Motivated reasoning is phenomenon studied in cognitive science and social psychology that uses emotionally-biased reasoning to produce justifications or make decisions that are most desired rather than those that accurately reflect the evidence, while still reducing cognitive dissonance. In other words, motivated reasoning is the "tendency to find arguments in favor of conclusions we want to believe to be stronger than arguments for conclusions we do not want to believe". It can lead to forming and clinging to false beliefs despite substantial evidence to the contrary. The desired outcome acts as a filter that affects evaluation of scientific evidence and of other people.
Motivated reasoning is similar to confirmation bias, where evidence that confirms a belief (which might be a logical belief, rather than an emotional one) is either sought after more or given more credibility than evidence that disconfirms a belief. It stands in contrast to critical thinking where beliefs are approached in a skeptical and unbiased fashion.
Early research on the evaluation and integration of information supported a cognitive approach consistent with Bayesian probability, in which individuals weighted new information using rational calculations. More recent theories endorse cognitive processes as partial explanations of motivated reasoning but have also introduced motivational or affective processes to further illuminate the mechanisms of the bias inherent in cases of motivated reasoning. To further complicate the issue, the first neuro-imaging study designed to test the neural circuitry of individuals engaged in motivated reasoning found that motivated reasoning "was not associated with neural activity in regions previously linked with cold reasoning tasks [Bayesian reasoning] and conscious (explicit) emotion regulation". This section focuses on two theories that elucidate the mechanisms involved in motivated reasoning. Both theories distinguish between mechanisms present when the individual is trying to reach an accurate conclusion, and those present when the individual has a directional goal.
Goal-oriented motivated reasoningEdit
One review of the research develops the following theoretical model to explain the mechanism by which motivated reasoning results in bias. The model is summarized as follows:
Motivation to arrive at a desired conclusion provides a level of arousal, which acts as an initial trigger for the operation of cognitive processes. Sure one can make goals but acting rather than being acted upon is key. In order for someone to participate in motivated reasoning, either consciously or subconsciously, that individual first needs be motivated.
Emotions are a key component in motivation, thereby play a vital role in motivated reasoning. In terms of emotion there have been studies conducted where participants are told to act and feel a certain way when told a story. Then, there are participants who are told to act and feel a certain way before the story is told.
"…when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly ‘relaxing’ content. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss. Our efforts at mental suppression fail in the sexual arena, too: people instructed not to think about sex exhibit greater arousal, as measured by the electrical conductivity of their skin, than those not instructed to suppress such thoughts".
In addition to emotions it relates to motivation and motivated reasoning in such that emotions allow for motivation to either be there or not be there. An increase in productivity which leads to an increase in motivation all starts with positive emotions even when dealing with setbacks. Such in such these setbacks are what makes a person stronger and leads to even more motivation.
There is no one person who can complete everything they do perfectly. For it has been said "Researchers find that perceived self-interest, the rewards one believes are at stake, is the most significant factor in predicting dedication and satisfaction toward work. It accounts for about 75 percent of personal motivation toward accomplishment". Being proud of the small progress you make is what will continue motivation and motivated reasoning.
Lastly, in regards to emotions, the people with whom one surrounds themselves can either promote or diminish motivation and motivated reasoning. “Research shows over time, you develop the eating habits, health habits and even career aspirations of those around you. If you’re in a group of people who have really high goals for themselves you’ll take on that same sense of seriousness". Goals are meant to be achieved not forgotten. Goals can be completed through one's motivation and motivated reasoning insomuch, it all starts with emotion.
Historically, motivated reasoning theory identifies that directional goals enhance the accessibility of knowledge structures (memories, information, knowledge) that are consistent with desired conclusions. This theory endorses previous research on accessing information, but adds a procedural component in specifying that the motivation to achieve directional goals will also influence which rules (procedural structures such as inferential rules) and which beliefs are accessed to guide the search for information. In this model the beliefs and rule structures are instrumental in directing which information will be obtained to support the desired conclusion.
In comparison, Milton Lodge and Charles Taber (2000) introduce an empirically supported model in which affect is intricately tied to cognition, and information processing is biased toward support for positions that the individual already holds.
This model has three components:
- On-line processing in which when called on to make an evaluation, people instantly draw on stored information which is marked with affect;
- Affect is automatically activated along with the cognitive node to which it is tied;
- A "heuristic mechanism" for evaluating new information triggers a reflection on "How do I feel?" about this topic. The result of this process results in a bias towards maintaining existing affect, even in the face of other, disconfirming information.
