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motivated reasoning

“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”-- H. L. Mencken

Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.--Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself. --Chris Mooney

Motivated reasoning is confirmation bias taken to the next level. Motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe, while ignoring contrary data. But it also drives people to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify holding beliefs that logic and evidence have shown to be wrong. Motivated reasoning responds defensively to contrary evidence, actively discrediting such evidence or its source without logical or evidentiary justification. Clearly, motivated reasoning is emotion driven. It seems to be assumed by social scientists that motivated reasoning is driven by a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. Self-delusion, in other words, feels good, and that's what motivates people to vehemently defend obvious falsehoods.

Examples of motivated reasoning:

the Apollo moon landing was a hoax;

climate change is a hoax;

evolution is a hoax;

9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration;

Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11;

the Holocaust didn't happen;

AIDS is not caused by HIV;

vaccines cause autism;

Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

See also affect bias, the backfire effect and the nasty effect.

further reading

books and articles

Kunda, Ziva. 1990. The Case for Motivated Reasoning. Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 108, No. 3, 480-498. People are more likely to arrive at those conclusions that they want to arrive at. Whatever the mechanisms, the implications are serious and important. Taylor and Brown (1988) implied that motivated reasoning may be beneficial because the resulting illusions promote mental health; unrealistically positive views of oneself and the world are often adaptive. This seems true for illusory beliefs that do not serve as the basis for important action. But motivated illusions can be dangerous when they are used to guide behavior and decisions, especially in those cases in which objective reasoning could facilitate more adaptive behavior. For example, people who play down the seriousness of early symptoms of severe diseases such as skin cancer and people who see only weaknesses in research pointing to the dangers of drugs such as caffeine or of behaviors such as drunken driving may literally pay with their lives for their motivated reasoning.

Mercier, Hugo and Dan Sperber. Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory, Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology or reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis.

Mooney, Chris. 2011. The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link. — By Chris Mooney (For a better defended explanation of why we don't believe science, see Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg.)

Prasad, Monica et al. 2009. “There Must Be a Reason”: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification. Sociological Inquiry. In this article ... we develop a social psychological explanation for the belief in the link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. We argue that the primary causal agent for misperception is not the presence or absence of correct information but a respondent’s willingness to believe particular kinds of information. Our explanation draws on a psychological model of information processing that scholars have labeled motivated reasoning. This model envisions respondents as processing and responding to information defensively, accepting and seeking out confirming information, while ignoring, discrediting the source of, or arguing against the substance of contrary information.

Westen, Drew et al. 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. The findings provide the first neuroimaging evidence for phenomena variously described as motivated reasoning, implicit emotion regulation, and psychological defense. They suggest that motivated reasoning is qualitatively distinct from reasoning when people do not have a strong emotional stake in the conclusions reached.



Lies of Mass Destruction The same skewed thinking that supports a Saddam-9/11 link explains the power of health-care myths by Sharon Begley Newsweek. 25 August 2009. "...we can assume that tens of millions of Americans believe the wrong guy [Barack Obama] is in the White House. To justify that belief, they need to find evidence that he's leading the country astray. What better evidence of that than to seize on the misinformation about Obama's health-care reform ideas and believe that he wants to insure illegal aliens, for example, and give the Feds electronic access to doctors' bank accounts?

"Obama's opponents also need to find evidence that their reading of him back in November was correct. They therefore seize on "confirmation" that he wants to, for instance, redistribute the wealth, as in his “spread the wealth around” remark to Joe the Plumber—finding such confirmation in the claims that health-care reform will do just that, redistributing health care from those who have it now to the 46 million currently uninsured. Similarly, they seize on anything that confirms the “socialist” label that got pinned on Obama during the campaign, or the pro-abortion label—anything to comfort themselves that they made the right choice last November."


“Motivated reasoning,” alternative medicine, and the anti-vaccine movement by David Gorski, M.D. "It turns out that science and science-based medicine are hard for humans to accept because they often conflict with what our senses perceive and brains interpret as irrefutable evidence. The pattern-seeking function of our brain, when evaluating questions of causation in medicine, frequently betrays us."

The Frontal Cortex, Motivated Reasoning, 17 September 2008.


Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be - The Onion

Last updated 14-Jan-2014


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