Reason-respecting tendency

May 2, 2020

People tend to want the answers, not the background information or reasoning to gain a better understanding. Asking the question “why?” can help us reason more.

Scenario 1: At a xerox machine, people would let others cut in line when they said “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I go before you, because I have to make some copies?” People failed to reason the line cutters.

Scenario 2: As adults, we learn that we should work hard because we are an integral part of the company. Employees tend to buy into this idea without asking why or how they are an integral part of the company. Are employees still an integral part of the organization during bad times?

What is Reason-Respecting Tendency?

We are more likely to comply with something or to learn something when we are given the “why” behind it. The why strengthens our learning but can be dangerous as we will often learn and comply even when the reason behind it is false.

One way to jump from linear to non-linear results is to think in first-principles. First-principles thinking can be adopted by asking a lot of questions. It is often called “reasoning from the first principles” by asking the question “why?” The idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. This is a best way to reverse-engineer hard problems that are challenging to understand.

This model is also referred as Why/Because, Pre-mortem: Assume Failure, Arguing from First Principle.


Aristotle used first-principles thinking to understand things around him. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined a first-principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements. — Aristotle

In 1970s, Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer conducted a study on the power of the word “because.” Langer had participants request to break in on a line of people waiting to use a busy xerox machine on a college campus. Langer had participants use three different worded requests to break in line.

  • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?” 60% of people let the participant to break in line
  • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” 93% of people let the participant to break in line
  • “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” 94% of people let the participant to break in line

Langer showed that when asking for a favor from a stranger, simply giving a reason for the request (because), even if it is artificial (because I have to make copies), greatly increases the odds of people complying.

Deep Analysis

Reasoning from first-principles is reasoning like a scientist. To reach a conclusion you puzzle together core facts and observations, kind of like a chef using raw ingredients to write a new recipe. Reasoning from first-principles can open up the door to creativity, learning, and better work results.

The other kind of reasoning — reasoning by analogy, happens when you look at the past experiences to clone and copy with a little personal tweak. But it is not original. It is kind of like a cook following an already written recipe with a personal tweak for his or her taste.

Reasoning boils down to creating vs copying or originality vs conformity.

Why is Reasoning From First-Principles Necessary?

Firstly, we love to have reasons as Langer's experiment proves people to comply. Therefore, it is important to make sure to share the reasons why the task is important before delegating. Charlie Munger shares the story of Carl Braun, the creator of CF Braun Engineering Company.

His rule for all the Braun Company’s communications was called the five W’s – you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn’t tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice. You might ask why that is so important? Well, again that’s a rule of psychology. Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they’ll understand it better, they’ll consider it more important, and they’ll be more likely to comply. Even if they don’t understand your reason, they’ll be more likely to comply. So there’s an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why. — Charlie Munger

Carl Braun knew the ideas got through when reasons for the ideas were meticulously laid out. Who was to do What, Where, When, Why and How.

Secondly, reason-respecting tendency is so strong that a requester can give meaningless or incorrect reasons which will make a person on receiving end to comply with orders and requests. Langer's experiment again proves this point. Is “I have to take some copies” really an important explanation for people to comply to let the person break in line?

Our need for making sense makes us believe in nonsensical artificial reasons. It turns out people are addicted to the word “because” and are just looking for answers not the reasons or a better understanding of it.

Charlie Munger shared Reason Respecting Tendency bias in his famous lecture Psychology of Human Misjudgement.

There is in man, particularly one in an advanced culture, a natural love of accurate cognition and a joy in its exercise. This accounts for the widespread popularity of crossword puzzles, other puzzles, and bridge and chess columns, as well as all games requiring mental skill. This tendency has an obvious implication. It makes man especially prone to learn well when a would-be teacher gives correct reasons for what is taught, instead of simply laying out the desired belief ex cathedra with no reasons given. Few practices, therefore, are wiser than not only thinking through reasons before giving orders but also communicating these reasons to the recipient of the general, learning is most easily assimilated and used when, lifelong, people consistently hang their experience, actual and vicarious, on a latticework of theory answering the question: Why? Unfortunately, Reason Respecting Tendency is so strong that even a person’s giving of meaningless or incorrect reasons will increase compliance with his orders and requests…This sort of unfortunate byproduct of Reason-Respecting Tendency is a conditioned reflex, based on a widespread appreciation of the importance of reasons. And, naturally, the practice of laying out various claptrap reasons is much used by commercial and cult “compliance practitioners” to help them get what they don’t deserve. — Charlie Munger

So what do you do to not get mis-influenced by nonsensical reasonings?

First Principles Thinking

To reverse engineer any complex problem use first-principles thinking by breaking down the problem into basic elements and then reassemble from the ground up. Asking “why” can remove all assumptions and misconceptions. It leaves you with basic elements. Elon Musk is well known for using first principles mindset.

You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that and then see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work. And it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past. It’s harder to think that way, though. — Elon Musk
I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past. — Elon Musk

Richard Feynman, a Noble prize winner, was also known for using first-principles to understand the basics.

I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile! — Richard Feynman

How to implement first-principles? There are three ways to implement first-principles thinking. First-principles thinking can be easy to describe, but quite difficult to practice. However, it is necessary to practice this mindset if we are trying to understand the world around us.

I. The Five Ws

The Five Ws are questions whose answers are considered basic in information gathering or problem solving. They are often mentioned in journalism, research and police investigations. Some authors also add a sixth question, how, to the list.

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. Where
  4. When
  5. Why

II. Socratic Questioning

Socratic questioning was named after Socrates and is a form of disciplined questioning to explore complex ideas, get to the truth of things, to explore problems, uncover assumptions and analyze concepts and to distinguish what we know from what we do not know. Plato was one of Socrates students. Plato described this rigorous method of teaching to explain that the teacher assumes an ignorant mindset in order to compel the student to assume the highest level of knowledge. This process stops from relying on gut and limits strong emotional responses.

The disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine ideas and be able to determine the validity of those ideas. — Socrates
  1. Getting students to clarify their thinking and explore the origin of their thinking. Examples: why do you say that? Could you explain further?
  2. Challenging students about assumptions. Examples: is this always the case? Why do you think that this assumption holds here?
  3. Providing evidence as a basis for arguments. Examples: Why do you say that? Is there reason to doubt this evidence?
  4. Discovering alternative viewpoints and perspectives and conflicts between contentions. Examples: what is the counter-argument? Can/did anyone see this another way?
  5. Exploring implications and consequences. Examples: But if...happened, what else would result? How does...affect...?
  6. Questioning the question. Examples: why do you think that I asked that question? Why was that question important? Which of your questions turned out to be the most useful?

III. The Feynman Technique

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman ensured he understood anything he studied better than anyone else. He applied four steps to his technique:

  1. Choose a concept you want to learn about.
  2. Pretend you are teaching it to someone else in plain language.
  3. Identify gaps in your explanation and go back to the source material to better understand it.
  4. Review and simplify further in simpler terms.

Kids continuously push their parents with questions, but the adults think it is stunning how quickly they learn. However, it is natural for kids to be curious and creative during their formative years because they are trying to understand the world around them through asking questions. Adults choose not to be creative because they fail to reason. Busy is the enemy of adults and as we grow older, we rely on general convention but this puts blinders on perspectives and thoughts because we outsource our thinking to someone else.

To defy conventional wisdom, we must think for ourselves and reason from first-principles. Analogies are great to understand a topic further, but they cannot replace the understanding of basic knowledge. Thinking in first-principles won't imprison us with someone else's thoughts. Doing this will unleash creative and original thinking.

I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying. One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to. — Elon Musk
As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble. Harrington Emerson
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