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Motivated reasoning & its cognates

The following is an excerpt from Kahan, D.M. Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law Harv. L. Rev. 126, 1-77 (2011). I thought it might be useful to reproduce it here, both for its own sake and for reference (via hyperlink) in future blog entries, since  many of the concepts it describes are recurring ones in my posts. This entry contains a modest number of hyperlinks; the printed version (accessible via SSRN), is amply footnoted! 

1.  Generally. Motivated reasoning refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.  They Saw a Game, a classic psychology article from the 1950s, illustrates the dynamic.  Experimental subjects, students from two Ivy League colleges, were instructed to watch a film that featured a set of controversial officiating calls made during a football game between teams from their respective schools.  What best predicted the students’ agreement or disagreement with a disputed call, the researchers found, was whether it favored or disfavored their schools’ team.  The researchers attributed this result to motivated reasoning: the students’ emotional stake in affirming their commitments to their respective institutions shaped what they saw on the tape.

The end or goal motivates cognition in the sense that it directs mental operations — in this case, sensory perceptions; in others, assessments of the weight and credibility of empirical evidence, or performance of mathematical or logical computation — that we expect to function independently of that goal or end.  Indeed, the normal connotation of “motive” as a conscious goal or reason for acting is actually out of place here.  The students wanted to experience solidarity with their institutions, but they didn’t treat that as a conscious reason for seeing what they saw.  They had no idea (or so we are to believe; one needs a good experimental design to be sure this is so) that their perceptions were being bent in this way.

Although the students in this study probably would not have been distressed to learn that their perceptions had been covertly recruited by their desire to experience solidarity, there can be other contexts in which motivated cognition subverts an actor’s conscious ends.  This might be so, for example, when a person who genuinely desires to be make a fair or accurate judgment is unwittingly impelled to make a determination that favors some personal interest, pecuniary or social.

2.  Identity-Protective Cognition. The goals or needs that can motivate cognition are diverse.  They include fairly straightforward things, like a person’s financial or related interests.  But they reach more intangible stakes, too, such as one’s need to sustain a positive self-image or the desire to promote states of affairs or other goods that reflect one’s moral values.

Affirming one’s membership in an important reference group — the unconscious influence that operated on the students in the They Saw A Game experiment — can encompass all of these ends simultaneously.  Individuals depend on select others — from families to university faculties, from religious denominations to political parties — for all manner of material and emotional support.  Propositions that impugn the character or competence of such groups, or that contradict the groups’ shared commitments, can thus jeopardize their individual members’ well-being.  Assenting to such a proposition him- or herself can sever an individual’s bonds with such a group.  The prospect that people outside the group might credit this proposition can also harm an individual by reducing the social standing or the self-esteem that person enjoys by virtue of his or her group’s reputation.  Individuals thus face psychic pressure to resist propositions of that sort, generating a species of motivated reasoning known as identity-protective cognition.

Identity-protective cognition, like other forms of motivated reasoning, operates through a variety of discrete psychological mechanisms.  Individuals are more likely to seek out information that supports than information that challenges positions associated with their group identity (biased search).  They are also likely selectively to credit or dismiss a form of evidence or argument based on its congeniality to their identity (biased assimilation).  They will tend to impute greater knowledge and trustworthiness and hence assign more credibility to individuals from within their group than from without.

These processes might take the form of rapid, heuristic-driven, even visceral judgments or perceptions, but they can influence more deliberate and reflective forms of judgment as well.  Indeed, far from being immune from identity-protective cognition, individuals who display a greater disposition to use reflective and deliberative (so-called “System 2”) forms of reasoning rather than intuitive, affective ones (“System 1”) can be expected to be even more adept at using technical information and complex analysis to bolster group-congenial beliefs.

3.  Naïve Realism. Identity-protective cognition predictably impedes deliberations, negotiations, and like forms of collective decisionmaking.  When collective decisionmaking turns on facts or other propositions that are understood to bear special significance for the interests, standing, or commitments of opposing groups (for example, those who identify with the respective sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict), identity-protective cognition will predictably exaggerate differences in their understandings of the evidence.  But even more importantly, as a result of a dynamic known as “naïve realism,” each side’s susceptibility to motivated reasoning will interact with and reinforce the other’s.

Naïve realism refers to an asymmetry in the ability of individuals to perceive the impact of identity-protective cognition.  Individuals tend to attribute the beliefs of those who disagree with them to the biasing impact of their opponents’ values.  Often they are right.  In this respect, then, people are psychological “realists.”  Nevertheless, in such situations individuals usually understand their own factual beliefs to reflect nothing more than “objective fact,” plain for anyone to see.  In this regard, they are psychologically naïve about the contribution that group commitments make to their own perceptions.

