Motivated Reasoning

Motivated Reasoning. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Motivated Reasoning. Psychology Fanatic
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Motivated reasoning is a fascinating cognitive bias that we unconsciously employ to avoid cognitive dissonance between preconceived ideas and conflicting evidence. It refers to our propensity to use reasoning and logic not to objectively evaluate evidence or information to determine the truth, but rather to bolster and defend our pre-existing beliefs. In other words, motivated reasoning is an unconscious practice of shaping the way we interpret and process new information to match our predetermined beliefs.

We would like to believe that we shape our opinions from a dispassionate examination of facts. However, this is not how we do it. In a frightening way, our beliefs shape what we perceive. Facts, no matter how convincing, are easily manipulated. On the other hand, a fact, no matter how flimsy, if it support our belief, we latch on to it, share it, and glorify in its unflappable meaning. Unmanaged motivated reasoning creates selective information processing, leading to imaginary realities, where we dangerously flounder in our misbeliefs. Certainly, motivated reasoning can destroy our futures, but more importantly, when practiced by large groups, can destroy democracies.

Our reaction to experience is biased by our perceptions. We respond with “directionally motivated reasoning, which leads people to seek information that reenforces their partisan beliefs and counterargue contradictory information (Joslyn & Sylvester, 2019). Typically, “we are cognitive misers, disinclined to take the time and effort to carefully prosecute the veracity of their prior beliefs given new information” (Vail, et al., 2023). So instead of genuine dispassionate investigation of information, we work backwards. We hold to our belief and search for support. We create an “illusion of objectivity.”

Key Definition:

Motivated reasoning is the unconscious influence of personal opinions, beliefs and convictions on the way we interpret new information.

An Example of Motivated Reasoning

For an example. Let’s say you hold a strong belief or position on a particular topic, such as climate change. Once your position is set, and invested in, you begin to process evidence differently. So, when you come across new scientific studies or evidence that contradicts your viewpoint (whether you are for or against), instead of critically analyzing and considering the new information objectively, you instinctively search for flaws or inconsistencies in the research. You may dismiss it as flawed, biased, or not relevant to the bigger picture. On the other hand, when you come across studies or evidence that align with your preconceived belief, you readily accept it as valid and reliable.

So, if a new study is published and broadcast on the news giving evidence of climate change, those that already believe climate change is a problem feel vindicated in their belief. “See, I knew it,” they silently proclaim. However, those that believe it is a politically created phenomenon, disregard the study, seeing it as another political stunt to dupe the public. In essence, the climate change study has no impact on persuading people to reexamine their original positions.

To illustrate this concept further, let’s consider the example of sports fans. The home town stadium is always at odds with the referees. Seldom do they notice a missed call when one of their players commits a foul. However, if the other team fouls, they shout in abhorrence, stunned that the referee could miss such an obvious and flagrant violation. We express motivated reasoning following our biased interpretation. We watch replays taking note of why or why not certain behaviors should or should not be a foul.

We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence—enough so that our position “makes sense”—we stop thinking.
Jonathan Haidt

When Do We Use Motivated Reasoning

We manifest motivated reasoning in many aspects of our lives, including politics, religion, and personal relationships. It can lead to confirmation bias, where we actively seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, while disregarding or challenging information that contradicts them. This bias hinders our ability to engage in constructive dialogue, impeding personal growth, and severely limiting our understanding of the world.

We see repeatedly in congress, no matter how compelling the argument, senators and representatives continue to vote right along with party agendas on all the dividing issues. The strength of the argument and new evidence has little to do with the vote. Leonard Mlodinow PhD. explains “through motivated reasoning each side finds ways to justify its favored conclusion and discredit the other, while maintaining a belief in its own objectivity. And so those on both sides of important issues may sincerely think that theirs is the only rational interpretation” (2013, Kindal Location: 3,667).

