Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Styles and tastes of reasoning

The choice of reasons we offer and accept for our beliefs and actions is without a doubt also a question of convention. Conventions concerning 'valid' or 'interesting' arguments and ways of justifying beliefs are at least partially dependent upon styles or tastes.What we consider to constitute acceptable justifications depend upon conventions.

For example, how do we reason about the 'quality' or legitimacy of academics? Previously, the judgments would have been based on the reading of key works, scholar affiliation, and various other sources of reputation. Today, increasingly the reasoning concerning academics is driven by numeric indices -- citation counts, numbers of A-publications, etc. The taste for quantified reasoning has spread and penetrated most areas of life now.

Unfortunately, humans seem to have a natural taste for the unconditional. This is what I mean. If possible, the private inferences and public arguments are grounded on beliefs and values that are absolute and unconditional. Such behavior is most emphasized in moral reasoning, where (quite naturally) we want to base our behavior on unconditional principles (e.g. the golden rule). Reasoning based on unconditional principles constitutes essentially fundamentalism. Beyond moral fundamentalism (which is not always disasterous) the love for the unconditional is evident in substantive areas, including 'market fundamentalism'. Holding the principles of free markets as unconditional guidelines for reasoning about choices and actions is enticing but inevitably leads to 'unreasonable' prescriptions.

The phrase 'taste for the unconditional' comes from Nietzsche (in Beyond Good and Evil), where it is mentioned in passing. For Nietzsche the tendency (of youth, in his mind) to rely on unconditional premises in reasoning about one's opinions and beliefs is not merely a bad taste, but 'the worst of all tastes'. Are managers victims of this bad taste? Or might such bad taste is in fact beneficial in politics and business? It certainly seems that many management gurus embrace and catalyze such bad taste by emphasizing the need of managers to 'focus on core competencies' (Hamel & Prahalad) or orient the decision making in their corporations around simple 'rules of thumb' (Eisenhardt & Martin).

Finally, some styles of reasoning are specifically related to social settings. In addition to monologies we have dialectical and dialogical ways of reasoning. The Blogger statistics suggest that there are dozens of page hits, but there are yet no comments on any of the blog texts. My reasoning would obviously be greatly enhanced by the introduction of more dialogue.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reasoning about threats and opportunities

When I started to write this blog, I pondered what are would count as the most common approaches to reasoning within organization theory and strategy. While institutional theory probably wins with a number of key arguments relating to how people think, strategic issue framing is certainly centrally connected to how managers and organizations reason. In 1987 Dutton & Jackson suggested that the way managers perceive events or changes influences how they respond to them. That is, if something counts as a threat then it tends to trigger reasoning that leads to altogether different actions than if that something counts as an opportunity.

This viewpoint draws on Staw's amazingly good 1981 paper on Threat Rigidity Effects. Staw argues that when an individual, a group, or an organization faces a considerable threat (a radical change) their premises to reason rationally are influenced. On individual level, stress and anxiety reduce ability to process information and reason about alternatives. On collective levels, managers faced with threat seek to restrict information and centralize control in order to effectively control the threatened organization (moreover, threats increase group pressures to cohesion and organizational pressures for efficiency). Naturally, the centralization of control towards the top managers is rather detrimental when an organization needs to improvize a novel and creative response to cope with a radical external change.

From the perspective of reasoning, threats to the organizations and individuals seem to change the individual and collective ability to link beliefs and observations as reasonable justifications for proper actions. Threats (when associated with stress) prevent individuals from exploring initially uncertain courses of action that might otherwise provide solutions. Threats also prevent the management in the organization from engaging in typical open discourse about the available alternatives.

This is all good and well, but do framings (opportunity/threat) matter in real life? This is very very difficult to study because the framings are dependent on the content of the events. In scientific jargon, the framing is endogenously determined (by the content of the event). The initial natural solution would be to device a research setting examining the responses of numerous organizations to a single event that is equal to all actors. Yet, the same event is not the same event for every actor. Effects that events have are always relational, and thus the framing of a common event (e.g. Lehman Brothers) by different corporations as threats or opportunities depends in part in how the organization is influenced by it. Heat wave is objectively a single event, but it is much more of a threat to pensioners than teenagers. Teenagers will inevitably frame a heat wave as an opportunity (to go to the beach, perhaps) and pensioners will inevitably frame it as a threat. Not surprisingly, empirical research will find that those with threat framing have more conservative responses and fare worse.

Whether an event is a threat or an opportunity to us or our organizations influences how we reason about it. However, the initial classification itself is based on our reasoning concerning the event.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some disciplinary approaches to reasoning

Reasoning is a stunningly complex topic -- how humans think. How can such a question ever be answered? Well, the approaches have been wildly different.

In cognitive psychology, researchers have focused on anthropological regularities, ways in which human reasoning is biased and deviates from the 'objectively correct'. Pioneered and popularized by Nobel-prize winning Kahneman as behavioral economics, the psychological work on reasoning seeks to explain how people reason answers to problems. The key point here is to focus on reasoning tasks that have an objectively correct answer, commonly probabiliities and set theoretical puzzles (famously, people judging that Linda is more likely to be a feminist bank clerk than to be merely a bank clerk).

In rhetoric, scholars (e.g. Toulmin's 1979 book, An Introduction to Reasoning) have looked at ways people reason in arguments, through discourse. In contrast to the kind of positivist studies of cognitive psychologists, this endeavor is largely descriptive. D.N. Walton has done enormous job in describing "argumentation schemes" -- ways through which people explicate their reasoning to one and other. Of course the study of rhetoric is also normative in a sense that some forms of arguments are fallacious and some are acceptable. Yet, a gray area exist: for example, slipperly slope arguments are commonly fallacious (unfair), but in some cases valid (whether they have a point seems to be genuinely an empirical rather than a philosophical question).

Both psychological and rhetoric work assume that proper reasoning is schematically correct and somehow independent of the content. This is a key assumption in producing generalizable scientific knowledge about how we think. Alternatively, we might conclude that this is simply not possible. This is what work on moral reasoning tends to do (Toulmin's 2001 book 'Return to reason' takes this approach). If reasoning is about fitting premises to valid conclusions, it might just be that the content of the beliefs we hold form premises that cannot be linked mechanistically to any predetermined set of conclusions. Moral principles can lead to a range of conclusions -- often because they spawn contradictions that escape unique resolutions. Religion can justify war and peace, and no form of 'moral calculus' will tell an artificial intelligence system what the 'correct' answer is.

This is a very disappointing view from the perspective of generalizable science. If our thinking is driven by rather idiosyncratic beliefs that can be used in a variety of ways not easily explained from a universalistic normative or descriptive viewpoint, there is only so much we can do with reasoning. I believe this is largely the case in areas well beyond ethics and morality. Managers and organizations more broadly are reasonable and rational, but there is no generic way to explain the uniquely most rational conclusion to be had from the commonly held/shared beliefs. Premises are connected to conclusions in ways that are neither arbitrary nor fully predictable based on some universal principles. Reasoning is messy, but not messy enough to be ignored.

These are my premises. There is a place and need for psychological study of 'biases' in human reasoning, but such biases are not the whole deal about reasoning. There is a need for a deeper understanding of generic rhetorical forms of reasoning and argumentation but these do not capture all that is relevant either. Reasoning is, to use some terrible jargon, more semantic than syntagmatic. This is the approach Foucault took in his genealogical work on rationalities and 'episteme'. I do not think his ambitious attemps that genelizable insight were very believable, but that is a topic for another posting...