Learned Unreasonable Helplessness

To protect your faith in debate and public speech, it’s important to not use it in situations where it won’t work.

I left university with a pessimistic view of reason and people’s ability to be influenced by it because the people I would use it with wouldn’t fall like dominos and change their minds when I put forward an argument. At best, it spurred counter-arguments. At worst, it spurred recalcitrance. But in any case, people never changed their minds after I shared a reasoned argument with them. As a result, I came away with the belief that reason cannot be used to change people’s minds.

But reason is a tool that most people actually use to come to decisions in the real world, outside of university! I fortunately learned this in my first job after graduating. My boss would ask me if I thought we should do x or y, and I would respond with y (or x) based on a whim, and some sarcastic remark. It took me a few months until I realized that he was actually paying attention to my reasoning, and that’s when I started to put in more effort in being persuasive by using logic and reason.

I developed “learned unreasonableness” when I was in university because I used reason in places where it would have little effect. Now I understand that there’s a cost for using reason in an attempt to change someone’s mind when they’re not open to it – you burn out your capacity for rationality. This is quite a scary cost – I rely on reason to make the big decisions in my life and to persuade those around me too (ie. when negotiating a raise). So if I lose faith in reason, then I won’t be able to make big decisions properly and to persuade people who are open to it.

When then should I use reason? Only when the person is open to changing their mind based on reason. And this only really happens in two situations that I can think of. One is with myself, when I’m thinking through a problem. I can convince myself of new things by writing down a new argument for it. Two is at work when it comes to strategizing with coworkers and bosses. They’re open to reason because they want to know what they should and shouldn’t do, and why – if they don’t hear my perspective, then they know they’re seriously missing out.

In practically every other situation, reason doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to do. It’s better to use the tools of negotiation and marketing to deal with people. What this means then is that 98% of the time, reason is not used. Instead, you use active listening, mirroring, labelling, etc., in order to figure out what the other person wants and how you can help them get it.

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