Naïve realism makes exchanges between groups experiencing identity-protective cognition even more divisive.  The (accurate) perception that a rival group’s members are reacting in a closed-minded fashion naturally spurs a group’s members to express resentment — the seeming baselessness of which provokes members of the former to experience and express the same.  The intensity, and the evident polarization, of the disagreement magnifies the stake that individuals feel in defending their respective groups’ positions.  Indeed, at that point, the debate is likely to take on meaning as a contest over the integrity and intelligence of those groups, fueling the participants’ incentives, conscious and unconscious, to deny the merits of any evidence that undercuts their respective views.

4.  “Objectivity.” As naïve realism presupposes, motivated reasoning is an instance of what we commonly recognize as rationalization.  We exhort others, and even ourselves, to overcome such lapses — to adopt an appropriate stance of detachment — in settings in which we believe impartial judgment is important, including deliberations or negotiations in which vulnerability to self-serving appraisals can interfere with reaching consensus.  What most people don’t know, however, is that such admonitions can actually have a perverse effect because of their interaction with identity-protective cognition.

This is the conclusion of studies that examine whether motivated reasoning can be counteracted by urging individuals to be “objective,” “unbiased,” “rational,” “open-minded,” and the like.  Such studies find that individuals who’ve been issued this type of directive exhibit greater resistance to information that challenges a belief predominant within their defining groups.  The reason is that objectivity injunctions accentuate identity threat.  Individuals naturally assume that beliefs they share with others in their defining group are “objective.”  Accordingly, those are the beliefs they are most likely to see as correct when prompted to be “rational” and “open-minded.”  Indeed, for them to change their minds in such a circumstance would require them to discern irrationality or bias within their group, an inference fraught with dissonance.

For the same reason, emphasizing the importance of engaging the issues “objectively” can magnify naïve realism.  As they grow even more adamant about the correctness of their own group’s perspective, individuals directed to carefully attend to their own impartiality become increasingly convinced that only unreasoning, blind partisanship can explain the intransigence of the opposing group.  This view triggers the reciprocal and self-reinforcing forms of recrimination and retrenchment that are the signature of naïve realism.

5.  Cultural Cognition. Disputes set in motion by identity-protective cognition and fueled by naïve realism occupy a prominent place in our political life.  Such conflicts are the focus of the study of cultural cognition.

Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their perceptions of risk and other policy-consequential facts to their cultural worldviews.  Cultural worldviews consist of systematic clusters of values relating to how society should be organized.  Arrayed along two cross-cutting dimensions — hierarchy/egalitarianism and individualism/communitarianism — these values supply the bonds of affinity groups, membership in which motivates identity-protective cognition.  People who subscribe to a relatively hierarchical and individualistic worldview, for example, tend to be dismissive of environmental risk claims, acceptance of which would justify restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they value on material and symbolic grounds.  Individuals who hold egalitarian and communitarian values, in contrast, are morally suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as sources of social disparity and objects of noxious self-seeking.  They therefore find it congenial to believe that commerce and industry pose harms worthy of constraining regulations.  Experimental work has documented the contribution of cultural-cognition worldviews to various discrete mechanisms of motivated cognition, including biased search and assimilation, perceptions of expertise and credibility, and brute sense impressions.

Methods of cultural cognition have also been used to measure controversy over legally consequential facts.  Thus, mock jury studies have linked identity-protective cognition, motivated by the cultural worldviews, to conflicting perceptions of the risk posed by a motorist fleeing the police in a high-speed chase; of the consent of a date rape victim who said “no” but did not physically resist her assailant; of the volition of battered women who kill in self-defense; and of the use of intimidation by political protestors.  To date, however, no studies have directly tested the impact of cultural cognition on judges.

6.  Cognitive Illiberalism. Finally, cognitive illiberalism refers to the distinctive threat that cultural cognition poses to ideals of cultural pluralism and individual self-determination.  Americans are indeed fighting a “culture war,” but one over facts, not values.

The United States has a genuinely liberal civic and political culture — born not of reflective commitment to cosmopolitan ideals but of bourgeois docility.  Media spectacles notwithstanding, citizens generally don’t have an appetite to impose their worldviews on one another; they have an appetite for SUVs, big houses, and vacations to Disneyland (or Las Vegas).  Manifested in the absence of the sectarian violence that has filled human history and still rages outside the democratic capitalist world, there is effective consensus that the state should refrain from imposing a moral orthodoxy and confine policymaking to attainment of secular goods — safety, health, security, and prosperity — of value to all citizens regardless of their cultural persuasion.

