Why don’t logical people listen to logic?

I have been told that I am a very logical, analytical person, but I would say that is only about 43% right.

To demonstrate my grasp of sound logic, I want to present my argument that assessing an argument logically will often not lead to the best conclusion.

Let’s start by defining logic. I typed “meaning of logic” into google and got this response, which I can take as correct because it came from Google:

“Reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity.”

Google when asked to provide the meaning of “logic”

Of course I did not apply much logic here, I simply accepted the authority of Google, in order to start with a common understanding.

Here, in that definition, is the first weak point in applying logic in a logical way.

The term “Strict rules of validity” is an important part in assessing something logically – I must decide when an argument is valid and when it is not, so that I can assess it properly. To do this is right and proper that I apply some rules to determine “valid” or sensible. The problem comes when one person applies one set of rules to create an argument and another person assesses that argument by a different “strict set of rules”.

Let me demonstrate by comparing my decision making rules to those typically applied by my wife.

I tend to make up my mind quickly and then change my mind quickly. My wife tends to want more detailed information, which seems logical enough.

When we go shopping for a shirt, for example, I see a nice one and say “perfect – that is the shirt I will buy.” This is not at all what my wife is thinking though, because she knows that there are likely to be better shirts that we have not considered yet. Hence, to my wife, our expedition has just begun.

Pure Rational (my wife)Bounded rational (me)
Wants to define decision criteria, assemble multiple alternatives and consider all relevant informationAssesses alternatives until one is good enough and then wants to move onto the next issue
My wife is rational but I am bounded rational

In this scenario, it would be rational to define the right criteria, assess the alternatives and then consider a great deal of relevant data such as cost, durability, fashion, stain protection, washability etc. At least that is the approach a rational person takes.

However, with limited “shopping energy” available, I only want to shop until I find a “good enough” shirt at a “good enough” price. Hence, as a bounded rational person I spend sufficient time (11 minutes) to the problem in order to find the first acceptable solution.

You can see how there might be potential disagreements when my wife realises that I have drifted off to a bookshop or cafe when there are still potentially awesome shirts that remain undiscovered.

It is a small difference iun rules, but it could be enough for a misunderstanding:

  • My rule is stop when you have a sufficiently good answer;
  • my wife’s is – analyse the available information properly until you find the best answer.

Which approach is better? Is either wrong?

OK, you might say that the answer is to assess the cost of energy and money needed to search for a shirt and then compare this the the expected marginal utility of purchasing a superior shirt – but I have probably wandered off to find a new science fiction book by them time you can explain that.

Actually, my wife and I can argue rationally about how much energy to spend shopping for the shirt.

Or are we – we often base our decision on “who cares the most” and let them make the call. For example if the shirt is for a wedding then my wife will make sure there is a good decision. If the shirt is a t-shirt to wear on weekends, then I make the call. Would you call that logical?

It would be fine if everyone stuck to these rules:

  • Analyse properly to come to the best result possible; or
  • Analyse until you reach an acceptable result and then stop; or
  • Agree who makes the call and let them decide what logic to use.

That would be great, except that I often rely on instinct rather than logic:

“Instinct is an innate, typically fixed pattern of behaviour in animals in response to certain stimuli”

Google again – this time when I asked for the meaning of “instinct.”

When I see a nice shirt I buy it, without really considering shirt/pant alignment or fashion adaptability based on current wardrobe trends, or other criteria that my wife no doubt understands. This probably makes me a frustrating partner when if comes to shopping.

When I was younger I assumed that logical decisions were always superior to relying on instinct and that if a problem was important enough, that “data based” and “rational” decisions were the way to go.

I have become less convinced of that over time though (hence I am now only about 43% analytical).

It is not just that some decisions are too trivial for data gathering and assessment. Rather it is that some decisions are complex and the data is hard to find, while others are consistent with problems I have solved before.

So as I get older, I find that I rely more on experience and “gut feel” to make decisions, or at least warn me when to stop and assess what we have missed. I have found that logical problem solving relies in the quality of the evidence available and on our understanding of cause and effect. Many times something “feels wrong” and I can only later identify what it is.

