Motivated Reasoning

Mario Sikora
Apr 7, 2012
One of an ongoing series on traps of the mind.

I never watched the show “The X Files,” nor did I see either of the movies, but the tag line for the second movie caught my attention:
“I want to believe.”
It caught my attention because it so clearly sums up the way many people approach the extraordinary—they want to believe. They want to believe for a variety of reasons: it seems more “enlightened” to embrace the mystical and mysterious; there is great psychological satisfaction on being among those with inside knowledge of deep and hidden truths; real life can be disappointing and speculation more attractive than reality; they have fantasy-prone personalities; etc.
Thanks to the cognitive bias of motivated reasoning it is easy for such “want-to believers” to find evidence for their beliefs and overlook or simply dismiss evidence that contradicts it.
Motivated reasoning (sometimes called motivated cognition) is actually a phenomenon that incorporates a number of cognitive biases such as biased assimilation and identity-protective cognition in a way that helps people reason their way toward a(n often nonconsciously) predetermined conclusion. It is a modern and fancy way of restating Hume’s assertion that our feelings form our conclusions and our reason finds a way to support them.
Motivated reasoning is frequently on display whenever people are discussing issues to which they are either ideologically identified or in which they have a personal stake in the outcome. It is the true believers of every stripe who will take any piece of data and twist it to support their point of view and deny any confounding evidence, no matter how strong.
Just a few examples include:
  •  Those in the energy-related businesses who deny the science of climate change and the ecologically minded who embrace anything labelled “green” whether it is truly green or not.
  •  Religious believers who deny the science of evolution because it conflicts with their convictions.
  •  Liberals who always reason their way to a liberal conclusion and conservatives who always reason their way toward a conservative conclusion.
  •  New-age mystics who distort quantum physics to support their cosmologies.
  • Conspiracy theorists who see any disconfirming evidence as further evidence of the conspiracy in which they believe.
  • Anti-business activists who refuse to believe anything good about corporations and the people who lead them (and the uber-capitalists who refuse to listen to legitimate complaints).
  • And, yes, it includes those among the skeptical and science-minded who cling to views despite new evidence.
It is important to realize that we are all afflicted with a tendency toward motivated reasoning. We all have self-interests, prejudices, and emotionally held beliefs that we easily reason our way toward, and while we can sometimes easily see it in others it is very difficult to see motivated reasoning in ourselves. This last thought should stop us in our smugness when criticizing others’ thinking and keep us humble about our own.
Further, motivated reasoning is not just seen in social, political, or faith matters. It affects almost every decision we make and it can influence the way decisions are made in organizations. People unconsciously argue toward a conclusion that befits their worldview. 
Members of a leadership team will almost invariably argue for a strategy or allocation of resources that serves the their interest or the interest of their group’s function. Engineers reason toward a conclusion that serves the engineering group; marketing argues toward a different conclusion. This is not (necessarily) because the individuals are consciously out for their own benefit; it is because we are motivated to reason toward what we believe. Because we tend to develop our beliefs from our unique perspective, and we tend to develop conclusions that benefit ourselves or our group. There is nothing (necessarily) unethical in this, we are simply more aware of the rationale for a conclusion from our own perspective than we are of that from another. (Engineering understands the needs and value of engineering better than it does those of marketing, for example.) We then argue toward those conclusions based on good-faith, but with motivated reasoning.
Overcoming motivated reasoning requires effort and vigilance but is worth the price. In addition to employing the basic skills of critical thinking, it helps to ask yourself, “What would I really like to believe? What would be the best conclusion for me or my team?” and similar questions to make yourself aware of your biases. Then, ask, “What would I really not like to believe? What conclusion would be to the detriment of me or my team?” Make a rigorous attempt to falsify your favored argument and find evidence that supports conclusions that run counter to your interests.
Most of all, it is important to commit to follow the truth wherever it leads and to live with the conclusions. We should avoid clinging defensively to a point and taking pride in consistency of belief. Instead, we should view changing our beliefs based on new evidence as a sign of maturity and intellectual integrity.  

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