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Motivated Reasoning: A Brief History

Ziva Kunda's idea of motivated reasoning has had an ongoing impact.

Key points

  • In motivated reasoning, personal goals bias beliefs.
  • Motivated reasoning has a long history.
  • Most motivated reasoning is actually motivated inference.

We are all prone to motivated reasoning in which our personal goals distort our beliefs. For example, most drivers and most professors think they are above average. Ziva Kunda’s 1990 paper “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” has been cited more than 9,000 times, according to Google Scholar, with more than 1,000 citations since 2021! Its influence has steadily expanded beyond social psychology to fields that include political science, economics, communication, and philosophy. I have a personal connection because Ziva and I were married from 1985 to her death from cancer in 2004.

I remember Ziva telling me around 1983 about her plan to do a Ph.D. thesis on the effects of motivation on inference. My reaction was—what a cool topic! At the time, the dominant view in psychology was that thinking errors arose because of the cognitive biases investigated by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. An older view that explained irrational behavior as the result of dissonance between beliefs and attitudes had fallen out of fashion. I was teaching informal logic and telling my students about an array of logical fallacies but never thought to warn them about the more powerful effects of motivation and emotion.

I do not recall what inspired Ziva to look at motivation, but her talks on the results of her dissertation research always started with “Let me tell you about my mother.” The same story appears in her 1999 textbook, Social Cognition, where she describes how her mother, a heavy smoker, dismissed an article on the effects of smoking on pregnancy by pointing to her tall sons. Ziva was well aware that the idea that motivation and emotion influence judgments was not new, but she originated the terms “motivated inference” and “motivated reasoning.” Her experiments provided the first solid evidence of motivational biases in everyday reasoning: for example when people evaluate medical studies. She also developed the first articulated theory of motivated reasoning as resulting from cognitive processes of biases in memory search and evidence collection.

I have since encountered numerous ancestors of the idea of motivated reasoning. The earliest was from the 5th century BC, when the historian Thucydides wrote about the enemies of Athens: “Their judgment was based more upon blind wishing than upon any sound prediction; for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire.” Aristotle, in the 4th century BC, discussed akrasia, translated as incontinence or weakness of will, which occurs when the domination of reason by emotion leads to bad actions. Writing about Alexander the Great in the 1st century AD, Arrian wrote: “Accordingly, as is usual in such cases, not knowing the facts, each man conjectured what was most pleasing to himself.” Thus the basic idea behind motivated reasoning has been known for 2,000 years.

A particularly lucid description of motivated reasoning was presented in 1620 by Francis Bacon in his pioneering treatise on scientific thought, Novum Organum:

“The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called ‘sciences as one would.’ For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes… Numberless, in short, are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding.”

Many other commentators, such as John Stuart Mill and Jon Elster, have noticed the human susceptibility to wishful thinking. David Pears pursued Aristotelian themes of the weakness of will and self-deception under the heading of motivated irrationality. Ari Kruglansky introduced the term motivated cognition to cover other ways in which goals affect thinking. Related ideas include motivated thinking, positive illusions, optimism bias, desirability bias, and wishful thinking bias.

In her 1987 experimental paper, Ziva introduced the phrase “motivated inference,” but her 1990 theoretical paper changed it to “motivated reasoning.” I do not know why she made the change, and until 2011, I mis-cited the 1990 paper as “The Case for Motivated Inference.” From a logical perspective reflected in dictionaries, the words “inference” and “reasoning” are synonyms because they describe patterns of verbal argument.

However, the last hundred years of psychology suggest a very different perspective because of the importance of unconscious inference that operates in perception, emotion, and nonverbal images such as pictures. Reasoning is usually deliberate, slow, conscious, verbal, unemotional, and serial—one step at a time. In contrast, the brain carries out inferences that are often automatic, fast, unconscious, nonverbal, emotional, and parallel, with billions of neurons working simultaneously. So inference and reasoning are not the same, and we cannot equate motivated inference and motivated reasoning.

Which is the better way of describing motivated thinking? In an old blog post, I gave examples of motivated thinking in domains that included romantic relationships, parenting, medicine, politics, sports, law, religion, economics, and research. Sometimes, we may be consciously aware and verbally explicit in thinking along these lines, but usually, our motivations affect our judgments without our realizing it. For example, people denying that their medical symptoms are not serious usually have no idea that their motive to be healthy is swamping their assessment of the evidence. Aside from New Age manifesters, people rarely explicitly argue: I want something; therefore, I will get it.

Moreover, psychologists have found evidence for the phenomena of wishful seeing and wishful hearing, where motivations influence perceptions such as the size of desired objects. Such nonverbal, unconscious, motivated perception is clearly inference rather than reasoning. Accordingly, I think that Ziva’s original term, “motivated inference,” is usually the most appropriate, with “motivated reasoning” better reserved for more public, social occurrences of distortions of thinking and communication. However, Ziva’s term “motivated reasoning” has become standard, so it’s best to stick with the usual terminology. But we should recognize that motivated thinking is often different from public, verbal, and argumentative reasoning in being unconscious, nonverbal, and emotional.

References

Kunda, Z. (1987). Motivated inference: Self-serving generation and evaluation of evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 636-647.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.

Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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