Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Why Listening Works

Our lab’s work on pedagogy and epistemic trust has kept me around Dan Sperber’s theory on human reasoning. It’s very different from most takes in psychology on our capacity to reason. Our ability to reason is very different from other species. It’s not clear that other species can internally mentally deliberate, and they certainly can’t deliberate amongst themselves without language. So, what caused the change? Why do we reason? The typical explanation for that adaptive toolbox is that we utilize it to better understand truth; this is not the argument that Dan Sperber makes. He argues that sharing information can be useful for purposes relevant to you, but also that information can be used for coalitional alignment. That is to say that reasoning can be used for working out one’s own personal truth, but additionaly can be used for purposes of persuasion—for making sure that others are on your side—even if you aren’t necessarily aware of the “side” of the argument that your coalition occupies. And coincidently, today I ran into an article by Peter Bregman that espoused the benefits of listening.

So here’s a thought on why listening might matter: in order to form a coalition you should be in agreement with whomever you are speaking with. Theater has some of the best rules in that regard, within the discipline of improv. One of the first rules of improv is never say “No.” Say, “Yes, and…” Why would that simple, intuitive rule often create great entertainment? Or, in other words, freedom. We don’t have to have a horse in every race. Sometimes it’s nice enough to agree and keep your opinion to yourself. This is an act of informational generosity. Listening can be a way to agree to stay within consensus for the purpose of future engagements—one’s in which we might need each other’s help—even when we disagree with the information being presented. “I don’t disagree with you, I just want to ensure our unity in the future.” So the next time someone you like tells you something about politics or religion that you don’t like, remember that disagreement may not be the best way to broach the subject. Merely listening, and not having an opinion can be highly beneficial to you.

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