This theory of motivated reasoning is fully developed and tested in Lodge and Taber's The Rationalizing Voter (2013). David Redlawsk (2002) found that the timing of when disconfirming information was introduced played a role in determining bias. When subjects encountered incongruity during an information search, the automatic assimilation and update process was interrupted. This results in one of two outcomes: subjects may enhance attitude strength in a desire to support existing affect (resulting in degradation in decision quality and potential bias) or, subjects may counter-argue existing beliefs in an attempt to integrate the new data. This second outcome is consistent with the research on how processing occurs when one is tasked with accuracy goals.
Accuracy-oriented motivated reasoningEdit
Early research on the evaluation and integration of information supported a cognitive approach consistent with [Bayesian probability], in which individuals weighted new information using rational calculations. More recent theories endorse cognitive processes as partial explanations of motivated reasoning but have also introduced motivational or affective processes to further illuminate the mechanisms of the bias inherent in cases of motivated reasoning. To further complicate the issue, the first neuro-imaging study designed to test the neural circuitry of individuals engaged in motivated reasoning found that motivated reasoning "was not associated with neural activity in regions previously linked with cold reasoning tasks [Bayesian reasoning] and conscious (explicit) emotion regulation".
However, current research refutes that conclusion. “Banks and Hope (2014) early conflict sensitivity findings indicate that logical reasoning—a process that is traditionally believed to require slow System 2 computations—can literally be accomplished in a split second." That is according to Bago, et al. EEG study which shows that elementary logical reasoning happens in the same neurocircuitry as the emotional fast reasoning. The next section focuses on two theories that elucidate the mechanisms involved in motivated reasoning. Both theories distinguish between mechanisms present when the individual is trying to reach an accurate conclusion, and those present when the individual has a directional goal.
Kunda asserts that accuracy goals delay the process of coming to a premature conclusion, in that accuracy goals increase both the quantity and quality of processing—particularly in leading to more complex inferential cognitive processing procedures. When researchers manipulated test subjects’ motivation to be accurate by informing them that the target task was highly important or that they would be expected to defend their judgments, it was found that subjects utilized deeper processing and that there was less biasing of information. This was true when accuracy motives were present at the initial processing and encoding of information. Tetlock (1983, 1985) In reviewing a line of research on accuracy goals and bias, Kunda concludes, "several different kinds of biases have been shown to weaken in the presence of accuracy goals". She asserts that for accuracy to reduce bias the following conditions must be present.
- Subjects must possess appropriate reasoning strategies
- They must view these as superior to other strategies,
- And be capable of using them at will.
These last two conditions introduce the construct that accuracy goals include a conscious process of utilizing cognitive strategies in motivated reasoning. This construct is called into question by later neuroscience research that concludes that motivated reasoning is qualitatively distinct from reasoning (in instances when there is no strong emotional stake in the outcomes), (Weston, 2006).
To summarize, both models differentiate between accuracy goals and goal-directed processing. They differ in that Redlawsk identifies a primary role for effect in guiding cognitive processes and in maintaining bias. In contrast, Kunda identifies a primary role for cognitive processes such as memory processes, and the use of rules in determining biased information selection. At least one study in neuroscience does not support the use of cognitive processes in motivated reasoning, lending greater support to effective processing as a key mechanism in supporting bias. Of interest, neuroscience is consistent with Freud's (1933) theory of "defensive processing" which occurred in the unconscious, and was seen as a mechanism to avoid feelings of anxiety and guilt.
As stated above, neuroscience research suggest that "motivated reasoning is qualitatively distinct from reasoning when people do not have a strong emotional stake in the conclusions reached." However, if there is a strong emotion attached during their previous round of motivated reasoning and that emotion is again present when the individual's conclusions is reached, a strong emotional stake is then attached to the conclusion. Any new information in regards to that conclusion will cause motivated reasoning to reoccur. This can create pathways within the neural network that further ingrains the reasoned beliefs of that individual along similar neural networks where logical reasoning occurs. This causes the strong emotion to reoccur when confronted with contradictory information, time and time again. This is what is referred to by Lodge and Taber as the affective contagion. But instead of "infecting" other individuals, the emotion "infects" the individuals reasoning pathways and conclusions.
Social science research suggests that reasoning away contradictions is psychologically easier than revising feelings. As previously discussed, emotions are shown to color how "facts" are perceived. Feelings come first, and evidence is used in service of those feelings. Evidence that supports what is already believed, is accepted. Evidence which contradicts those beliefs are not.
The outcomes of motivated reasoning derive from "a biased set of cognitive processes—that is, strategies for accessing, constructing, and evaluating beliefs. The motivation to be accurate enhances use of those beliefs and strategies that are considered most appropriate, whereas the motivation to arrive at particular conclusions enhances use of those that are considered most likely to yield the desired conclusion." Recent studies that have show that when people are presented and forced to think analytically about something complex and the individual does not have an adequate knowledge of (i.e. being presented with a new study on meteorology whilst having no degree in the subject), there is no directional shift in thinking and motivated reasoning is more likely to occur to support their previously held conclusions. Conversely, if there are presented with a more simplistic test of analytical thinking that confronts their beliefs (i.e. seeing implausible headlines as false), motivated reasoning is less likely to occur and a directional shift in thinking may result.