As much as they agree about the ends of law, however, citizens are conspicuously — even spectacularly — factionalized over the means of attaining them.  Is the climate heating up as a result of human activity, and if so will it pose any dangers to us?  Will permitting citizens to carry concealed handguns in public increase violent crime — or reduce it?  Would a program of mandatory vaccination of schoolgirls against HPV promote their health by protecting them from cervical cancer — or undermine it by lulling them into unprotected sex, increasing their risk of contracting HIV?  Answers to questions like these tend to sharply polarize people of opposing cultural outlooks.

Divisions along these lines are not due to chance, of course; they are a consequence of identity-protective cognition.  The varying emotional resonance of risk claims across distinct cultural communities predisposes their members to find some of these claims more plausible than others, a process reinforced by the tendency of individuals to seek out and credit information from those who share their values.

Far from counteracting this effect, deliberation among diverse groups is likely to accentuate polarization.  By revealing the correlation between one or another position and one or another cultural style, public debate intensifies identity-protective pressure on individuals to conform to the views dominant within their group.

Liberal discourse norms constrain open appeals to sectarian values in debates over the content of law and policy.  But our political culture lacks any similar set of conventions for constraining the tendency of policy debates to build into rivalries among the members of groups whose members subscribe to competing visions of the best life.  On the contrary, one of the central discourse norms employed to steer law and policymaking away from illiberal conflicts of value plays a vital role in converting secular policy debates into forms of symbolic status competition.

The injunction of liberal public reason makes empirical, welfarist arguments the preferred currency of argumentative exchange.  The expectation that participants in public deliberations will use empirical arguments tends to confine their advocacy to secular ends; it also furnishes observable proof to the advocate and her audience that her position is not founded on an ambition to use the law to impose her own partisan view of the good.

Psychologically, however, the injunction to present culturally neutral empirical grounds for one’s position has the same effect as an “objectivity” admonition.  The prospect that one’s empirical arguments will be shown to be false creates the identity-threatening risk for her that she or others will come to form the belief that her group is deluded and, in fact, committed to propositions inimical to the public welfare.  In addition, the certitude that empirical arguments convey — “it’s simply a fact that . . . ”; “how can they deny the scientific evidence on . . . ?” — arouses suspicions of bad faith or blind partisanship on the part of the groups advancing them.  Yet when members of opposing groups attempt to rebut such arguments, they are likely to respond with the same certitude, and with the same lack of awareness that they are being impelled to credit empirical arguments to protect their identities.  This form of exchange — the signature of naïve realism — predictably generates cycles of recrimination and resentment.

When policy debates take this turn, both sides know that the answers to the questions they are debating convey cultural meanings.  The positions that individuals take on whether the death penalty deters, whether deep geologic isolation of nuclear wastes is safe, whether immigration reform will boost the economy or put people out of work, and the like express their defining commitments and not just their beliefs about how the world works.  Whose answer the state credits — by adopting one or another policy — elevates one cultural group and degrades the other.  Very few citizens are moral zealots.  But to protect the status of their group and their own standing within it, moderate citizens are conscripted, against their conscious will, into a divisive struggle to control the expressive capital of law.

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Reader Comments (8)

"Motivated reasoning" is another of those terms that seems to become more problematic the closer you look at it. In the first place, it doesn't seem as though there can be anything else -- "unmotivated reasoning" seems just pointless reasoning. We can narrow the intended reference to unconsciously motivated reasoning, as you say, but still it seems that unconscious processes are factors in all thinking, including all attempts at reasoning. Is this phrase, then, just a way of highlighting an aspect that is characteristic of all reasoning -- including the reasoning contained in the post itself (including the reasoning in this comment on the post)? Or is there some other kind of reasoning against which motivated reasoning can be defined? If so, how exactly would we define it, and how, practically, would we distinguish it?

Going at it from another angle, doesn't Bayesian reasoning, in a broad sense, resemble motivated reasoning in many ways? That is, given that one already has a particular belief or value, based upon a body of experience and thought, any new experience can only "update" or nudge that belief -- i.e., isn't it simply rational that one's prior beliefs have a major influence, whether consciously or not, on one's interpretation of new experiences?

May 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


1. I agree that "motivated reasoning" risks becoming empty. But I'd say that happens when what can be counted as a "motivation" is "getting the right answer"; at that point, the term covers everything. But if "motivated" is confined to "unconscious" responsiveness to "goal or interest extrinsic to accuracy of perception" -- then I think the concept has content. What's more, it is *getting* at something that we want to be able to discuss. "Unconscious" reasoning doesn't get at it; there is unconscious reasoning going on all the time inside me that has nothing to do w/ my forming perceptions, accurate or otherwise; also ones that are about forming perceptions but that aren't connected in a systematic way to goals or interests unrelated to forming an accurate judgment. So we need a way to pin down this useful concept. People use this term. We can make progress, in the way one always can w/ common vocabulary, by agreeing to use it and by trying to keep it focused on what we want to discuss.

