By Mario Sikora
Part of an ongoing series on Clear-Thinking Skills. These articles are excerpted from “How to Think Well, and Why: The Awareness to Action Guide to Clear Thinking,” which is available in paperback and e-book via amazon.com.
In addition to the cognitive biases listed last time, there are a number of psychological tendencies that can impair our thinking. Let’s introduce a few.
Humans are a social species, meaning we survive collectively rather than individually. However, we also compete with each other over resources. Our ancestors handled this dichotomy by banding together in groups of trusted individuals that became a tribe. Those tribes were often based on kinship—brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts, etc., but also included those who proved themselves as trustworthy over time. While there was a benefit to our ancestors in letting new people into the tribe (adding expertise, reducing in-breeding, etc.), the risk of letting the wrong person in, or trusting someone too quickly, had life-or-death consequences; strangers might be here to harm us or steal our resources—it was perfectly reasonable to treat them with suspicion. Thus, we have inherited an evolved wariness of anyone not part of our tribe.
Our circumstances are culturally different, but we have the same basic biological wiring as our ancestors. Thus, we tend to become over-identified with the opinions of those in our tribe and wary of those outside it. This tribalism is one of the roots of why we tend to have the same political, religious, and social views of our social group and innately feel more comfortable with people with a common socio-economic, skin color, language, education, etc. People with different perspectives represent a different “tribe,” and people from a different tribe, according to the deeply rooted mechanisms of our brain, represent danger.
This impacts how we think because it means that changing our mind, and the worldviews that may come from doing so, feel like a genuine existential threat. We have, accordingly, evolved a variety of mental processes to keep us from feeling that sense of threat, and thereby keeping us stuck in what we want to believe rather than embracing what is true. In the recesses of our brains, we hold onto our beliefs not because they are logical or reasonable, but because changing them feels like a threat to our very lives: If I change my beliefs about something my group (family, coworkers, friends, etc.) believes, I will be ostracized by my tribe, and then I will be lost…
Thus, we have good motivation to believe what we want to believe or what those in our tribe want us to believe.
Motivated reasoning is a phenomenon that incorporates a number of cognitive biases such as biased assimilation and identity-protective cognition. It helps people reason their way toward a(n often non-consciously) predetermined conclusion. It is a modern and fancy way of restating Hume’s assertion that our feelings form our conclusions and our intellect 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 contradicting evidence, no matter how strong that evidence is.
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 have a strong tendency to unconsciously argue toward a conclusion that befits their worldview.