Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Motivated Reasoning

Prejudice is a great time saver.
You can form opinions without having to get the facts. 

— E. B. White 

Beliefs we’d label “stupid” don’t necessarily result from stupidity.

More often than not they’re the products of a phenomenon research psychologists call “motivated reasoning.”

While authentic reasoning recruits and weighs evidence wisely and independently, motivated reasoning is slave to a goal (usually a selfish goal) and ignores and distorts evidence willy-nilly.

Through the process you end up producing a patently biased belief.

It’s not that we’re blind to evidence, believing whatever the hell we want to believe (we want, in fact, to think we are rational creatures); but we’re content to make do with scraps of evidence, which we patch together to create a convenient and comfortable interpretation of reality.

We're lazy in that way.

Research psychologists who have studied motivated reasoning have identified and named a variety of unconscious mechanisms underlying it.

The Big 3 mechanisms are:
  • Biased information search—you seek and find only evidence that promotes your goal;
  • Biased assimilation—you give credence only to evidence that promotes your goal; and
  • Identity-protective cognition—you discredit evidence that causes you anxiety because it challenges your self-worth or contradicts the beliefs of your peer-group.
These three unconscious mechanisms explain why otherwise mindful people cherish biased beliefs—the kind of “uninformed” beliefs that propel them to smoke cigarettes; treat cancer with magnets or homeopathy; deny their kids the measles vaccine; donate to TV ministries; perpetuate vast-conspiracy theories; fear evil clowns—or vote one into high office.

But research psychologists have also found there’s a benevolent form of motivated reasoning: “accuracy-driven reasoning.”

When accuracy is made the goal of reasoning, we tend to expend more brain power on the gathering, sifting and weighing of evidence before forming any belief.

Unfortunately, we don’t reason in this manner spontaneously: we need to be prodded.

One of the most effective prods, researchers have shown, is to be told in advance of gathering, sifting and weighing evidence that you will have to justify your belief in front of a public audience.

Just imagine every Sandy Hook, Holocaust and climate-change denier having to face fifty people and justifying what they believe.

Good luck with that!
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