Motivated Reasoning

Motivated Reasoning Definition

Motivated reasoning is a form of reasoning in which people access, construct, and evaluate arguments in a biased fashion to arrive at or endorse a preferred conclusion. The term motivated in motivated reasoning refers to the fact that people use reasoning strategies that allow them to draw the conclusions they want to draw (i.e., are motivated to draw). Of course, people are not always motivated to confirm their preferred conclusions. Actually, they sometimes are motivated to draw accurate conclusions. However, the term motivated reasoning refers to situations in which people want to confirm their preferred conclusion rather than to situations in which people’s reasoning is driven by an accuracy motivation.

The Domain of Motivated Reasoning

Motivated ReasoningMotivated reasoning may be observed in virtually any setting. An important trigger of motivated reasoning is the confrontation with a certain threat to the self. In the absence of such a motivating threat, people may have the goal of attaining the most accurate conclusion rather than attaining a preferred conclusion. The following example may illustrate the difference. Someone who wants to buy a used car will try to make the best decision possible and hence be guided by accuracy concerns to avoid buying a lemon. After buying a used car, however, that same person may engage in motivated reasoning to support his belief that the car is not a lemon when the first signs of malfunction appear. For a less involving choice, like the choice of cereals, people will be less motivated to engage in thorough deliberation before the choice but will also be less likely to engage in motivated reasoning if their choice turns out to be bad. People’s self-esteem may suffer much less from choosing bad cereals than from being suckered into buying a lemon car.

Threats to the self may come in many different forms, so different types of conclusions may trigger motivated reasoning. A first type is conclusions that bolster people’s self-esteem. For instance, people attribute good test results to themselves but construct a motivated reasoning to explain bad test results to uphold the self-serving belief that they are intelligent human beings. A second type is conclusions that make people optimistic about their future. For instance, smokers engage in motivated reasoning when they dispel scientific evidence that suggests that smoking is bad for one’s health. People also engage in motivated reasoning to view future competitors as less competent and future cooperators as more competent than they really are. A third type is conclusions that are consistent with strongly held beliefs or strong attitudes. For instance, supporters of a politician might downplay the consequences of an undesirable act committed by the politician they support or might attribute the behavior to situational pressures. In sum, people construct motivated reasonings when their self-worth, their future, or their understanding and valuation of the world are at stake.

The Illusion of Objectivity

That motivated reasoning is not driven by an accuracy motive does not imply that motivated reasoners blatantly disregard the accuracy of their reasoning. Motivated reasoners have to uphold the illusion of objectivity: They cannot ignore the extant evidence regarding the issue at stake. If they are exposed to strong, compelling evidence contrary to their preferred conclusion, they will have to concede that their preferred conclusion is incorrect—the so-called reality constraint. For instance, in the used car example, when the car breaks down very often, the buyer will no longer be able to engage in motivated reasoning to defend his or her belief that the car is not a lemon.

The illusion of objectivity also implies that motivated reasonings must appear logically valid to the motivated reasoners themselves. Still, a motivated reasoning may be compelling only for people who want to endorse its conclusion, but possibly not for neutral observers, and probably not for adversaries, who want to endorse the opposite conclusion.

To uphold the illusion of objectivity, it seems necessary that people are not aware of any bias present in their reasoning; as such, motivated reasoning seems to entail self-deception. The necessity to uphold the illusion of objectivity may seem to entail that people have little latitude in constructing motivated reasonings. Still, to support a preferred conclusion, people may unknowingly display a bias in any number of the cognitive processes that underlie reasoning.

Mechanisms of Motivated Reasoning

First, people may exhibit motivated skepticism: They may examine information consistent with their preferred conclusions less critically than they examine information inconsistent with those conclusions. Although information consistent with a preferred conclusion is accepted at face value, people may spontaneously try to refute information inconsistent with that conclusion. People also view arguments as stronger or as more persuasive if these arguments happen to be consistent with their preferred conclusions than if the arguments are inconsistent with the preferred conclusions. Motivated skepticism implies that people require less information to reach a preferred conclusion than to reach nonpreferred conclusions.

Second, and related to motivated skepticism, people may use statistical information in a motivated way. For instance, people attach more value to evidence based on a small sample size if the evidence supports their position than if it opposes it. Consistent with the illusion of objectivity that motivated reasoners have to uphold, for large sample sizes, the value attached to favorable and unfavorable evidence is rather similar. Also, although people commonly neglect base rate information, they may use that information if it supports their preferred conclusions.

Third, to justify preferred conclusions, people may need to retrieve information in memory or look for external information. The search for information may be biased toward retrieving or finding information that is consistent with the preferred conclusion. This biased (memory) search may be because people’s preferred conclusions function as hypotheses to be tested and that people often exhibit a confirmation bias in hypothesis testing. This confirmation bias implies that people may more readily come up with supporting arguments than with arguments that are not consistent with their preferred conclusions.

Fourth, people not only access information in a biased way, but also apply concepts in a motivated way. For instance, people display motivated stereotyping: They apply stereotypes, sometimes unjustly, if they support their preferred impressions but resist applying these stereotypes if they run counter to their preferred impressions.

The Case for Motivated Reasoning

The idea that motivation may affect information processing, including reasoning, seems intuitively plausible and underlies classic cognitive consistency theories as well as cognitive dissonance theory. However, the problem with many early studies that seemed to evidence the impact of motivation on people’s information processing was that they were amenable to a purely cognitive explanation. For instance, the classic finding that people attribute their successes internally but their failures externally may be due to people’s motivation to see themselves in the best possible way and therefore points toward motivated reasoning. However, the differential attribution of failures and successes may also be because people’s self-schema leads them to expect to succeed and not to fail and that they attribute expected outcomes—successes— internally and unexpected ones—failures—externally. Because the latter explanation does not feature any motivation, it is a purely cognitive explanation of the differential attribution of failure and success.

Recent studies, however, have provided unequivocal support for the hypothesis that motivation affects information processing. For instance, in a study on motivated skepticism, where participants had to choose one of two students they would have to work with on a task, participants required less information to conclude that the more dislikable student was the less intelligent of the two than to decide that he was the more intelligent. The level of knowledge of the two students was equal in both cases, so the obtained results seem to implicate the motivation to see the more likeable student—that is, the one that participants wanted to work with—as the more intelligent one.

Numerous studies have now established that people may reason in a motivated way and have found support for the previously described mechanisms through which motivation may bias reasoning. In addition, studies in motivated social cognition have shown that people may define social concepts, such as traits and abilities, in a self-serving way. Such self-serving social concepts may be used in motivated reasonings to support self-serving beliefs.


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