Updated December 30, 2020
By Steve Courmanopoulos, PhD (Psych)
Most of us are familiar with the concept of Cognitive Dissonance, the notion that when confronted with an event that doesn’t fit with beliefs in which we are emotionally invested, the mind will go through all kinds of mental gymnastics to reduce the resulting stress. These include the classics of denial, projection, and rationalization. But the classics are kids stuff when it comes to the Big Daddy of them all: Motivated Reasoning.
“You’re in denial”. “Stop projecting”. “That’s just rationalization”. It’s amazing how Freudian notions of how the Ego protects itself have woven themselves into our consciousness and vernacular. Despite the decline in popularity of Psychoanalysis, it remains a useful model of how the mind manages emotionally troubling ideas, thoughts, and events.
Motivated Reasoning is the tendency to develop elaborate rationalizations in support of a given point of view, and then seeking out sources that support that point of view while ignoring contrary evidence. It’s confirmation bias on steroids. And it doesn’t matter how smart you are nor how well educated; scientists, for example, are routinely at risk from confirmation bias when doing research and analyzing their findings. You know those huge lists of references at the end of any published research study? You can be sure that most of those have been carefully selected from all the available past studies for evidence and points of view that support the researcher’s hypothesis.
Motivated reasoning has always been with us; it’s the bane of our intellectual life. It’s so pernicious that a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that the more indisputable facts you present to the believers of falsehoods, the more entrenched they actually become in their ideas. Such is the Ego.
A generation ago the effects of motivated reasoning were relatively constrained by the fact that information sources tended to be fewer and they were usually vetted and credentialed. We got our news from real journalists, not bloggers. Peer review in Science meant something. An MD specialist in infectious diseases was more likely to be trusted than a TV talk-show host when it came to Ebola. With the flood of information unleashed by the Internet we now have a democratization of information where every individual’s opinion has equal weight regardless of background, education, or training. Add to that a fundamental mistrust in authority engendered by a [seemingly] never-ending stream of revelations of corruption in almost every sphere of activity, and you have the perfect substrate for motivated reasoning to flourish.
There’s no cure for motivated reasoning. But knowing that we are all vulnerable to it can lead to some strategies to mitigate its effects.
First, vary your information sources to include a broader spectrum of opinions. While the Internet has facilitated motivated reasoning it can also be used as a counter-offensive. Every major journal, magazine, and news network has a feed on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. In fact, as of 2015, according to the latest research by the Pew Research Centre, Facebook and Twitter are the largest and most frequented newsfeed sources for the latest developments in almost every field of interest: Use these resources to create a varied newsfeed that encompasses a broad range of perspectives from opposing stakeholders.
Avoid motivated reasoning with these 8 tough questions
- Who is telling me this?
- What do they have to gain from my believing it?
- How does he or she know this to be true?
- Where is the source data for this information? Can I access the primary source (e.g., a research study published in a peer-reviewed journal)?
- Is it possible that he or she is wrong?
- If yes, find another source.
- Repeat till you’re satisfied that there’s a good chance the information is correct
- Think college debating club: Make it a point to research, argue and support the exact opposite of what you believe. It’s a good reality check.
Above all, be aware that if you feel strongly about something, there’s a very good chance you will use motivated reasoning to strengthen that belief.
By: Steve Courmanopoulos, Ph.D.
 Pediatrics. 2014 Apr;133(4):e835-42. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-2365. Epub 2014 Mar 3.
Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial.