Motivated Reasoning

One of an ongoing series on traps of the mind.

I never watched the show “The X Files,” nor did I see either of the movies, but the tag line for the second movie caught my attention:

“I want to believe.”

It caught my attention because it so clearly sums up the way many people approach the extraordinary—they want to believe. They want to believe for a variety of reasons: it seems more “enlightened” to embrace the mystical and mysterious; there is great psychological satisfaction on being among those with inside knowledge of deep and hidden truths; real life can be disappointing and speculation more attractive than reality; they have fantasy-prone personalities; etc.

Thanks to the cognitive bias of motivated reasoning it is easy for such “want-to believers” to find evidence for their beliefs and overlook or simply dismiss evidence that contradicts it.

Motivated reasoning (sometimes called motivated cognition) is actually a phenomenon that incorporates a number of cognitive biases such as biased assimilation and identity-protective cognition in a way that helps people reason their way toward a(n often nonconsciously) predetermined conclusion. It is a modern and fancy way of restating Hume’s assertion that our feelings form our conclusions and our reason finds a way to support them.

Motivated reasoning is frequently on display whenever people are discussing issues to which they are either ideologically identified or in which they have a personal stake in the outcome. It is the true believers of every stripe who will take any piece of data and twist it to support their point of view and deny any confounding evidence, no matter how strong.

Just a few examples include: