An Introduction to Reasoning

2 Reasoning as a Social Process

Section 1: Introduction

As we saw in the last chapter, reasoning is a process we use to update our system of beliefs.  This process is often, in addition, a social one.  In fact, other people are probably the most important influence on our thinking.  For example, we learn a lot from what we are told, or read in the news, or see online.  Moreover, we seek the advice and guidance of others, we bounce our ideas off of other people to see if they make sense, and we work together to solve problems or answer questions.  We are constantly looking to, and engaging with, other people in order to achieve our goals and follow our interests.  In light of this, we will focus on a particularly important way that we engage with one another that we will call cooperative dialogue.  Cooperative dialogue is a fundamental form of communication that is especially conducive to learning from others.  It turns out, however, that in contexts of disagreement or controversy we are liable to unnecessarily abandon cooperative dialogue.  In this chapter, we take a look at this form of communication, explain why we tend to abandon it, and offer some guidelines for sustaining cooperation through difficult social contexts.

Section 2: Cooperative Dialogue

Cooperative dialogue, as we will understand it, is a form of communication between two or more people that has at its heart a shared effort to learn, understand, figure out, or decide something.  In order to illustrate the idea, let’s start with a simple case of communication.

Ex. 1: You are in a coffee shop, and are waiting for an important email.  You’d like to access the shop’s wifi, and ask for the password.  The employee gives it to you.

This everyday interaction is a cooperative dialogue—though a brief one.  What makes this a cooperative dialogue is that you made a request for information and the employee cooperated with that request.  Had the employee ignored you, responded sarcastically, or lied to you this would not have been a case of cooperative dialogue.

The inquiry in Ex. 1 has a clear and straightforward answer which employee knows and can easily share.  In many instances of cooperative dialogue, however, this is not the case.

Ex. 2: You are a college student trying to decide whether you should major in business and minor in art or to double major.  You can see costs and benefits of both options, and go to talk to your academic advisor about it.  You sit down with your advisor and she raises a number of relevant issues and shares her experience with you.

This is a complicated decision, and what you are looking for in this case is a deeper understanding of the options, not for your advisor to tell you what to do.  The cooperative dialogue in this case is a sustained conversation with the shared goal of an informed decision.

In the examples above, one person is looking directly to another for answers or guidance.  However, we often cooperatively engage with other people who do not necessarily know or understand what we are inquiring about, but are either themselves interested or are willing to talk with us about the issue.  That is, in many cases of cooperative dialogue, nobody involved can authoritatively answer the question at hand.  Consider the following example:

Ex. 3:

Sofia: Did you hear that Ian and Isabel broke up?

Alex: No.  What happened?

Sofia: I don’t know, but I’d bet Isabel broke it off; I mean she never seemed all that into Ian.

Alex: Maybe you are right, I saw her ignore his phone calls a couple of times last week. But on the other hand, she was just telling me the other day about her plans to throw him a surprise party for his birthday next week.

Sofia: hmm…maybe something happened between them recently.

In this case, Alex and Sofia are engaging in a shared inquiry, and each person is bringing what they know to the conversation in an effort to answer the question.  Again, this is an everyday example, but the same will go for more significant or controversial kinds of inquiry.  Imagine Alex and Sofia raising questions about whether Grandpa needs to move into assisted-living, what to think about a local ballot measure, or whether to take the job-offer.  In each case, Alex and Sofia will cooperatively engage with one another to the extent that they bring their ideas to together in order to make progress with the inquiry.

The examples of cooperative dialogue above are all in-person conversations, but we can cooperatively engage with people by text, email, or on social media as well.  In addition, it is important to consider one other kind of cooperative dialogue. Consider a typical reading assignment for a college course.  In the kinds of texts normally assigned, the author is trying to share what they know, and thereby help the reader understand something in particular.  A cooperative dialogue with the author can occur in this context if, in reading the assignment, we share in the effort to understand.  Indeed, this is exactly what your teacher is hoping for in giving you the assignment in the first place!  That is, your teacher is hoping that you’ll use the text as a source of information for deeper understanding, or treat the text as an interlocutor in a shared inquiry.