I have also found that some decisions depend on our shared values and that “logical” assessment can hide the ethical and value based criteria that really should impact some decisions. If you are interested, you can explore the reasons that Enron went bankrupt many years ago. They were big on “intellectual purity” and “economical purity” which mean parking emotions while making sound, rational decisions. It seemed to work well for them for a while, though they did go bankrupt, some of the bosses went to jail and most of their ex employees were tarred with the negative brand of “Enron.”

But I am not arguing for emotion here, merely saying that instinct is, at times, better than structured “logical” thinking, based on defined rules of problem solving.

This is particularly true in situations where either I

  • Have a lot of experience in the subject matter; or
  • I believe that it will be better to try something, observe the result and learn, rather than hesitate to gather data. I have often found myself arguing that we should try something and assess the outcome rather than gathering and analysing more information in more detail.

That is fine, if you agree with me.

Here is a problem though – if you are logical and want to assess the situation, I sometimes jump to the conclusion and stop listening to you because I know the answer (or think I do).

This annoys people who want more evidence, but not as much as they can annoy me when they cite evidence that does not seem to relate to what we are talking about. So I start explaining my approach (“give it a go and see what happens”) instead of listening.

Even if my approach is right though, you probably won’t be listening to me either, unless you believe that I have heard you (which I haven’t), given sufficient weight to your case (which I haven’t) and then responded sensibly (which, of course, I have).

So logically, you will not listen to my response and you will start repeating your logical, but annoying reasoning. Meanwhile, I instinctively start to put forward compelling arguments without seeking to learn your view.

That scenario is a disaster – two potentially good enough responses both delayed by a lack of listening.

OK – you probably know instinctively that the answer is to start by listening and sharing our views.

That sounds sensible but is not so easy when you are sure the other person is wrong, or that they did not understand your view.

Instinct based decisionRational decision (bounded or not)
A quick call based on limited evidence evaluated instantly, based on years of experience and sound judgement in the areaA painfully slow process of gathering more information and assessing it carefully when the instinctive decision was right anyway
A slightly biased take on things

Anyway we can research logical assessment versus instinct all you want and we will probably just find our that logic is better, except when instinct is … and since I am a bounded rational person that is good enough for me.

The more important point is that both people might have valid, but different approaches to solving the problem or reaching the decision. Talking more or even delaying the decision will be pointless unless complemented by mutual listening and the formation of a shared understanding of both the problem and the approach we can use to solving it. Listening to the argument without understanding the thinking process that supports the argument.

So let’s move on. I can win arguments with my wife, in theory at least, as long as we both explain our points clearly and then agree that she is right which case is stronger. Fortunately this works well at home because we understand how the other thinks, or we know to ask.

Unfortunately though, I have found that it can be harder at work, because there seem to be even more different sets of “rules of validity” involved in the game of collaboration.

Procedural decision makerTrusts her team
Looks for the legitimate answer– based on procedures, standards, guidelines and precedentWill back the decision made by a team member or key stakeholder
Is it logical to agree to follow procedure?

I used to do what I thought was right, based on a logical assessment of the facts and that worked pretty well in some situations.

Over time though, I noticed that other people were getting annoyed. They would start asking “what precedent does this set?” or “what did we do last time?” I did not give much weight to these questions because I thought that the right answer was right, whether or not it is what we had done in the past.

However I caused some unwanted conflict when I became a manager and I would exercise sound, but inconsistent judgement as I roamed through the company.

I have always had a preference for deciding what should be done “one the merits of this particular case” more compelling than “the agreed way that we solve this type of problem in the past.” Yet, for many people at work, seemingly inconsistent outcomes equate to injustice or arrogance. Even though I am a nice guy, I found that people needed to see consistency or “procedural justice” in order to buy into things.

So now there is a new challenge – should we develop procedures, standards and patterns, or just make decisions on a case by case basis based on the facts at hand. Of course the answer is that we should follow procedures when they make sense and align to what I want .. but ditch them when they are inconvenient for me (or is there a different set of rules that your think we should apply to make decisions valid).

Even though we are both doing what we think, we may get the wrong result; so now I have 4 simple rules for arguing logically.

For those who like logic, I will call this the “logic application algorithm”:State your case

  • Listen to the other person’s argument; and
  • Ask how they came to that view … and then listen again.
  • Reach agreement on the way to reach agreement if needed and then get back to being logical

If you only listen to their argument and it does not comply with your internal “rules of validity” then you will probably dismiss it. Similarly, they will, logically enough, dismiss your argument.

