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.

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