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Motivated Reasoning

Human beings are not always—in fact, probably not often—the objective, rational creatures we like to think we are. In the past few decades, psychologists have demonstrated the many ways people deceive themselves in the process of reasoning. Cognitive faculties are a distinguishing feature of humanity—lifting humankind out of caves and enabling language, arts, and sciences. Nevertheless, they are also rooted in and subject to influence, or bias, by emotions and instincts.

One of the most significant ways information processing and decision-making becomes warped is through motivated reasoning, when biased reasoning leads to a particular conclusion or decision, a process that often occurs outside of conscious awareness.

How Motivated Reasoning Works

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Cognitive scientists see motivated reasoning as a force that operates in many domains. Studies by political psychologists highlight denial of climate change or discrediting its science as important examples of motivated reasoning; 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; people prefer mental shortcuts—in this case, having the goal fit their ready-made conclusions.

Motivated reasoning operates in more personal spheres as well. For example, it is seen as a mechanism people commonly use to preserve a favorable identity, particularly in Western cultures. To maintain positive self-regard, people (unwittingly) discount unflattering or troubling information that contradicts their self-image. Individuals engage in motivated reasoning as a way to avoid or lessen cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort people experience when confronted by contradictory information, especially on matters that directly relate to their comfort, happiness, and mental health. Rather than re-examining a contradiction, it’s much easier to dismiss it.

What causes motivated reasoning?

Most decisions we make, conscious or unconscious, are influenced by motivation; there is an intended purpose underlying those decisions. Yet those goals sometimes conflict with each other. The process of balancing and prioritizing competing goals can determine the reasoning we use, which often results in motivated reasoning.

Which biases can affect decision making?

A cognitive bias refers to a systematic error in the thinking process, of which there are many. For example, confirmation bias involves favoring ideas that confirm preexisting beliefs. The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when people with a low level of knowledge in a given domain overestimate their knowledge or ability. The self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute successes to one’s actions and attribute failures to external circumstances.

Other common biases include the hindsight bias, the negativity bias, the sunk cost fallacy, the decline bias, the backfire effect, the fundamental attribution error, the in-group bias, and the Barnum effect.

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How to Think Critically

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Motivated reasoning is a natural human tendency. But just because cognitive biases are pervasive doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. There are ways to identify and overcome erroneous thinking, whether that be an individual’s decision-making process or communication challenges in society more broadly.

Can I counteract motivated reasoning?

To avoid errors in decision-making that can accompany motivated reasoning, you can take a few concrete steps. First, you can avoid making decisions when experiencing intense emotions. Second, you can be attentive to situations in which you’re motivated to prove yourself right, which can render people vulnerable to reasoning errors. Third, you can avoid jumping to conclusions based on what you think they know, because assumptions are often baseless.

How can I improve my critical thinking skills?

Several tips can help you cultivate critical thinking daily: 

1. Save critical thinking for things that matter—prioritize the investment in time and effort for decisions with important consequences.

2. Think critically in the morning—otherwise, decision fatigue can set in.

3. Take a step back—take time to reflect on your knowledge and its limits.

4. Play devil’s advocate—identify four compelling points for and against a given position.

5. Remove your emotions—strong emotions can be persuasive.

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