Admittedly, a cooperative dialogue with a text is very different from an in-person conversation; after all, the author can’t answer your questions or objections.  Nevertheless, a reader can engage with a text by seeking to understand, evaluate, and question the author’s claims just as we could in conversation.  As long as the reader’s effort is to better understand or decide something, the conditions for cooperative dialogue have been met.

Section 3: Cooperative Disagreement

Let us look at another kind of cooperative dialogue: cooperative disagreement.  This might strike you as an oxymoron: how can two people cooperate and disagree at the same time?  In order to clarify, consider the fact that disagreements raise all kinds of questions.  For example:

“Why don’t we agree?  I believe this is true; how could somebody deny this?  What are my reasons for thinking this in the first place?  Are those reasons really as good as I think they are?  Do we disagree because I know something he doesn’t?  Wait…what if he knows something I don’t!?”

These are valuable questions because answering them can (i) reveal that we’ve missed something or otherwise made a mistake, and (ii) thereby put us in a position to correct ourselves.  That is, we can learn a lot from thinking about disagreement, and often the best way to do this is to engage with those who disagree (as opposed to, say, speculating about their reasons).  Thus, in a cooperative disagreement disputants work together for the sake of understanding the disagreement, and ultimately for the sake of deeper understanding of the disputed issue overall.  This means, among other things, that the disputants in a cooperative disagreement make the effort to articulate why they disagree, and then discuss those reasons.  Not all cases of disagreement are instances of cooperative dialogue; in fact, many are not.  As we will see, cooperative disagreements can be difficult to sustain.  This is too bad, because, again, disagreement is an especially good opportunity for increased understanding and better decision making.  Let’s take a look at an example.

Ex. 4:

Liam: The new policy of keeping the doors to the dorm locked at all times is totally ridiculous. It is a real pain… Yesterday, I forgot my keys and had to call a friend to let me in, and I ended up being late for class. I mean, it is not like there have been many problems with non-students getting into the dorm anyway.

Minh: I think this policy is great, and I will tell you why.  According to my RA there have been at least 5 incidents already this semester.  Keeping the doors locked makes me feel safer. Also, the dorm is not a public building and it shouldn’t be open to the public.

In this case, Minh not only disagrees with Liam, but is willing to seek a cooperative dialogue with him.  She explains why she disagrees, and it turns out that Minh knows something that Liam does not.  Does the fact that there have been more incidents than Liam knew about change his view?  It might, but it surely wouldn’t have if Minh hadn’t been willing to engage with Liam in this way.

Section 4: Cooperative Persuasion

We often engage with each other in order to persuade.  Our aim in persuasive contexts is to get someone else to believe or act in a particular way.  So, what is the relationship between cooperative dialogue and persuasion?  Suppose that a friend is trying to persuade you to vote for a particular candidate.  Can they do so cooperatively?  Sure.  Again, the heart of cooperative dialogue has to do with a shared effort to figure out or decide something, and doing so is consistent with also trying to persuade another person.  Suppose that your friend thinks that Sandy Berners is the best candidate in an upcoming election, and has a clear set of reasons for this belief.  If, in sharing those reasons with you she is honestly trying to give you what she regards as good reasons for supporting this candidate, then she really is trying to help you understand and decide.  If, however, her goal is to get you to support Sandy Berners regardless of whether you do so for what she would regard as good reasons, then she isn’t cooperating with you, she is trying to manipulate you.

Here is another case: the honest realtor.  Imagine that you are shopping for a new house and have talked with a realtor about your budget and what you are looking for.  Taking your interests, budget, and available inventory into account, he identifies several houses you might like.  If, however, the realtor’s primary goal is to sell a particular house and tries to talk you into it knowing full well that it isn’t what you are looking for, then this dialogue is not a cooperative one. After all, in this case, he is not trying to help you make a good decision, but is trying to help himself by getting you to make a decision that is in his interest.

