Truth and Motivated Reasoning

Truth and Motivated Reasoning

Human beings are not always - if ever - the completely objective, rational creatures we like to think we are. Though cognitive faculties are a distinguishing feature of humanity, those capabilities are rooted in and subject to bias, emotions and instinct. Here in the US we are increasingly finding highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying self-constructed quasi-factual universes. 

People are running away from fact and truth and accepting whatever makes them right or feel validated. Experts refer to this motivated reasoning as the process of deciding what evidence to accept based on the conclusion one prefers. Consider as an example the denial of global warming. People process scientific information about climate shifts in a way that validates their feelings and beliefs to avoid accepting climate change as real. Though there are instances climate change is solely and erroneously blamed for disasters in nature when there other contributing factors, it’s easier for the person to accept those contributing or mitigating factors as the sole reason rather than make significant changes in lifestyle to stem climate change. Changing one’s mind and changing one’s lifestyle are hard work and people would rather take the easy route. 

So, are people ignorant? Are they deluded? Is it a left-wing or right-wing issue? In a research series published in the American Journal of Political Science, researchers found that people’s moral codes don’t cause or predict their political ideology; instead, people bend their acceptance of truth and morality to fit their chosen political stance. Pennsylvania State University Professor Peter Hatemi says, “We will switch our moral compass depending on how it fits with what we believe politically.”

Needless to say, moral and political convictions are complicated. How any one person develops beliefs is a complex mix of upbringing, culture, and innate predispositions. And political parties attempt to appeal to these complex moral values to defend their positions on a variety of charged topics, such as abortion, immigration, and gun control. This manipulation creates a response wherein the truth becomes less clearly defined and facts become harder for humans to hear and accept. 

"It takes more information to make you believe something you don't want to believe than something you do," says Peter Ditto, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. "In modern media terms, that might mean a person is quick to share a political article on social media if it supports their beliefs, but is more likely to fact-check the story if it doesn't," Ditto says. Read: headline surfing and sharing is dangerous. 

People failing to read, to find and accept fact and truth before sharing and taking whatever moral reasoning "route" leads to their ideologically-predetermined preferred outcome is prime ground for in-group favoritism and toxic, system-justifying identity politics. Left or right, liberal or conservative, this sounds like the kind of bias we're quick to note in our opponents, but never see in ourselves. These emotional responses that ignore fact leave us fighting a war that is perhaps not real and simply another instance of the tail wagging the dog. 

November 25, 2020

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