to be had, else why reason at all.  Mr. Mercier must assume that being careful is better than being careless, otherwise why should I be one versus the other. The very word careful itself presupposes the notion of careless, what makes one better or worse than the other? If they are the same then it doesn’t matter why we should be one versus the other. I may use reasoning to arrive at the truth, but my reasoning will never be the measure of truth.

    My guy can block their guy or he can’t. No matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise the reality is out there to be discovered. 

  • Ian

    At least in the college game, it seems to me there some are circumstances in which they’re both right; when debate and truth-seeking cannot be de-coupled because the winning argument is or necessarily becomes the truth.  Consider the effect of preseason poll position and/or media coverage on each other and any of: recruiting, ticket sales, bowl selection, donations, in/end-season poll position, and the following year’s preseason poll position and media coverage.  In this way, I suppose the appropriate football strategy is puffery (getting in bed with ESPN, scheduling soft, running up the score, etc.).
    Apart from football, I don’t buy reason’s evolution solely for truth-seeking or argumentation.  If reason is an evolutionary characteristic, it developed for the same reason all evolution happens: it helped at least one of your parents get laid.  I’ll recommend puffery as a strategy on this front, too, and in that way I suppose I fall into the argumentation camp.  Pondering the life of whatever stage of early man developed the capacity for reason, however, puffery seems difficult.  Presumably getting the missing link chicks to perceive you the right way (e.g., I can manage to not starve, I can manage to not freeze, I can manage to not be eaten, etc.) would be impossible if not in line with reality. 

  • Gorilla_kings

    Without reason to convince someone the only alternative is the “animalistic” fight to submission.  Reason made us less barbaric; more diplomatic.

  • Chisho21

    I would liken this phenomena (reason) to the invention of any play system (Wing T, West Coast,  etc.). The system wasn’t created out of an altruistic ideal to improve the elegance of play. Rather every system is  invented/promoted in order to win games (or make money off of clincs/books etc.).

  • 4.0 Point Stance

    Somebody typed a phrase like “air raid definition” or “Terelle Pryor bootleg” into Yahoo today and found this website for the first time.  He read that headline, and he thought, “huh?” Then he doublechecked to make sure this was a football website, and he thought, “huh?”

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting concept…  It made me kind of think of Phil Jackson and the Triangle offense in basketball.  When they were at their best, they were not engaged in contrived strategical thinking (Reason).  They were engaged in the moment embracing whatever circumstances were presented.  Their offense was fully dimensional, and provided multiple options based upon what the defense gave them.  They accepted the fact that they would never have total control, and they were fine with that.  They were more concerned with finding the natural flow of things, and capitalizing on any given set of circumstances.

    I think that football can be played very much like this.  I look at outside and inside zone running plays (from under center), and I feel that it forces the game to this naturally adaptive level.  I also think that a fully dimensional 5 step drop passing system puts the quarterback on this level.  I think that by utilizing new shifts/motions every game, you keep a defense honest and move the game into a level of uncertainty where reason and “always being right” becomes a very hard concept to realize. 

    There are certain things you can do as a coordinator which reduce uncertainty, but at the end of the day you are going to deal with a highly competitive adversary who is going to give you something they haven’t shown which falls in line with their core principles.  You can’t always be right.  People are too creative.  I believe that it is often good for a coordinator to create immenent uncertainty for both teams by being somewhat random with personnel and alignments.  I think that the key is to be very well versed in executing a small amount of core/constraint plays out of an absurd amount of looks.  By doing this you are removing the battle beyond a singular debate of reason, and turning it into a war of core principles where each side will experience some losses throughout the course of events.  The team with the stronger core principles will win more battles (debates of reason) than they lose, and truth will prevail.  I believe that the truth lies within your teams ability to successfully execute core plays versus multiple looks that you may or may not have prepared for.  This approach really forces the game into a war of technique, execution and rules instead of strategy.  I think that when you try to present the game to your players in absolute terms and truly believe that you will win every play, you are only kidding yourself and your players will lose trust in you. 

    Success occurs when people see the big picture and don’t get caught up on debating petty issues.  Football is no different than politics in this regard.  When truth is a fluid thing, there is no way to always be right.  Those who continually adapt and find solutions in a pragmatic manner are those who succeed.