These examples show that there are cases of cooperative persuasion.  Again, not all cases of persuasion are cooperative dialogues.  The difference has to do with whether their goal is to persuade you by means of helping you to understand something in order to make a good decision, or merely to get you to believe or act in accordance with their wishes.

Section 5: Obstacles to Cooperative Dialogue

Cooperative dialogue is an easy and natural form of communication.  When other people ask us questions, we typically do our best to help them out if we can, and are usually happy to weigh-in with our view when an interesting question or issue is raised by friends, relatives, or colleagues.  In addition to being easy and natural, cooperative dialogue is also extremely useful.  After all, through cooperative dialogue we are able to bring the knowledge and experience of multiple people to bear on understanding, figuring out, or deciding something.

However, we do not always seek cooperative dialogue—even when we could and when it would be in our interest to do so.  Why not?  The short answer is that we have competing interests and goals besides improved understanding or decision-making.  Think for example, of the honest realtor who really needs a sale.  As his need for a sale grows, it can become more and more difficult for him to engage with homebuyers in a cooperative way.  It is not difficult to think of other cases like this, but it is important to note that not all competing interests are financial.  Another significant obstacle to cooperative dialogue, and the one we will focus on here, has to do with the social value of ideas.  We care what other people think about us, and this can affect how we decide to engage with them.  We want other people to think highly of us, or at least not think poorly of us, and so we sometimes avoid disagreeing with others or even raising topics that might be controversial.  The worry is that if we disagree or express an alternative viewpoint others will think less of us.  As a result, we often “go along to get along” instead of contributing to the conversation.  This worry is enshrined in the following piece of advice: in polite conversation its best to avoid talking about money, politics, or religion.

two people arguing
“JoA in an argument” by Anders V CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Let’s dig a little deeper into this, and start by focusing on the claim that getting along with others means avoiding conversations about money, religion, and politics.  Lying behind this piece of advice is the fact that people often have conflicting and emotionally charged views about these topics.  Our beliefs about these subjects can be especially important to us because they tend to be tied to how we see ourselves, and how we see our place in the broader community.  Let us call these kinds of beliefs, identity-beliefs.  Identity-beliefs need not be tied exclusively to our views about money, or politics, or religion.  They might be tied to facts about where we live (e.g. “I’m a New Yorker through and through), what we do for a job (e.g. physician, farmer, police officer), the kinds of food we eat (e.g. vegetarian), or even to the kinds of products we purchase (e.g. “I don’t buy PCs; I am an Apple-person”), among many others.  Because they are tied to our self-image, a criticism, objection, or challenge to one of our identity-beliefs can feel like a criticism, objection, or challenge, to who we are, and a disagreement about one of these beliefs can become a defense of one’s character or identity.

There is another side to this as well.  We have a natural tendency to tie a person’s ideas or beliefs to who they are as a person, and a consequence of this tendency is a predisposition to vilify those who object to, or challenge, our identity-beliefs.  We vilify another person when we take the fact that they disagree with us as evidence that there is something wrong with them—normally in terms of some defect in their intelligence or character.[1]  Thus, we might think that people who disagree with us are ignorant, naïve, or malicious, in which case we’ll think there is nothing to learn from them and no reason to talk with them in the first place.  We are left with the ironic fact that we tend to do to others precisely what we fear they will do to us!

In light of all this, it isn’t surprising that we often avoid disagreement and controversial topics.  After all, nobody likes to be criticized or be called on to defend who they are, especially if they think there is no point to engaging anyway (since they’ve judged that the only reason that they disagree is because they are ignorant or mean).  Indeed, in many contexts it makes perfect sense to “go along to get along.”  Not always, however.  Money, politics, and religion, while divisive, are also important elements of our world—elements that we need to deal with as we navigate our daily lives.  We should be thinking about these issues, and considering other’s opinions can help us see things we’ve missed and refine our own views.  But how do we do that?  That is, how can we cooperatively dialogue with others when controversial topics are on the table or when people have strong disagreements?