In fact you are having two different conversations and you are hoping to win by attrition (they run out of energy and just give in before you get frustrated and collapse).

That is,unless you pause to consider what makes the other person think the rules are and compare it to your rules.

Procedures and instinct are different bases for reaching a conclusion, but there are more.

Another basis for making a decision and it is called “authority.”

I have often been annoyed when people argue that “this is what the Scrum Guide says,” or “This is what the boss said,”. It almost seems like people are daring me to find a gap in their precious tome or their esteemed guru.

I have even called people’s bluff and called a senior manager to question their logic. I like to think I am a rebel that wields logic against antiquated institutions …. but that might not be how they see it.

In any case, I found out I am also prone to relying on “authority.”

My daughter pointed out that sometimes I respond to her with “what did you mother say” as if this changes the decision, when my daughter believes that the decision should be based purely on the sound information and persuasive arguments that she has presented.

You might think that my approach is due to me being more afraid of my wife than I am of my 9 year old daughter, but if you have seen my daughter in full flight in an argument then you know that I fear her passionate and deeply thought out arguments more than I fear my wife grumbling that I should have known better.

In fact I kind of like letting my daughter win if she can be convincing.

No – I actually ask “what did your mother say” because I feel a sense of being in a team with my wife.

I feel the same sense of being in a team at work. This impacts the rules for decision making whenever a member of my team, or in particular someone I have something to, me has been questioned or second-guessed by others.

People come to me with a simple question – “I want to discuss situation X” and my first question is “what did team member Y say?” They think it is valid to investigate the issue and I think it is valid to trust the call that was made. We are, again, playing by different rules. We can both be right, but we will, potentially, get the wrong outcome.

I have found that my loyalty to my team is both a strength and a weakness – I have gained great respect for backing people, especially when I have delegated a decision to them. I have also been at risk of playing favourites or being “tribal” in supporting a person rather than considering an argument that came from outside the team.

As you can see, it can get complicated because “logical people” are applying their own (sensible and rational) rules to assessing the argument or reaching a decision, but others are actually applying different (potentially sensible) rules reaching a different conclusion.

Note that I do not mean that someone can just say “I won the election according to my rules” or “It is not my bed-time because I do not want to go to bed (as my daughter explained more than once).” In this case I can understand their logic AND I can see that they are wrong.

The complication comes when they are applying a valid approach to deciding what is and is not valid. For example they are relying on:

  • Their own instinct and experience;
  • Pure rational assessment, requiring substantial facts and assessment criteria;
  • Bounded rational assessment, where they were rational up to the point of finding a good enough solution and then they stopped their assessment
  • Relying on an authority or procedure for making a decision; or
  • Trusting their friend/team or the person who got to make the call.

In all these cases it is not logical for me to simply appy my own logic and wait for them to get it.

So what can a logical person do? Given the evidence that people are thinking differently than me, I think it is logical to apply a simple algorithm to solve the problem:

You can start with a basic algorithm that assumes you will be understood:

  1. Listen to what they say
  2. Agree if they seem right or present your case if you disagree
  3. Win the argument and be happy

When that fails, which is mostly when the decision is important. Adopt a slightly longer algorithm:

  1. Listen to what they say. Repeat it back to them in summary form
  2. State that you have a different view (no need to mention that it is a better one)
  3. Quickly explain the basis of your reasoning (rely on authority, trust a friend, consider evidence) then ASK THEM HOW THEY CAME TO THEIR CONCLUSION
  4. Listen to their basis for reasoning and confirm that you understand it
  5. Seek agreement on how to view the problem as well as confirming what the problem(s) is/are.
  6. Finally, agree that their approach is fine, but explain that you are bored with their argument and going to do whatever you want. Or, if you want to reach agreement, then spend some time ensuring that you are able to hear and understand each other’s argument and then come to a conclusion.

In other words – worry more about reaching a real understanding of how you are each approaching the problem, and less about worrying about whether the argument itself makes sense to you (ie complies with your “strict principles of validity”).

Then if they are wrong and it is indeed their bed time or they have indeed lost the election, then you know where you stand. Even better, if they are thinking differently to you, but in a useful way, then you are sharing multiple approaches to solving the problem. This seems to be a more logical approach than just applying your own, entirely sound, logic.


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