2. Is motivated reasoning Bayesian?... I think this question can get us into either a very interesting discussion about the substance of human reasoning or into a scholastic discussion about logic that is boring. We want to get at the first, obviously, and the way to do that, I think, is not to answer the question "Is motivated reasoning consistent with Bayesianism" but instead simply to juxtapose a Bayesian process of information processing with a process that involves motivated reasoning and observe what's going on. Perhaps I will post more on this. But in fact I have posted on exactly this issue before. Take a look at the post on confirmation bias vs. cultural cognition.

May 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

On 2, also take a look at this.

May 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Really nice discussion. Thanks.

The discussion is also practical to me. I have to get better at depolarizing what would normally be polarizing discussions. I have to depolarize in order to move forward.

On the Bayesian and related arguments, from a molecular understanding of learning and memory, the cultural cognition is Bayesian. The problem in talking about it is that the Bayesian reasoning is millions of steps long. It is both robust and 'rational' though. Where 'rational' means derived from a person's cultural history and most likely given that history. Whether it is rational in a global sense is very difficult to determine.

May 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Thanks again for the links, Dan -- and again I see that you've anticipated me in responding to what I saw as problems. But let me try to push on regardless.

It looks to me as though you want to handle the Bayesian aspect of belief modification under the heading of "confirmation bias", and you provide a diagram of that using a box for "previous factual belief". You then say this doesn't capture people's actual behavior because it doesn't include "cultural cognition" predispositions, and you add another box to include that complication. As with all models, of course, this simplifies the situation, as I'm sure you'll agree, but in this case my concern is that the simplification obscures more than it clarifies, especially re: the central issue of so-called "facts", "reality", "evidence", and the like. That is, I think it may actually be misleading to try to analyze people's prior beliefs into "facts" on the one hand, and cultural predispositions on the other hand -- actual prior beliefs seem to consist of a great many "facts", values, experiences, loyalties, myths, abstractions, and so on. They certainly include cultural predispositions, as the diagram indicates, but the diagram seems to imply that cultural predisposition (CP) and factual beliefs are separate or unrelated to one another, and hence that "new evidence" can only affect factual belief, with no bearing upon CP. Whereas the view that the prior beliefs are an amalgamation of facts, values, ideologies, predispositions, etc. would suggest that "new evidence" would have an effect, in varying degrees, on that totality, including CP.

This problem seems to be the result of an aspect of the model that I've found questionable before -- the idea that CP is almost entirely a function of group loyalty rather than any thought-out, even semi-rational process of acquiring and modifying beliefs, values, judgments, etc. Thus, CP adherents, in the model, become very much like sports fans -- an analogy you've made, but, in my view, don't take seriously enough -- and we might just as well label EC and HI as, say, Yellow Scarfs and Green Scarfs. I don't doubt, as I've said before, that that does indeed capture a certain amount of real-world behavior, but by no means all of it, and maybe not the most important part of it, particularly when we come to the issue of how to communicate to people in various CP quadrants. If we think of their predispositions as extraneous to the substance of the communication, like the color of preferred scarfs, i.e., then we'll tend to look for ways around the predisposition, ways to avoid addressing it -- and this can easily slide into forms of communication manipulation that are both bad as such, and often self-defeating. Openly recognizing and addressing the ways in which the matter under discussion impacts and is impacted by cultural predispositions, on the other, seems both more honest (more in keeping with "Liberal" values), and in my view more likely to succeed in the long run.

May 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Re: "They had no idea (or so we are to believe; one needs a good experimental design to be sure this is so) that their perceptions were being bent in this way."

"We" would have needed a lot more than good experimental design in the 1950's, we would have also needed functional magnetic resonance imaging testing technology, which wasn't as yet invented, to begin to map, and attempt to differentiated corollaries.

May 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

The study you reference does not necessarily go to pecuniary interests respective to correlation from a scientific perspective, meaning only that you haven't supported it with peer reviewed sources, given financial transactions were not being quantified in Hastorf, & Cantril (1954).

May 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ.


Of course you are right.

There are many many many studies on motivated reasoning. The strength of one's belief that the mechanism is a genuine one and that we have a good working understanding of it depends on the totality of these studies.

Are you able to access the article from which this is an excerpt? As I indicated, it is "amply footnoted." I actually think it would be -- or could be, depending on what one had to say -- defensible to persist in a state of doubt or uncertainty on motivated reasoning after reading more deeply in the literature. If you feel that way, I'd be curious to know why (maybe you are familiar with these other studies too, but you are picking on Hastorf & Cantril -- that's not enough, I'm sure you agree)

May 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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