Section 6: Guidelines for Engaging in and Sustaining Cooperative Dialogue

Cooperative dialogue is useful to us, so let us briefly outline some guidelines for engaging in and sustaining cooperative dialogue.  As noted above, cooperative dialogue is particularly difficult in cases of disagreement or possible disagreement (for example, conversations about controversial issues).  So, we will limit our discussion of guidelines that are especially relevant in these contexts.

Guideline #1: Respect your interlocutor

Cooperation is difficult, if not impossible, without some degree of mutual respect, and this is probably the single most important guideline. To respect your interlocutor is to treat them as you would like to be treated in the same circumstance.  Put in different terms, Guideline #1 urges us to follow what we might call The Golden Rule of Cooperative Dialogue.  In a cooperative dialogue, and especially in a disagreement, we want our interlocutor to listen intently, to make an effort to understand what we are saying, and to interpret us in a fair and plausible way (among other things).  Consequently, we should make the effort to engage with our interlocutors similarly, to do our best to charitably interpret their viewpoint, and to seek clarification when what is said is ambiguous or sounds implausible to you.  It is very important to note that to respect somebody in this way does not mean that you have to like them or agree with them.  In this way, cooperative dialogue is like a lot of other cooperative activities.  A person does not have to be friends with or share the political or religious beliefs with their teammates in an athletic competition, for example.  Successful teams can put aside differences that are not relevant to achieving their goals, and the same goes for sustaining cooperative dialogue through disagreement.

Guideline #2: Remember that we are all fallible

We all make mistakes.  Our experience is limited, we are almost always working with incomplete information, and we can be inattentive to or misremember relevant facts.  Moreover, it can be easy to misunderstand or misinterpret others, we are prone to bias, and sometimes we simply reason poorly.  Further, our ability to discuss ideas with one another is limited: some subjects or topics are difficult to talk about, and sometimes it is difficult to isolate why we believe what we believe.  The fact that we are fallible in these ways doesn’t mean that some people aren’t more or less knowledgeable than others, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t have strongly held beliefs.  It does mean, however, that even decent, well-meaning, and intelligent people can end up being wrong, or making poor decisions, or having a hard time discussing certain ideas.  It also means that people with conflicting beliefs can both be reasonable in their beliefs.  Consider the following case.

Ex. 5:

Carlos: You want to get some lunch?  The cafeteria is still open.

Nick: I would, but, uhh, it is closed.  It is 1:45 and it closes at 1:30.

Carlos: Right, but my roommate works over there, and told me that since there is a special event this afternoon, the cafeteria would be open an extra hour.

Nick thinks that Carlos is mistaken in thinking that they can still get some lunch, and Nick has good reason—namely that it is almost always closed at this time of day.  Nevertheless, in this case it is Nick who is mistaken because he is missing relevant information, information that Carlos has.  Both Carlos and Nick make reasonable inferences, but since they are reasoning from different information, they end up with conflicting beliefs.  This is a simple case, and it important to emphasize that people can have widely divergent histories, experiences, and background knowledge, and consequently, widely divergent beliefs and ways of understanding the world.  That is, controversy and disagreement are a natural consequence of the inherent limitations of our knowledge and experience.  In fact, it is precisely because we are fallible in these ways that cooperative dialogue is so important!  By drawing on other people’s thinking and experience and comparing it with our own we can fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge and experience, check our reasoning, and more broadly correct for our intellectual liabilities.

Guideline #3: Separate people from their ideas, and focus the discussion on the reasons behind disputed ideas

The chief obstacle to cooperative dialogue noted above lies in the fact that we have a natural tendency to connect a person’s beliefs or ideas to their character.  This is what leads us to vilify those who disagree with us and, at the same time, to fear others will vilify us if we disagree.  According to Guideline #3, we should focus our attention on the ideas and arguments in question, and not a person’s motives, background, or character. Here is an example:

Ex. 6:

Jacob: I saw that the school decided to fund a new study-abroad scholarship instead of refurbishing the stands for the soccer fields.

Anna: What a waste.  The school shouldn’t have to sponsor study-abroad.  Anybody can study abroad if they really want to.  I mean, if you really want it, then you’ll find a way.