  • Al Sexton

    This is way off topic regarding this post but I have searched through your archives and I could not find a good place to ask my question so I will ask here. What is your take on the number of formations a team should use? 

    I agree 100% in the idea of having a few set plays and mastering them, but what is your take on implementing formations in general. The fewer the better (the same theory with plays)? 

    I guess the big question regarding strategy is “Multiple formations and less plays, or less formations and more plays?” Thanks and I absolutely love your site. I have read about 80% of all of your articles so far. 

  • Deepthoughtlife

    When reasoning, we are attempting to hook into mental associations that are already held by the person we are reasoning with (often ourselves) to add a new concept, or we are looking to strengthen an already existing connection, or we are trying to sever an existing connection. Often this also means having to determine what item we should do this with. We are trying to come up with a correct insight, or remove another one.

    We can have a whole slew of reasons for wanting to do this. ‘Winning’ the argument is only one of them, and already supposes we are in the argument. Why do we want those we are reasoning with to come to our idea? Because we think it is better (for someone[s] we think is important.) That person is often the person we are arguing with (family, friends, etc). If we convinced them to do something that does not work as we expect it to, it is bad for us (and them) most of the time.

    How did we decide what was best? Reason! (mostly). Not necessarily fresh, on the spot reasoning, but on things we’ve been reasoning about for a long time. If reason didn’t work, this would mean the longer we reasoned, the worse it would be for us; which is a (mostly) ludicrous idea.

    Rationality is a subset of reasoning that involves using logical rules (some general, others discovered personally) that we have painstakingly developed, through an immense round of reasoning. If all this sounds like a thing developed to deceive others, you’re helplessly paranoid, though some do use it to that effect.

    Football is a game of strategy and tactics, played out by uneven sides, much like the arena of war (it is the tame little brother of war). Also, much like war, the inferior side can easily win with better strategy and tactics. You figure out what strategy to use via a measured reasoning (often Rationality), and tactics more by a gut reasoning. If you reason better than your opponents in both, you probably win.

    This use of reasoning is not at all related to trying to win an argument -it is trying to win a war, which is far more serious, and not at all amenable to something that merely came about to trick people and not be tricked ourselves.

    Evolutionary reasoning on the origin of such a thing is prone to “just so stories” that have no actual support, but we simply don’t yet understand. I suspect this is the case here, though I could obviously be wrong. In other words, I think they’ve taken an inductive leap way too far.

    I think Matt Siple has a good point. If the only purpose was to sway others to our side, we wouldn’t listen to the huckster trying to argue with us, but we do if he might have a good point, so that isn’t the answer.

  • ACanadian

    I’m totally not qualified to comment on high level football, never having been involved in it, but I’ve noticed in tons of backyard games that trying to explain plays to your teammates is 99% of the time totally useless because what everyone really wants to do deep down inside is run really fast and then catch the ball. The most effective street football QBs usually just tell their team to do whatever, because most players know, from tons of repetitions, which moves will get them open most of the time, and it’s generally easier to figure, “okay, this guy always breaks in, this guy loves to go deep,” than to give yourself a headache trying to explain the intricacies of some totally sweet play you just KNOW will work. ie, how many called runs do you ever see in pickup games?

    Conversely, if the same people play with each other for a long time, the strategy starts to get much more intricate. I played pickup football with the same core of about five people through college, and the strategy progressed from “run to this spot and wave your arms and jump” to actually trying to shotgun-snap the ball to beat the “no qb rush before 4 steamboats” rule and working out a two-man pass protection. And this was done by people with a background in sports, but none of us ever played organized football.

    The upshot, I think, is that people are convinced by success, mainly their own, and are mostly unmoved by superior “logical” arguments. The players weren’t convinced of the need for the headache of playing backyard ball with a centre because of the conceptual superiority of what real teams do, but rather because they identified impediments to their success (measured by winning) in their inability to attack the totally undefended area of the field behind whoever is counting steamboats – usually a slow and weak player who is too crappy to play coverage. The satisfaction of steamrolling this guy created the motivation to change the strategy.

