Motivated reasoning

The psychological urge to confirm an opinion is so important that the thinking skews the reasoning

Motivated reasoning is defined by Psychology Research and Reference as “a form of reasoning in which people access, construct and evaluate arguments in a biased fashion to arrive at or endorse a preferred conclusion” — motivated because “people use reasoning strategies that allow them to draw the conclusions they want to draw.”

The fascinating quality about motivated reasoning is that the thinker’s conclusions seem to be reasonable and valid. In reality, however, the psychological urge to confirm an opinion is so important that the thinking skews the reasoning toward a foregone conclusion. Motivated reasoning is an elaborate form of confirmation bias.

People who use motivated reasoning to reach invalid conclusions are actually well-intentioned and honest — they are “driven by an accuracy motivation” and are trying to be principled and ethical. But they are unaware of the thinking mechanism that is leading them to an unsupported conclusion. Thinking, in other words, is more complicated than it seems.

This explains why we need to be aware of the motivation that underlies the reasoning we do. Our emotional and attitudinal disposition can determine the conclusions we reach. So a clue to identifying the presence of motivated reasoning can be found in the degree to which we want or do not want something to be real.

Consider environmental issues. Their dire warnings are unsettling. They threaten our habits, lifestyles, traditions, self-respect, and in some cases our livelihoods. We try to be ethical, moral, just and fair. We love our planet. Then scientific evidence reveals the ecological damage we are causing or the global climate we are altering. The reflexive response to this evidence is to refute it, to reject the validity of what we don’t want to accept. And the stronger the emotional reaction, the greater is the likelihood of exercising motivated reasoning. Confronting reality with total honesty requires a uncommon bravery and self-awareness.

Thinking gets muddled with complexities when evidence collides with our preferred sense of reality. For recent dramatic examples, note the political, economic and sociological phenomena of Donald Trump or Brexit. Facts get twisted to serve the desired biases. Indeed, sometimes motivated reasoning so distorts the facts that they no longer resemble themselves. And in extreme cases, motivated reasoning can be used as an instrument of manipulation.

Examples abound with environmental subjects because they are so close to our collective and individual identities that they threaten our behavioural habits and our image of who we are. Climate change denial was the result of years of motivated reasoning — until the evidence became too overwhelming to deny.

We have gone through comparable experiences with DDT, chlorofluorocarbons and smoking. Hydrocarbon fuels is next. But the list will get longer as we reluctantly and slowly explore our psychological makeup and expose the hidden dynamics of our thinking. This is part of our maturing process as human beings — as Sapiens. The alternative to confronting motivated reasoning is eventually the dysfunctional state of cognitive dissonance, in which contradictory notions co-exist unresolved in a fractured consciousness.

The best way to avoid the failings of motivated reasoning is by honestly and carefully examining the attitudinal and emotional forces residing within us. A dispassionate and selfless examination of evidence probably gets us closest to the reality of every situation