What Is Motivated Reasoning?

We are not always—in fact, we are probably not often—the objective, rational creatures we like to think we are. Psychologists have had a field day in the past couple of decades demonstrating the many ways we deceive ourselves through our very processes of reasoning. While indeed our cognitive faculties are a distinguishing feature of humanity—they have lifted us out of caves and enabled all of the arts and sciences—they are also rooted in and subject to influence, or bias, by our emotions and deeply wired instincts. One of the most significant ways we warp our information processing and reasoning—and we do it outside of awareness that anything psychologically sneaky is going on—is called motivated reasoning.

It’s easiest to understand when seen in operation. Cognitive scientists see motivated reasoning as a force that operates in the realm of political beliefs, particularly relating to such topics as climate change. Studies by political psychologists highlight denial of global warming or discrediting the science about it as an important example of motivated reasoning, whereby some people process scientific information about climate shifts to conform to pre-existing feelings and beliefs. After all, accepting that climate change is real portends unpleasant environmental consequences and would require most people to head them off by making significant changes in lifestyle. Changing one’s mind and changing one’s lifestyle are hard work and we prefer shortcuts, the goal to which we’d rather fit our conclusions.

Motivated reasoning operates in much more personal spheres as well. For example, it is seen as a mechanism people commonly use to preserve a favorable identity, particularly in the Western world. In order to maintain positive self-regard, people (unwitting) discount unflattering information that contradicts their self-image or is otherwise troubling.

We engage in motivated reasoning as a way to avoid or lessen cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort we experience when confronted by contradictory information, especially on matters that directly relate to our well-being.

Recent posts on Motivated Reasoning

How to Keep Disagreements from Becoming Fights

By Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D. on June 21, 2017 in Ambigamy
Supreening: posturing or preening like you're the supreme judge deciding who's right—you or your opposition.

Ford Motors Makes an Inventive Leadership Choice

By James Bailey Ph.D. on June 21, 2017 in At the Helm
From office furniture to automobiles? New Ford CEO Jim Hackett has what it takes.

Study Shows a Bias for Evidence of What We Want to Be True

New experimental findings suggest that we seek and stress corroborating evidence based on what we desire.

Commitment and How To Grow It

Having the assurance that the commitment in the relationship is strong and sturdy provides a large playing field to struggle with the essential issues that every couple must face.
Public domain

The Healing Power of Placebos: Fact or Fiction?

By Joe Pierre M.D. on May 25, 2017 in Psych Unseen
Does new research really prove that placebos don't require deception?
Public Domain PIc

Darth Socrates: You don’t know the power of Philosophy

Experimental philosophy is all the rage in philosophy. But, like all other fads before, it will fall to philosophy's unanswerable questions.

The United States Navy and The Communist Manifesto

During the Cold War, the United States Navy used The Communist Manifesto in teaching leadership. This example of viewpoint diversity is useful for today's campus climate.

Morality: Seeds Must Be Planted Rightly in Early LIfe

By Darcia Narvaez Ph.D. on April 23, 2017 in Moral Landscapes
It’s easy to believe that reasoning is the most important aspect of morality. But it isn't. Morality "goes all the way down" to how well our neurobiological systems work.

The High Cost of Receptivity

By Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D. on April 11, 2017 in Ambigamy
Don't pretend that you're exceptionally ready to change your mind.

Money Laundering for the Soul

By Noam Shpancer Ph.D. on April 05, 2017 in Insight Therapy
What explains our ability to suspend our moral principles and inflict cruelty on others, in clear violation of the moral principles we claim to espouse?

We Are All Mojo Addicts

By Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D. on March 21, 2017 in Ambigamy
We all gravitate toward self-revitalizing signs of hope, and in the process, we generate social and interpersonal congestion.

Declinism: Why You Think America is in Crisis

By Dale Archer M.D. on February 18, 2017 in Reading Between the (Head)Lines
Is America really on the brink of disaster? Studies show most people feel things are bad and getting worse. Declinism, based on cognitive bias, explains why.

What Do We Do When Our Reasons Seem Weak?

By Gregory R. Maio Ph.D. on February 15, 2017 in Attitude Check
Why is the gap between political viewpoints growing larger? Mechanisms for reducing attitude uncertainty may be part of the answer.

Living With/out Fear: The Power of Being a Rational Optimist

By Jason Powers M.D. on February 10, 2017 in Beyond Abstinence
Living a passionate life, devoid of fear.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” - Helen Keller

On Conservatives, Liberals, and Fake News

Commentary on a new finding that, compared to liberals, conservatives were more receptive to believing false negative information regarding hazards.

What’s Wrong With Conflicts of Interest?

By Paul Thagard Ph.D. on January 30, 2017 in Hot Thought
Conflicts of interest easily arise in government, science, and medicine. Cognition-emotion interactions in the brain lead people to violate their professional responsibilities.

Overcoming the Allure of Fake News

By Jared Celniker on December 22, 2016 in Partisan Pitfalls and Moral Blind Spots
When are we most likely to believe fake news? Here's how to identify and overcome our own gullibility.

The Social Psychology of a Nation Divided

Finding yourself shocked as to what others in our nation are thinking? That’s probably because you have a normal social-perception system.

Why False News Endangers Democracy

Democracy will only exist as long as citizens honestly and with integrity advocate truthful positions. Once false news become commonplace, democracy is in danger.

Are Your Self-Beliefs Grounded in Reality or Fantasy?

By Bobby Hoffman Ph.D. on December 02, 2016 in Motivate!
Making critical life decisions based on flawed information can be treacherous to personal and professional growth. Reaching your goals requires dispelling motivational myths.
Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

What's Your Political Mindset?

By Tara Well Ph.D. on November 23, 2016 in The Clarity
Need a change in political outlook? A few mindset tips can help.

Fake News, Echo Chambers & Filter Bubbles: A Survival Guide

By Joe Pierre M.D. on November 21, 2016 in Psych Unseen
Our beliefs and actions are increasingly influenced by our immersion into the internet. Is it time to unplug?

Are Your Morals Reasonable?

By Rob Henderson on November 14, 2016 in After Service
Are your morals based on reason? Research suggests they might not be.

We All Hate Bullies but Disagree on Who They Are

By Michael Karson Ph.D., J.D. on November 14, 2016 in Feeling Our Way
Depression is often self-bullying.
Shutterstock/Antonio Guillem

Shocked by the Presidential Election Results?

By Tara Well Ph.D. on November 13, 2016 in The Clarity
Research on the false consensus effect shows believing others agree with us can lead to a false sense of security.

Fighting Climate Change in a Post-Factual Age

By Rolf Reber Ph.D. on November 10, 2016 in Critical Feeling
Climate change is abstract, distant, and easy to deny. But we can fight it if we know how.

Do Trump´s Large Rallies Produce Momentum Over Math?

By Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D. on November 07, 2016 in Why Bad Looks Good
Donald Trump boasts large crowds at his massive rallies. Yet given the state of current polling results, Trump´s problem is not momentum, it is math.

Proven Ways to Change Someone's Mind

Days out from the 2016 presidential election, is it possible to change someone's mind?