    I think the implications in real football are largely pedagogical. Knowledgeable people, like coaches and assistants, experience football on a strategic level daily, whereas (especially younger) players must work hard on techniques and fundamentals, in addition to class time and personal development. They are, or ought to be, proud of their skills. The trick is to develop the required strategic concepts first as concretely explained techniques and develop their strategic use second. The anecdote about Bill Walsh telling his players to practise throwing the ball soft comes to mind: develop the simplest instincts first and apply the abstract concepts second, so when you call your game-winner, the players don’t screw it up because it contradicts all their personally learned and deeply ingrained “things I can do that experience has taught me will always work” – ie whipping the ball as hard as they can to avoid bad picks, but being unable to execute a precision play with confidence. A strategy that integrates the “core football values” of the players combats reluctance and disinterest in the boring part of the game because it affirms that they’re right when they play, and a particular failed play is less despiriting because they don’t perceive that they’re being forced to do something that is setting them up for failure

  • LHill

    I think what you explained (very well, I might add) is the essence of good offensive football. Making a little look like a lot and forcing the opponent to prepare for more than he might see.

      I do take exception to the notion of truth being a fluid thing, the whole concept of the game is based on truth, deception only works if there is an agreement between the parties on whats true. If that agreement doesnt exist then noone would ever be deceived because there would be no basis for truth.

    By agreement I mean, a team lining up in the “I” formation is going to force a defense to align in such a way that properly defends the “I” formation. If they do not align properly then by formation they are at risk. If they align properly then that sets up, need for a constraint play (the need for deception).

  • Anonymous

    Before I get to Football, the NY Times report just confirms what I have always believed: that people marry themselves to an idea, then craft a rationale to back it up.  It’s why, in my videos, I always poked fun at Stephen Hawking as just creating a rationale to put himself over God.  I can, and will, go on about this, but not here. 

    As for Football, it explains why, years ago, when I would advocate for a five-wide passing offense, some kid my age (16) at the time, would insist that such a play was impossible to run – “the QB would get sacked” was what I was always told.  Moreover, I discovered they got that idea from their run-oriented coach.  

    Now, we know it’s different. 

    It reminds me of a rather annoying conversation I had with CBS and NFL Network Analyst Solomon Wilcots, who went for the “Well, you never played football” angle in a debate about strategy.   At that point, I went and got a cocktail because I wanted to enjoy the ESPN Super Bowl Party were were both at in Miami.  

    But what I was thinking was that under his point of view, I have to be a steel girder in order to design a skyscraper!  

    The point is, anyone can design a good football strategy if they understand time-motion study, and presentation of an argument.  It also explains, in an Internet age, why College Football  is ahead of the NFL in the passing game, even as the NFL kids itself that the reverse is true. 

  • This made me laugh.
    On topic though, this doesn’t really explain the overuse of heuristics instead of reason–heuristics (like The Chart for one but not the only example) would seem to fly in the face of this kind of story.

  • T_Rico

    Wow, everyone’s comments were insightful and thought provoking, I love this site!

    Someone may have mentioned this but another possiblly related angle on this topic is the cognitive theory that we look for confirmation for our hypotheses and not discomfirming evidence. Thus, when building a reason/argument, our instinctive nature will search for what proves our point rather than constructing a better reason or finding a new one. Relating to football, I think that coaches will site tons of evidence of a particular strategy working rather than looking for the best. I don’t necessarily blame them because as someone mentioned with heuristics, it is much easier cognitively to take shortcuts and most of the time it doesn’t negatively affect us. Again back to football, I think successful coaches both NFL and NCAA (and probably all sports) are able to match strategy with personnel, e.g. a “west coast” guy like Andy Reid essentially scraps those principles due to DeSean Jackson, Michael Vick, etc. Or someone like Gus Malzhan, who seems offense can lead the nation in passing yards (at Tulsa) to a more balanced (very simply put) offense at Auburn.