Research on motivated reasoning tested accuracy goals (i.e., reaching correct conclusions) and directional goals (i.e., reaching preferred conclusions). Factors such as these affect perceptions; and results confirm that motivated reasoning affects decision-making and estimates. These results have far reaching consequences because when confronted with a small amount of information that is contrary to individual's established belief, the individual is motivated to reason away the new information. If this pattern continues over an extended period of time, the individual becomes more entrenched in their beliefs. However, recent studies have shown that motivated reasoning can be overcome. "When the amount of incongruency is relatively small, the heightened negative affect does not necessarily override the motivation to maintain [belief]." However, there is evidence of a theoretical "tipping point" where the amount on incongruent information that is received by the motivated reasoner can turn certainty into anxiety. This anxiety of being incorrect may lead to a change of opinion.
- Kunda, Z. (1990). "The case for motivated reasoning". Psychological Bulletin. 108 (3): 480–498. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.108.3.480. PMID 2270237.
- O'Leary, Ann. "Teaching Tip Sheet: Motivated Reasoning," American Psychological Association (APA); citing Sternlicht, H. C. (1977). "The range of periodontal therapy--past and present". Texas Dental Journal. 95 (10): 6–13. PMID 270237.
- Gerber, Alan; Green, Donald (1999). "Misperceptions about Perceptual Bias". Annual Review of Political Science. 18 (11): 189–2100. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.2.1.189. ISSN 1094-2939.
- Redlawsk, D (2002). "Hot Cognition or Cool Consideration". The Journal of Politics. 64 (4): 1021–1044. doi:10.1111/1468-2508.00161. ISSN 0022-3816.
- Westen, D.; Blagov, P. S.; Harenski, K.; Kilts, C.; Hamann, S. (2006). "Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election". Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18 (11): 1947–1958. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.578.8097. doi:10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1947. PMID 17069484.
- Ziva Kunda 1990
- Barker, Eric. “How to Motivate Yourself: 3 Steps Backed By Science.” Time, Time, 30 June 2014, time.com/2933971/how-to-motivate-yourself-3-steps-backed-by-science/.
- Burkeman, Oliver. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. Vintage Digital, 2018.
- Niven, David. The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
- Flora, Carlin. “The Surprising Science Behind Earthshakingly Wonderful Friendships .” Barking Up the Wrong Tree, 2013, www.bakadesuyo.com/2013/12/carlin-flora/.
- Fazio, Russell (1995). Richard E. Petty, Jon A. Krosnick (eds.). Attitude Strength: Antecedents and Consequences. Mahwah, NJ. ISBN 978-0-8058-1086-8.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
- Milton Lodge; Charles Taber (2013). The Rationalizing Voter. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Lodge and Taber (2000). "Three steps toward a theory of motivated political reasoning". Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice and Bounds of Rationality. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-65329-9.
- Bago, B., et al., (2018) Fast and Slow Thinking: Electrophysiological Evidence for Early Conflict Sensitivity, Neuropsychologia, Paris Descartes University, Paris, France. 117:483-490 Found at: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.neurophyschologia.2018.07.017
- Tetlock, P (1983). "Accountability and the perseverance of first impressions". Social Psychology Quarterly. 46 (4): 285–292. doi:10.2307/3033716. ISSN 0190-2725. JSTOR 3033716.
- Tetlock, P (1985). "Accountability: A social check on the fundamental attribution error". Social Psychology Quarterly. 48 (3): 227–236. doi:10.2307/3033683. ISSN 0190-2725. JSTOR 3033683.
- Kunda (1990) p. 482
- Freud, Sigmund (1933). New Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis. Hogarth Press.
- Redlawsk, David P. (April 22, 2011). "A Matter of Motivated 'Reasoning'". New York Times. citing Redlawsk, D. P.; Civettini, A. J. W.; Emmerson, K. M. (2010). "The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever "Get It"?". Political Psychology. 31 (4): 563. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00772.x.
- Pennycook, G.; Rand, D.G. (2019). "Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning". Cognition. 188: 39–50. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2018.06.011. PMID 29935897.
- Nir, L. (2011). "Motivated Reasoning and Public Opinion Perception". Public Opinion Quarterly. 75 (3): 504–532. doi:10.1093/poq/nfq076.
- Redlawsk, D.P.; Civenttini, A.J.W.; Emmerson, K.M. (2010). "he affective tipping point: Do motivated reasoners ever "get it."". Political Psychology. 31 (4): 563–593. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00772.x.