Jacob: Are you serious?  You only think that because you are rich!

Jacob clearly disagrees with Anna, but instead of objecting to her reason for thinking that funding the study-abroad scholarship is wasteful, he makes the objection about her.  This puts Anna in a position to be defensive, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she decided to disengage from this conversation.  It is important to see, however, that this would be a missed opportunity.  After all, from Jacob’s perspective Anna is reasoning on the basis of a mistake, and pointing this out is an opportunity to improve Anna’s understanding and perhaps change her mind.

It is important to be clear that who we are, the experiences we’ve had, and where we’ve grown up are factors that shape the ways that we think about the world.  Maybe Anna really does believe this because she comes from a wealthy family, and so doesn’t understand the struggles of those less well-off.  Nevertheless, if we want to cooperatively engage with other people we should, in most cases, set aside these kinds of considerations for the sake of sustaining the dialogue.  The point is not to set them aside because they are irrelevant, but because drawing on them easily transforms a conversation about ideas into a challenge to who a person is.  In this case, Jacob misses out on the opportunity to share his reasons for disagreeing with Anna—reasons that might persuade Anna to change her mind.  This is not to say that in cooperative dialogue we can never talk about a person’s motives or experience or character.  We can; but it can be difficult to do so without creating an atmosphere of defensiveness that undermines the dialogue.

This guideline applies to criticisms or objections leveled at our beliefs as well.  If you are trying to engage cooperatively, then you need to be open to hearing criticism without taking it personally.  When we find ourselves taking something personally, and getting irritated, insulted, or offended, we need to give ourselves a moment to think about whether the criticism really is personal or not.  We miss out if we break off an otherwise promising conversation because we’ve misinterpreted our interlocutor’s criticism.     Of course, sometimes it really is personal, and we may way want to break off the conversation.  It is worth, adding, however, that even if the criticism is personal, it might be worth trying to continue to cooperatively engage.  After all, some conversations and disagreements are really important to get out into the open, and by refusing to take criticism personally, we can show our interlocutor that we are serious about having a cooperative dialogue.

Guideline #4: Choose your words carefully

Separating people from their ideas means more than just setting aside our interlocutor’s motives, background, or character, it also means being careful about how we express our disagreement.  Because people have a natural tendency to hear criticism as a personal attack, we should try to communicate and reinforce that our disagreement is only at the level of ideas in the way that we speak.  There are all kinds of ways that you might do this.  Interpersonal dynamics are complicated, however, and there is no rulebook or simple formula here.  To give just one example of the complications involved, think about the way you can express a disagreement with your best friend as compared to the way you can express it with a parent or teacher or boss.  That said, here are a few concrete suggestions to illustrate some of the techniques you might use.

First, and perhaps most obviously, in expressing your disagreement you can explicitly direct it toward an idea.  There can be a big difference in the mind of your interlocutor between hearing “I disagree with you”, “I disagree with your claim that…, and “I disagree with the claim that…”.  The first example suggests the disagreement is about the person.  The second is less suggestive, but still identifies the claim as ‘yours’ thereby leaving open a connection between the disagreement and the person.  The third claim, in contrast, connects the disagreement to an idea—an idea that could have been expressed by anybody.

Second, try to frame your disagreement within a broader context of agreement.  By contextualizing your disagreement in this way you not only clarify the locus of disagreement, but show that you and your interlocutor have common beliefs or values.  Thus, you might add: “I think you are right that X is a serious problem, but I disagree with the claim that it is the most pressing problem we have right now.”  Third, if you sincerely think your interlocutor has done something well, say so.  By identifying things that your interlocutor has done well, you show that you’ve been listening, and are being fair-minded in your engagement with them.  To continue with the example, you might say: “You’ve made a good case, and I think you are right that X is a serious problem, but…”  Admittedly, these are small changes, and they might not be appropriate for every situation, but they are changes that can make a difference.