  • T_Rico

    I agree with the idea that collobration amongst a coaching staff is most likely the most effective at devising a gameplan. Though as a psychology major who just wrote a term paper on the lack of effectiveness of group brainstorming, it is important that process is conducted a certain way, i.e. that individual position coaches are given time alone to strategize than we proceed to the group session. This is important because group brainstorming normally limits the range of ideas produced thus individuals are forced to think of similar ones, whereas indivdual sessions would allow more out-of-the-box ideas. In theory, this should reduce group think, maximize or stregthen an individual’s ideas/strategy, and consider alternative ideas/strategy that group brainstorming doesn’t allow.

  • Mr.Murder

    Reasoning exists independently from truth. History is written by the winners. It isn’t about being correct with reasoning, it’s about having gunpowder. Just ask Crazy Horse.

  • Joe

    Hugo’s point is self refuting. If reason doesn’t help us with getting better beliefs then why should I believe his belief concerning reason being just about winning arguments.  Logical reason alone is not enough for coaching football. It is reason and experience along with will, discipline, attitude, focus, dedication, team chemistry,  etc.. that makes for a good football coach. So a good football coach has to be able to use reason but it is not just about reason alone.

  • M. Brian Burchette

    Many evolutionary psychologists have convincingly argued (in my opinion) that most applications of reason, and even perhaps consciousness itself are “exaptions.” In other words, our intelligence evolved because it constantly gave succeding species of primates an advantage 1 million to 100k years ago.
    It is thought tht feathers evolved in dinosaurs to keep them warm (or possibly to attract mates). But it wasn’t until millions of years later that their decendents used them to fly.
    Although it’s doubtful that our analytical ablilities (along with our ability to reason abstractly) evolved so physicists could uncover the nature of the universe, the very fact that humanity can redirect intelligence to whatever purpose we choose is what makes us unique.
    There have probably been many traits aside from intelligence that provided an adaptive advantage to our decendents (nepotism, racism, xenophobia). But we are perhaps the only species that can make a concious moral decision to betray the less noble aspects of our character in the pursuit of something higher

  • kc24688

    I read this not too long ago and I understand the premise.  I wish I was as eloquent as some of you, but my humble opinion is that if you are a good person your ego will be fueled by a true search for the right answers and if you are selfish you will be fueled by the urge to prove yourself right.  As it applies to football, I don’t have much real life experience, but I would assume that it shows that you need high character people who have everyone’s best interests in mind.  The mind is a powerful thing and if you focus it to help everyone instead of twisting things to fit your perspective you will help accomplish bigger goals.  I guess I feel like cliches can mean a lot if you have a certain perspective when looking at them.

  • Panama Williams

    Reasoning, I think, evolved so that we as a species could use the information gleaned from familiar scenarios and apply it to unfamiliar scenarios.  Reasoning tells us what will happen if we jump off a building without a safety device, despite (most of) us never doing that specific action.  We also use reasoning to determine our own personal beliefs, which we consider to be universally true, as we all trust our reasoning.   We then decide, as a society, which personal truths can be considered “universal truths” through what are essentially popularity contests, based on our already-existing beliefs.  I think that explains how I feel about reasoning and truth.  If it doesn’t make sense to anyone else, I’m not surprised; I’m merely a college student.                                  

    In reference to the impact of truth and reasoning on football, the only thing I have noticed is how a proper use of reasoning does not play a big enough part in play calling.  Playing conservatively after one has a slim lead is pretty much illogical, as I’m sure the guys at Football Outsiders have pointed out.  If your offense has been doing well, but they fail to convert a 3rd and 4, there’s no reason to automatically send out the punt team.  I believe in doing the logical thing, but I try to make decisions on the margin.  If going for two will put you up by 8 points, then I wouldn’t do it, since if you don’t make it and the other team scores a TD, they will just kick the extra point to go up by one.  But if going for two will put you up by 9, I believe you should go for two, since that’s two scores, and even if you fail, you’re still up by 7.  I don’t know if that seems logical to anyone else, but that’s what makes sense to me.

    The only real “truth” I can think of in football is that the option is unstoppable if it is properly executed.  I have a personal truth (id est, opinion) that the SEC is the best college conference for football, but I haven’t yet devised a way to objectively prove my personal truth as an objective, universal truth.  I realize that the SEC could have won those last 5 BCS nat’l championship games as a result of random occurrences, or as a result of a government conspiracy, so I’ll hold off on assumptions for a while.