Motivated Reasoning: An Emotional Bias

We all need a little more intellectual humility. With this, we could deactivate many of those emotional biases, beliefs, prejudices, and inflexible schemas that limit our perception of things, and of which we're not always aware.
Motivated Reasoning: An Emotional Bias

Last update: 21 March, 2022

You usually want to be right. Sometimes, your approach has a clear foundation and, as such, you’re fully entitled to defend your ideas respectfully. However, on other occasions, you allow yourself to be carried away without even knowing it by motivated reasoning. This is an emotional bias in which your desires, fears, and needs dominate your arguments.

You have a tendency to believe what you want to believe. This is an extremely common kind of behavior. Take, for example, the instance of a celebrity who’s committed a serious crime, yet who’s still defended by their fans. Or, the supporters of a particular sports team who insist on denying a fault indicated by the referee or the judge, despite the fact that the transgression is evident.

It tends to happen because, as a human, you’re moved by your emotions, as well as your beliefs, passions, and attitudes. Consequently, not everything you do, express, or think is free of the kind of prejudice and bias that distorts your objectivity.

However, what would each of us be without all this psychological complexity?

Bored woman talking to a friend who applies motivated reasoning

Motivated reasoning

We live in a society that’s nourished by influencers and people (with or without knowledge) who flood the world of Twitter and other social media. Therefore, it’s extremely easy for information without any foundation or logic to be taken as valid.

It doesn’t matter that science is trying to provide evidence to the contrary. It’s the like and the retweet that rules. Also, impulsive behavior that, far from reflecting on information, lets itself be carried away by emotion and not by the reliability of the source. Interestingly, Max Planck already warned us about this in the middle of the 20th century.

This famous German physicist and mathematician pointed out that scientific truth doesn’t always triumph. That it’s often no use trying to convince people of the evidence of something by shining a light on it. Because, in the human mind, there are always barriers that build inflexible beliefs and emotions such as mistrust, fear, or even pride. These act as a barricade against even the most obvious logic. Take, for example, the flat earthers and the anti-vaccine movement.

Motivated reasoning tells us that we always filter what we see, what we’re told, and what happens to us. Nevertheless, we rarely study the facts themselves. Let’s take a closer look.

Don’t contradict my vision of things

Few emotional biases lie as deeply in your psychological architecture as motivated reasoning. For instance, when you notice that someone you dislike says or does something that’s correct or worthy of recognition, you process it with skepticism. What’s more, you tell yourself “They’ve just got their wires crossed” or “They only want something in return”.

Or, if a political party that’s opposed to your own ideology decides to promote a law that’s beneficial for all, you’ll see certain nuances and be suspicious. “I‘ve been criticizing them all my life. How can they possibly come up with anything good?” In fact, you rarely tolerate any contradiction of your own ideas.

As a rule, things are black and white and must be adjusted to the meaning you give to them. Taking this approach saves you time. However, it’s psychological laziness and it prevents you from having to open your mind to assume another perspective.

Research conducted at the University of California by Dr. David López demonstrates the same thing. When the information you receive is consistent with your beliefs, you experience pleasure and a certain satisfaction. On the other hand, when something contradicts you, you apply the kind of skepticism that builds barriers.

Man and woman trying to learn to communicate with people who think differently

What’s behind motivated reasoning?

All of your attitudes, choices, and opinions are purely objective. Furthermore, it’s common for you to defend your own arguments in front of people, believing that they’re absolute truths. This is perfectly normal. After all, your brain is built through each experience, interpretation, cognitive bias, or prejudice that you’ve been unconsciously indoctrinated with by your environment.

The reasons behind motivated reasoning

In order to become more aware of motivated reasoning, you need to know what’s behind it. Only then can you disable it.

  • The emotional bond you have with certain dimensions. Almost always, everything you defend has a basic emotional substrate that you should identify.
  • Your beliefs define you and build your identity. For example, if you were educated in an environment with highly sexist and patriarchal behaviors (and have internalized them, accepting them as valid), it’d be extremely difficult for you to believe in gender equality. Furthermore, seeing a woman in a position of power would contradict and annoy you.
  • Your own social groups shape you. Indeed, these ‘microworlds’ determine you. Almost without realizing it, you assume ideas and thought patterns, taking them for granted without reflecting on them.
  • Avoid cognitive dissonance. Your mind doesn’t like information that contradicts your beliefs. Therefore, instead of analyzing and reflecting on this data in order to be able to understand other perspectives and even update your own, you oppose it. That which challenges your own truths generates cognitive dissonance in you. This means you continue to cling to your own vision. In fact, you apply motivated reasoning with which you defend the impossible in order to maintain your position.

To conclude, this type of bias demonstrates the importance of making use of an open and flexible mindset. If you allow yourself to relativize and apply intellectual humility, you’ll not only improve your state of coexistence, but you’ll also improve yourself and be more courteous and compassionate.

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  • Ditto, P. H. & Lopez, D. L. (1992) Motivated skepticism: Use of differential decision criteria for preferred and nonpreferred conclusions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 63: 568-584.