Guideline #5: Don’t expect closure  

It is important to keep your expectations for the conversation in line with its cooperative character. A good cooperative disagreement can leave the dispute unsettled.  Indeed, what makes cooperative disagreement successful is not that it ends with agreement, but that the parties involved have a better sense for the roots of the disagreement, and have new perspectives and arguments to consider.   This can be difficult to keep in mind since, as we have seen, we have values and goals that can compete with our interest in increased understanding, and it can be easy to shift from one goal to another without noticing it.  As soon as our conversational goal becomes looking smart, or saving face, or getting the other person to agree or capitulate for example, we have slipped from cooperation to some other kind of dialogue.

A fortune from a fortune cookie that says the purpose of argument is not victory but progress
“The Purpose of Argument” by ImNotQuiteJack CC BY-SA 2.0

Section 7: Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, substantive cooperative dialogue and disagreement can be hard to find.  After all, it is not solely up to us—it takes two to cooperate, and sometimes we are surrounded by people who, for whatever reason, are not open to cooperating with us. What we can do, however, is work to foster a social environment that allows for cooperative dialogue and disagreement.  We can do so by practicing The Golden Rule of Cooperative Dialogue in our interactions with others.  By treating others in the way we’d like to be treated, we implicitly invite them to engage with us cooperatively.

It is important to take up one final question, namely: when should we seek cooperative dialogue?  There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.  It will depend on the issue at hand, the situation, and the people involved.  There are certainly cases in which an individual is obligated to seek cooperative dialogue.  Think of a general creating a battle plan.  Lives are on the line, and the general should draw on all the resources he or she can to come up with the best plan.  Of course, few cases are as serious as this one.  Moreover, there are many cases in which it doesn’t make sense to seek cooperative dialogue at all: trying to cooperatively engage with a bunch of internet trolls is a fool’s errand, for example.  More broadly speaking, if you’ve got good reasons for thinking that a person is not, or will not engage with you sincerely, then you’ve got good reason to break off or refrain from cooperative efforts.  Many situations fall between these two extremes, however, and thereby provide opportunities for cooperative dialogue.

Where does this leave us?  Cooperative dialogue can be a particularly effective way of learning about our world, and making better decisions.  We do not always pursue cooperative dialogue, however, and it can be especially difficult to maintain in cases of disagreement.  This is due, in large part, to the fact that we care what other people think about us, and fear that they will think less of us as people because we disagree.  As we’ve seen there are a number of techniques we can use to combat our natural inclination to connect a person’s ideas to their character, and to thereby sustain cooperation through disagreement and foster an environment that allows for greater cooperative engagement.


#1: Turn on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News and watch a few conversations.  In a paragraph or two describe at least one of the conversations you watched and say whether it was a cooperative dialogue or not.  Make sure to explain your thinking.

#2: Is cooperative dialogue or disagreement different on social media?  If so, how?   More generally, is cooperative dialogue or disagreement different or more complicated when the dialogue is public and other people can see it?  If so, how?

#3: Explain, in your own words, why cooperative disagreement is valuable.

#4: Think back to some of the difficult conversations you’ve had (or tried to have).  In general terms, what allowed the conversation to proceed?  If it didn’t work, why not?

#5: In Ex. 6 Jacob shuts down the conversation by making his objection personal.  What could Jacob have said in reply to Anna instead?

#6: According to Guideline #4, we need to choose our words carefully if we want to sustain a cooperative dialogue in a context of disagreement or controversy.  In addition to the practical suggestions listed above, what are some other specific phrases or techniques you can use to clearly separate people and ideas?  Give at least three examples.



  1. See Ichheiser, G. (1949). “Misunderstandings in human relations: A study in false social perception.” American Journal of Sociology 55 (Suppl.), 39.  More recent studies trace this phenomenon to our natural tendency to think that we see, understand, and interpret the world as it really is.  Given this, we reason that other intelligent people should see the world as we do, and when they don’t, it is their fault.  For a summary see Ross, L., Lepper, M. and Ward, A. (2010). “History of Social Psychology: Insights, Challenges, and Contributions to Theory and Application.” Handbook of Social Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.


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Arguments in Context by Thaddeus Robinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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