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The Ideological Symmetry of Motivated Reasoning

On the heels of  the John Bullock article & his amplification of it below,  the ideological neutrality of motivated reasoning came up again in an informative exchange with Howie Lavine during my recent presentation at the University of Minnesota. So I've found myself continuing to ponder the matter.

In our work, we test the hypothesis that cultural cognition -- a species of motivated reasoning that reflects the impact of group values on perceptions of fact -- is responsible for conflicts over scientific evidence on issues like climate change, the HPV vaccine, & gun control (and for conflicts over non-scientific evidence on many legal issues, too). The hypotheses assume that those on both sides of such debates are being affected by cultural cognition, and our data seem to reflect that.

But at least some social scientists have been advancing the claim that motivated reasoning in politics is more characteristic of (or maybe even unique to) conservative ideology. Essentially, these researchers are reviving the "authoritarian personality" position associated with Adorno. The most prominent of these neo-Adorno-ists is John Jost (see herehere & here, e.g.). 

I tend to doubt that motivated reasoning is ideologically lopsided. What's more, I tend to believe that even if the effects are not perfectly uniform across the ideological continuum (or cultural continua; we use two dimensions of value in our work as opposed to the single "liberal-conservative" one that Jost and others use), the impact of motivated reasoning is more than large enough at both ends to be a concern for all.

But I acknowledge the issue of "motivated reasoning asymmetry" is an open one, and agree it is worth investigating.

Obviously, the investigation should consist in empirical testing. But there must also be attention to theory, which is necessary to tell us what we sort of evidence is relevant, and hence how tests should be constructed and interpreted.

To that end, I offer some thoughts on a couple of the theories that might result in contrary predictions on the asymmetry thesis & what they suggest about empirical testing of that claim.

As I read Jost and others, the asymmetry position grounds motivated reasoning in a general propensity (a personality trait, essentially) toward dogmatism that tends toward a conservative (or "authoritarian") political orientation. On this account, we shouldn't expect to see motivated reasoning among liberals, whose ideology is itself a reflection of their propensity toward open-mindedness.

In contrast, the symmetry position (as reflected in cultural cognition and related theories) sees ideologically motivated reasoning as simply one species of identity-protective cognition. As developed by Sherman & Cohen, identity-protective cognition refers to the dismissive reaction that individuals form toward information that threatens the status of (or their connection to) a group that is important to their identity.  "Democrat" and "Republican" (along with hierarchy and egalitarianism, communitarianism and individualism, in cultural cognition) are both group affinities of that sort, and so both create vulnerability to motivated cognition.

Simple correlations of the extent of motivated reasoning with partisan identity or ideology (or cultural worldviews) furnish the most obvious way to test the asymmetry thesis but are unlikely to be conclusive because of their modest magnitudes and their variability across studies (such asymmetries in lab studies will also raise toughter-than-usual external validity questions). One nice thing about specifying the  theories in this way, we can expand the search for evidence that gives us more or less reason to accept or reject the asymmetry thesis. 

E.g., if personal self-affirmation works to reduce resistance to ideologically noncongruent information among both liberals & conservatives, Republicans & Democrats--that, in my mind, counts as reason to be skeptical of asymmetry. The effect of self-affirmation is evidence that the source of the motivated reasoning at work is identity-protective cognition; there's no reason to expect self-affirmation to have any effect in mitigating motivated reasoning that arises from a generalized disposition toward dogmatism.  And, btw, we already know self-affirmation reduces the resistance of liberal Democrats as well as conservative Republicans to ideologically noncongruent information. See here & here, for example.

Also: If we see ideologically motivated reasoning operating through sensory perception, that's a reason to be skeptical of asymmetry too. The neo-Adorno-ist dogmatic personality theory addresses responses to arguments and evidence that bears argumentatively on political positions; it is about closed-mindedness not sensory blindness. Identity-protective cognition doesn't make any claim that self-defensiveness will be limited only to assessments of arguments, and so can fit motivated reasoning effects in sight & other senses.  Research using cultural cognition has shown that motivated reasoning can generate polarization of individuals of all values when they observe video of politically charged events  (e.g., abortion-clinic vs. miltitary-recruitment center protests or high-speed police car chases). 

Lastly, if we can parsimoniously assimilate motivated reasoning in politics to a larger theory of motivated reasoning, then we should prefer that account to one that posits a patchwork of local motivated reasoning dynamics of which ideologically motivated reasoning is one. Identity-protective cognition offers us that sort of parsimony: individuals are known to react defensively against information that challenges diverse group identities -- like being the fan of a particular sports team or a student of a particular university -- and not only against information that challenges partisan or ideological identities.  The neo-Ardon-ist dogmatic personality theory doesn't explain that (although it does seem to me that Yankees fans are very closed minded & authoritarian).  Thus, more evidence, I think, for the symmetry position.

More but not conclusive evidence. For me, the question is, as I said, very much an open one.  Also, I don't mean to say that identity-protective cognition & the dogmatic-personality theories are the only ones to consider here.

The only point I am trying to make is that we are likely to get further in answering the question if we think about it in conjunction with theories of motivated cognition that offer competing predictions about symmetry and other things than if we just gather up studies & ponder correlations.

Or to put it more concisely, and on the basis of a (profound) truism from the philosophy of science: No theory, no meaningful observations.


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  • Response
    [...] One possible approach: Have subjects read a complex, fact-laden, scientific, non-normative article on a sensitive topic such as the ones studied by Kahan (e.g., abortion, global warming, etc.) Then see whether liberals or conservatives err more in favor of their favored position in their recall of the facts, the fact-based ...

Reader Comments (2)

>>identity-protective cognition (dismissive reaction toward info that threatens group identity)
>>personal self-affirmation (to reduce resistance to ideologically noncongruent info)

That resistance fades quickly I expect. Does reaction/resistance stay symmetrical when you repeat months later?

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter@blamer


Interesting question. In the particular studies I inked to, the effect of affirmation in counteracting defensive bias was measured more or less immediately & there weren't follow ups of any sort. But I don't think the studies were actually modeling an effect that is anticipated to be long-lasting; the idea isn't that "affirmation" of that sort changes a person in some permanent way that forever after affects how he or she engages information but rather that affirmation can put a person in a more reflective and open-minded state *at the time* the person engages a particular piece of information. If that can be done, then there's reason to think that the affirmed individual will learn more and that groups of affirmed individuals will deliberate more productively.

Having said that, CCP member Geoff Cohen, who has done great stuff on self-affirmation & counteractint defensive biases, has also shown how related forms of affirmation offset the impact of stereotype threat on minority academic performance. The interventions -- the affirmation exercises -- are basically one-shot but *do* have long-lasting effects. Pretty cool. See

Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N. & Brzustoski, P. Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science 324, 400-403 (2009); and

Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N. & Master, A. Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention. Science 313, 1307-1310 (2006).

And listen to Geoff describe the 2d study on Science podcast!

August 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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