Agent-Centered Reasoning
Draft, February 18, 2012
By Chas Crandon

"For the most part people are not curious except about themselves. Once a Canadian girl of Scottish blood told me a story that has bitten her and the telling bit me. She said that in the age of growing up when she felt that all eyes were on her and not favorably, so that she went from blushes to tears and back again, her Highland grandfather, observing her pain, said sharply, 'Ye wouldna be sae worrit wi' what folk think about ye if ye kenned how seldom they do.'"

- John Steinbeck1

More often than not, I am inclined to think I am right. Specifically, when I get into an argument, have a disagreement, or simply become frustrated or angry with another person, I usually think the other person is in error.

This may largely be driven by my own pretentiousness and egocentrism, but I think there is an element of this sentiment that many of us share. Specifically, I think we are all predisposed to engage in what I'll call "agent-centered" reasoning. I use this term to call attention to the fact our reasoning is necessarily our own, and is limited by our own knowledge and beliefs. I believe this produces a bias in any reasoning about the actions, behaviors, or perspectives of another person. This is not a bias that results from prejudice or emotion, but rather one that results from lack of complete knowledge of the situation - specifically, lack of complete knowledge of the thoughts and values of other people.

For example, consider a time you boarded a subway (or arrived at a bus stop) exhausted after a long day. You want nothing more than to sit down, and there is certainly enough room available in the seats - the other people just need to scoot over slightly. So you squeeze in and make room for yourself. Moments later, the woman to your left casts you a chilling glare, clearly annoyed by your pushiness. But what is she in a huff about! There clearly was enough room for you, and you're exhausted. You need a seat.

But now take the perspective of that annoyed woman. She too is exhausted from a long day, having been pushed around first by her husband, then her boss, and finally by her adolescent nightmares. She already feels cramped in this tiny, uncomfortable seat, and here you come and push her around just to make room for yourself.

It is easy to imagine how this story will be retold to friends later in the evening. From your perspective, you were right, and that woman was being a bitch - and your friends will agree. From her perspective, you were being some asshole punk, and she was rightfully frustrated - and her friends will agree.

This is a relatively inconsequential example, but it highlights a bias that permeates many of our social interactions. As a potentially more compelling example, consider James and Kate. James has hooked up with Kate several times, but is apprehensive about getting into a serious, long-term relationship. He likes Kate, but doesn't really love her, and has had bad experiences jumping too quickly into relationships with girls he hasn't really loved.

Kate, on the other hand, really would like James to be her boyfriend. She likes him, and while she also may not love him, she feels awkward and unsettled about having such a physical relationship with no strings attached. Though she puts on airs that she's fine having a causal relationship, she'd much rather have the comfort and security of a dedicated, committed relationship.

At some point, the casual relationship breaks down. It doesn't really matter who sets off the fight - it could be James, mad at Kate for pressuring him into a relationship, or it could be Kate, mad at James for not caring enough about her. Regardless, they will both leave the argument weary and broken - but also believing that they're right. James will vent to his friends about how ridiculous it is that Kate expects something serious when, from the beginning, he has been very explicit about not wanting anything serious. And Kate will be reassured by her friends that James is being totally unfair - how could he possibly expect them to hook up so many times without things getting serious?

Obviously both parties cannot be objectively correct. However, as both parties are biased by "agent-centered" reasoning, it makes sense why they come to opposing conclusions. As the name suggests, agent-centered reasoning is reasoning that builds from axioms and postulates based on the knowledge and experience of the person reasoning - the agent. The fact that James and Kate arrive at different conclusions is not the result of one or the other using faulty reasoning. It is the result of each of them building from a different base of knowledge and experience.

Specifically, James takes for granted his preferences and beliefs in his reasoning, but in many cases those preferences are not obvious or even apparent to Kate. The same can be said for the things that are important to Kate - James may simply not even know.

More importantly, though, even if Kate did know James' beliefs and preferences in detail, it is unclear how much importance she would place on them. James takes for granted, in his reasoning, that his preferences are of utmost importance, but this is not something that Kate would likely agree on. Similarly, Kate assumes her own preferences are very important, but we cannot assume that James places the same importance on them.

To put this a little more simply, we can say that when you are engaged in agent-centered reasoning, you fall victim to two fallacies:

  1. Belief that other people know what is important to you.
  2. Belief that other people care as much as you do about things that are important to you.

So in the case of James and Kate, James thinks Kate is being unreasonable - that is, not reasoning correctly - because he takes for granted knowledge about and care for the things that are important to him. But Kate likely does not know all of what is important to James, and if she did, it is unclear that she would prioritize those preferences in her reasoning. In fact, she would very reasonably be inclined to prioritize her own preferences over James'.

As a result, James cannot rightfully claim that Kate is being unreasonable, nor can Kate claim that James is being unreasonable. The reasoning of each party is sound.1 The difference in conclusion is not a result of an inconsistency or a logical fallacy, but rather a result of divergent initial premises. Each party brings their own beliefs and their own values, and has limited awareness of the beliefs and values of the other.

Similarly, in the case of the disgruntled subway passenger, in calling the woman unreasonable you implicitly assume that the woman has access to your preferences and beliefs - specifically, that you were exhausted and that it was really important that you sit down. All she saw was some punk pushing her out of the way. But similarly, in calling you unreasonable, she assumed that you knew why she needed more space on the subway, and why she didn't want to move - which you did not.

All of this seems fairly obvious, but it is surprising how contrary it is to intuition in most cases. More often than not, we are inclined to think that the other person is being unreasonable in an argument. At least, we attempt to rationalize that this is the case, and press our friends for support.

To be honest, though, I think we do often recognize this fallacy, and attempt to block it out or brush it away with rationalizations. Any argument, any unpleasant encounter, can leave us feeling angry, frustrated, annoyed, or sad - and there's not much that can be done to avoid or reverse these emotions. Acknowledging that the other person is not unjustified in their position can only make this pain worse - it either makes it seem as though no real agreement or resolution is possible, or, at worst, could suggest that we are the ones being unreasonable. It helps to justify our position on "sound reasoning," and claim that the other party is simply in error - if only the structure of the argument could be explained to them in understandable terms, they would agree with us.

  1. The Winter of Our Discontent (pg. 214)
  2. However, we could say that James is being unreasonable in claiming that Kate is being unreasonable, as he falls victim to the two fallacies listed above when making such a claim.