In HR Analytics, It’s Arguments vs. Reason

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Jun 10, 2020

One of the main flaws in HR analytics is that it presumes humans will use reason to make good decisions. Anyone experienced in analytics will know that their fact-based conclusions often run afoul of entrenched opinions. In the end, opinions often win.

The usual explanation for this is that humans have cognitive biases that make us poor at reasoning. A more interesting explanation is that the faculty of reason did not evolve to help us make good decisions. That’s not it’s purpose. The purpose of reasoning is to win arguments.

This view was proposed by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in a now classic paper Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. The essence of the paper is that humans are a social species and we developed the faculty of reason to win arguments not to make fact-based decisions.  At this point, I can almost hear you saying “Yep, that explains a lot.”

There is a practical implication from this theory. Reasoning doesn’t work well at an individual level; individuals will just sit around making up arguments to support their own desires. Reason is most likely to lead to a good decision if it is performed by a group of people discussing (arguing) about an issue. In a productive argument then we at least have a chance that the person with the best reasons will prevail.

When we present analytics findings, we don’t want to do so in a forum where we share our findings while a leader leans back, and on their own, decides to accept them or not. We need a forum where several people sit around a table and argue it through to a conclusion.

In our attempts to be rational we are gradually understanding how humans use reason. Ultimately the success of analytics will rest on this understanding and developing decision making tactics with this understanding in mind.

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