The Enigma of Reason

By Calum Matheson
Everyone who speaks in public eventually runs into a problem: having a good idea is not
the same thing as convincing other people that your idea is good. History is full of
revolutionary ideas that never came to pass because of institutional inertia, individual
resistance to change, or simply failures of imagination. A great idea is only really great if
other people can be persuaded to follow–otherwise, it’s merely the shiniest object in the
dustbin of history.

Rational thinking and persuasive reasoning are not the same thing, and demonstrating
perfect logic doesn’t guarantee that a message will be received. Aristotle recognized this
problem over two thousand years ago, but modern social science research supports his
conclusion. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s book The Enigma of Reason looks at the
evolutionary history of rationality and concludes that we, as a species, are not primarily
evolved for reason. Your phone has much more mathematical processing power than
you do, for example, but it lacks the vocabulary of trust. What we evolved instead was
the capacity to convince others that our reasoning is correct. Something similar can be
observed in primates today, who communicate not complex ideas but a basic sense of
group cohesion and trust. Doing that got results in group cooperation and collective
decisionmaking, even when the logic was wrong. Mediocre reasoning superbly sold is
more effective than superb reasoning imperfectly communicated if the goal is to get
people to do what you want—listening, investing, and trusting you with another chance.

This insight is not counsel for chicanery, however. Glib speech sometimes works for
awhile, but bad reasoning is usually found out in the end. That’s the difference between
“fast talk” and “persuasion.” One doesn’t last. The other does. For a good strategy to
endure, you need a good idea and sound reasoning that holds up to scrutiny. A good
communication strategy has two parts: a close attention to speaking style, messaging,
and convincing appeal to draw an audience in, and a well-planned, comprehensively-
researched plan that adapts to changing conditions and needs over time to make sure
that a good core concept grows in the minds of your audience over time.

Of course, you can learn the basics of trickery by watching monkeys. You can learn the
nuances of sophisticated strategy, style, clear thinking, and persuasive speech from
Vocable Communications.