Motivated Cognition

Motivated Cognition Definition

When people think and reason, they sometimes have a vested interest in the outcome of their thinking and reasoning. For example, people engage in wishful thinking about whether or not their favorite sports team will win, or whether a relative will survive a risky surgical procedure. In these situations, people may be less open-minded than they might be in other situations in which they do not have a preferred outcome in mind.

Motivated CognitionMotivated cognition refers to the influence of motives on various types of thought processes such as memory, information processing, reasoning, judgment, and decision making. Many of these processes are relevant to social phenomena such as self-evaluation, person perception, stereotypes, persuasion, and communication. It is important to understand the influence of motivation because such research explains errors and biases in the way people make social judgments and may offer ideas about how to offset the negative effects of such motives.

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Motivated Cognition Examples

One example of a cognitive process influenced by motivation is memory. People tend to remember successes more than failures, and when led to believe that a given attribute is desirable, they are more likely to remember past events where they displayed this attribute than those in which they did not. People overestimate contributions to past events such as group discussions and projects, and revise their memory in accordance with their motives. They might reconstruct their memory of what attributes they considered most important in a spouse after marrying someone who does not have these attributes.

People’s motives also influence how they process novel information. They are relatively more likely to trust small samples of information consistent with desired expectations (even when they know that small samples can be unreliable) and are more critical of messages threatening desired beliefs. If they engage in a particular behavior often (e.g., smoking), they are more likely to find fault with information suggesting this behavior is dangerous. Judgments of frequency and probability are also influenced by motives. People overestimate the frequency of events that support their desired beliefs and consider their personal likelihoods of experiencing positive events to be greater than that for negative events.

Another cognitive process is the way in which people make attributions (i.e., search for underlying causes) for events. Motivational factors may cause people to accept responsibility for successes more than failures, and to believe that others who have experienced negative events (e.g., rape, burglarization) were partially responsible and perhaps deserving of those fates. By doing so, they protect themselves from believing that they could also experience these events. Accessing and applying negative stereotypes about others has been shown to help people cope with threats to their own self-concepts. Furthermore, the way in which people define personality traits may be linked to self-serving motives; for example, most people can believe they are better leaders than average if they define leadership according to their own personal strengths.

Types of Motives That Influence Cognition

Many of the previous examples draw on one particular type of motive: to confirm or sustain favorable beliefs (particularly about the self). Many other motives can influence cognition. When people are accountable for their judgments—such as when these judgments can be verified for accuracy—the motive to make accurate, defensible judgments becomes more impactful. The motive to form an accurate impression of another person helps one carefully organize information about that person and remember that information in the future. The motive to belong, exemplified by people’s interest in relationships and group memberships, might also influence various types of cognitive processes, such as judgments about romantic partners. The desire to see one’s group as different from others may underlie the tendency to view members of outgroups as more similar to each other (relative to ingroups), as well as the tendency to judge members of other groups more harshly.

Another motive that may influence cognition is terror management. According to terror management theory, thinking about one’s own mortality can paralyze individuals with terror. One defense against this terror is a bolstering of one’s worldview, which offers figurative immortality by being a part of something that will live on even after the individual’s demise. In conditions in which the chances of thinking about one’s own death are high, individuals are harsher critics of opposing worldviews.

Psychological Processes Linking Motivation and Cognition

People do not simply ignore information inconsistent with their motives. On the contrary, motivation seems to instigate careful scrutiny of the information. In her theory of motivated reasoning, Ziva Kunda argues that motivation formulates directional hypotheses (e.g., “I am a good person”) that people then attempt to test using standard cognitive (and dispassionate) strategies. As it turns out, many such strategies are themselves biased. People often exhibit a confirmation bias when testing hypotheses, being more attentive to information confirming their hypothesis than they are to disconfirming information. They remember more vivid and personal information than they do pallid and impersonal information. Individuals also possess crude statistical heuristics (or rules of thumb) they use when making judgments and may be more likely to draw on these heuristics when doing so is consistent with their motives.

When given other opportunities to protect the self-concept (e.g., self-affirmation, or reflection on one’s important values), people are less likely to exhibit biases in their judgments. Nonconscious motives may also influence cognition through the automatic activation of concepts relevant to a given judgment. For example, people asked to circle all cases of I in a passage (which activates the self-concept below conscious awareness) tend to be faster at identifying whether they possess a given list of traits.

Implications of Motivated Cognition

The effects of motivation on cognition are likely to be a function of several critical psychological needs. For example, people want to protect their limited emotional resources and protect themselves from constant thoughts of their own mortality. Other work suggests that individuals who possess positive illusions— overestimations of one’s ability, control over one’s environment, and chances of experiencing positive events in the future—are also more healthy (both mentally and physically). Positive illusions may motivate actions designed to achieve positive outcomes. On the other hand, such beliefs could also lead to dangerous behavior. If one is motivated to avoid threatening information about an unhealthy behavior, the outcome is likely to be a continuation of that behavior followed by potential health problems. The extent to which motivated biases in cognition are adaptive is still a matter of debate.


  1. Dunning, D. A. (1999). A newer look: Motivated social cognition and the schematic representation of social concepts. Psychological Inquiry, 10, 1—11.
  2. Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480—198.
  3. Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193—210.