We’d all like to consider ourselves logical, objective, and reasonably intelligent individuals. We listen to facts, understand them, and then form our opinions and conclusions. And most of us feel we do that in a fair and unbiased way – but do we really?
The truth is that most of our reasoning is motivated by personal experience and outside influences. This causes a bias in our conclusions which is referred to as motivated reasoning and allows us to justify certain thoughts and feelings that we already have or want to believe.
What Motivated Reasoning Can Look Like
Motivated reasoning is exactly what it sounds like – reasoning motivated by something, namely our own preconceived ideas or beliefs.
In other words, it’s the process that many of us employ to use information that supports what we want to believe in, coming to the conclusions we prefer while ignoring the contradictory things.
This isn’t to say that a person using motivated reasoning is acting blindly. When employed, motivated reasoning seems, well, reasonable. It’s not quite as blatant as wishing you’re right about something and ignoring direct evidence you’re wrong.
Generally, there is clear evidence that can be interpreted so that it supports a person’s desired conclusion or belief. The problem is when there’s also evidence that dispels those conclusions and beliefs, and that is ignored.
One of the most widely used examples of motivated reasoning involves climate change. Depending upon what you are predisposed to believe, you can find information to either support or deny its occurrence.
While much of the information has a scientific basis, certain aspects of it are used to support either a grim outlook or a dismissive outlook about what’s happening with current climate changes. What you choose to cite and believe can depend on your motivation to believe or dismiss the gravity of these changes.
When Motivated Reasoning Affects Your Personal Life
Climate change is a large and controversial topic, so what about a more personal application? What does it look like when motivated reasoning is used in our personal lives and relationships?
One of the most common places in a relationship where motivated reasoning is employed is when one partner suspects the other of cheating. Evidence of cheating can often be vague. Many behaviors or physical indicators can be seen as both confirmations that a partner is cheating or explained away as normal and justifiable.
Texting all the time? Well, work is really busy – or he’s arranging to meet his mistress. Suddenly working out and strangely happy? She’s just getting in shape and feeling better about herself – or she’s meeting her lover and making sure she looks good for him.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t about what you’d rather believe, but what you’re inclined, or motivated, to believe. We’d probably all rather believe that our partner isn’t cheating, but if you’ve had experience with cheating, or you’re suspicious, jealous, or insecure, you may be more inclined to believe the worst and see all indicators as evidence of an affair. Whether there’s really an affair going on or not is a different story.
Where Motivated Reasoning Comes From
Even if you’re the most selfless, non-egotistical person on the planet, your understanding and interpretation of the world around you is shaped by how you see yourself fitting into it and your personal feelings and reactions to what’s around you. In other words, your own personal bias. We all have it.
It’s extremely difficult to leave personal bias behind when reasoning. We interpret things based on what we want to believe, what previous experience tells us is true, what we feel we’d do and how we think we’d react in a certain situation. All of this is present even when we think we’re completely objective.
For instance, if you’ve had an affair or thought about it, you’re more likely to believe that the signs you see are indications of your partner having an affair. If you were an errant teenager, you might more easily believe that your own kids will cross lines and interpret their behaviours.
So, as you try to reason through things and come to conclusions, you are naturally influenced by your personal biases, whether you want to be or not.
How To Be More Objective
The most important step in avoiding jumping to personally motivating conclusions is to understand and admit that personal bias exists and that you have it too. Doing this will open you up to be more objective in your reasoning.
Next, make sure you’re in the right headspace to look at things clearly.
- Allow any intense emotions to calm before coming to any conclusions.
- Consider each possible conclusion and which one seems most likely overall regardless of your own feelings or desires.
- Make no assumptions. Before you reason yourself into a conclusion about anything, make sure you have supporting information and are not using guesswork or filling in blanks with your own assumptions.
- When in doubt, consider talking to someone with a different viewpoint or who seems more objective than you are.
We all use motivated reasoning in our lives. It’s an innately human thing to do. Unfortunately, it’s also often the source of inaccurate conclusions and causes problems on a large scale and within our personal lives. So, before you assume you’re right about anything – especially something that has painful, life or relationship changing implications, take a moment to examine your motivations and other viewpoints.
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Author: Dr. Kurt Smith
Dr. Kurt Smith is the Clinical Director of Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching, a Northern California counseling practice that specializes in helping men and the women who love them. His expertise is in understanding men, their partners, and the unique relationship challenges couples face today. Dr. Kurt is a lover of dogs, sarcasm, everything outdoors, and helping those seeking to make their relationships better.