More disruptive to our personal lives we use motivated reasoning in our relationships. Once we label a person, let’s say as ‘selfish,’ then we conduct motivated reasoning to support our label of selfishness. We dismiss any behaviors that contradict our judgment while magnifying any behaviors we perceive as supporting of our belief. John Gottman, a world renowned relationship researcher, says as relationships mature and friendship is no longer working “people go into negative sentiment override,” seeing our partner as our adversary, rather than our once annoying friend (2011, Kindle location 652). Consequently, once we make this shift, we begin to employ motivating reasoning to support our new conclusion.

Negative Affect Response

One theory suggests that information immediately strikes an emotional chord which subsequently drives cognitions on the issue. Basically, this theory suggests that new incoming information that conflicts with beliefs creates a burst of negative feeling. Our brain, seeking homeostasis, immediately makes a ‘snap judgement’ and then goes about creating a narrative to support that judgment, regardless of its correctness.

Basically, we hear ‘global warming,’ it stirs negative emotions, we make a snap judgment, and then support our judgment rather than evaluate any new incoming facts with conscious unbiased deliberation.

Anything can trigger a ‘hot spot.’ The person making the remark, the topic, or the surrounding environment that creates the frame of reference proceeding the information. For example, former president Trump says something, for some this triggers a hot spot reaction, no matter what he says, and reasoning follows a well known path.

Patrick W. Kraft, Milton Lodge, and Charles Taber wrote that, “shortly after the arousal of positive and/or negative feelings, activation from both prior attitude and incidental affect will spread along well-travelled ‘hot’ associative pathways.” They continue, “the retrieval of considerations will be biased in the direction of valence, of initial affect evoked by prior attitudes and incidental affect” (2015). Our reasoning is anchored in presupposed conclusions.

Motivated Reasoning Often Unconscious

Motivated reasoning can sometimes be subconscious, driven by our deep-rooted emotions and psychological needs. Often, our beliefs are intertwined with our identity, and challenging those beliefs can feel like a personal attack. As a result, we tend to protect our beliefs, even if it means distorting facts or ignoring evidence.

Mlodinow explains that the “motivated reasoning we engage in when we have a personal stake in an issue proceeds via a different physical process within the brain than the cold, objective analysis we carry out when we don’t.: He continues, “motivated reasoning involves a network of brain regions that are not associated with ‘cold’ reasoning, including the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex—parts of the limbic system—and the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus, which are also activated when one makes emotionally laden moral judgments” (2013, Kindle location: 3,617).

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

Awareness of motivated reasoning is crucial for fostering critical thinking, open-mindedness, and healthy intellectual discourse. By recognizing this bias within ourselves, we can strive to approach new information with an open and objective mindset, willing to evaluate and reconsider our beliefs based on evidence rather than personal biases. Only through this intellectual humility can we truly expand our knowledge, discarding previous beliefs that are no longer relevant in our dynamic ever changing world.

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Druckman, J., & McGrath, M. (2019). The evidence for motivated reasoning in climate change preference formation. Nature Climate Change, 9(2), 111-119. DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0360-1

Gottman, John (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples.  W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.

Joslyn, Mark, & Sylvester, Steven (2019). The Determinants and Consequences of Accurate Beliefs About Childhood Vaccinations. American Politics Research, 47(3), 628-649. DOI: 10.1177/1532673X17745342

Kraft, P., Lodge, M., & Taber, C. (2015). Why People “Don’t Trust the Evidence”. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658(1), 121-133.

Mlodinow, Leonard (2013). Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Vintage; Illustrated edition.

Pasek, J. (2018). It’s not my consensus: Motivated reasoning and the sources of scientific illiteracy. Public Understanding of Science, 27(7), 787-806.

Vail, Kenneth .E.; Harvell-Bowman, Lindsey; Lockett, McKenzie; Pyszcznynski, Tom; Gilmore, Gabriel (2023). Motivated reasoning: Election integrity beliefs, outcome acceptance, and polarization before, during, and after the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. Motive Emotions 47, 177–192. DOI: 10.1007/s11031-022-09983-w

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