“Is politically motivated reasoning rational?” A fragment …

From something in the works …

My goal in this paper is to survey existing evidence on the mechanisms of culturally motivated reasoning (CMR) and assess what that evidence implies about the relationship between CMR and rational decisionmaking.

CMR refers to the tendency of individuals to selectively credit diverse forms of information—from logical arguments to empirical data to credibility assessments to their own sensory impressions—in patterns that reflect their cultural predispositions. CMR is conventionally attributed to  over-reliance on heuristic or System 1 information processing. Like other manifestations of bounded rationality, CMR is understood to interfere with individuals’ capacity to identify and pursue courses of action suited to attainment of their personal well-being (e.g., Lodge & Taber 2013; Weber & Stern 2011; Lilienfeld, Ammirati, Landfield 2009; Sunstein 2007).

I will challenge this picture of CMR.  Numerous studies using a variety of observational and experimental designs suggest that the influence of CMR is not in fact limited to heuristic information processing.  On the contrary, these studies find that in disputes displaying pervasive CMR—for example, over the reality and consequences of global warming—individuals opportunistically employ conscious, effortful forms of information processing, reliably deciphering complicated information supportive of their predispositions and explaining away the rest.  As a result, individuals of the highest levels of science comprehension, numeracy, cognitive reflection, and other capacities identified with rational decisionmaking exhibit the greatest degree of cultural polarization on contested empirical issues (Kahan in press; Kahan, Peters, Dawson & Slovic 2013; Kahan 2013; Kahan, Peters, et al. 2012).

Because CMR is in fact accentuated by use of the System 2 reasoning proficiencies most closely identified with rational decisionmaking, it is not plausible, as a descriptive matter, to view CMR as a product of bounded rationality.

For the same reason, it is unsatisfying to treat decisionmaking characterized by CMR as unsuited to attainment of individual ends. The compatibility of any form of information processing with instrumental rationality cannot be assessed without a defensible account of the goals an actor is seeking to achieve by engaging with information in a particular setting. To be sure, CMR is not a form of information processing conducive to maximizing accurate beliefs.  But the relationship between CMR and the forms of cognition most reliably calibrated to using information to rationally pursue one’s ends furnishes strong reason to doubt that maximizing accuracy of belief is the goal individuals should be understood to be pursuing in settings that bear the signature of pervasive CMR.

One way to make sense of the nexus between CMR and system 2 information processing, I will argue, is to see CMR as a form of reasoning suited to promoting the stake individuals have in protecting their connection to, and status within, important affinity groups.  Enjoyment of the sense of partisan identification that belonging to such groups supplies can be viewed as an end to which individuals attach value for its own sake.  But a person’s membership and good standing in such a group also confers numerous other valued benefits, including access to materially rewarding forms of social exchange (Akerlof & Kranton 2000). Thus, under conditions in which positions on societal risks and other disputed facts become commonly identified with membership in and loyalty to such groups, it will promote individuals’ ends to credibly convey (by accurately conveying (Frank 1988)) to others that they hold the beliefs associated with their identity-defining affinity groups. CMR is a form of information processing suited to attaining that purpose.

Individuals acquire this benefit at the expense of less accurate perceptions of societal risk. But holding less accurate beliefs on these issues does not diminish any individual’s personal well-being. Nothing any ordinary member of the public does–as consumer, as voter, as public discussant–can have any material impact on climate change or a like societal risk.  Accordingly, no mistake he makes based on inaccurate perceptions of the facts can affect the level of risk faced by himself or anyone else he cares about. If there is a conflict between using his reasoning capacity to form truth-convergent beliefs and using it to form identity-convergent ones, it is perfectly rational for him to use it for the latter.

This account of the individual rationality of CMR, however, does not imply that this form of reasoning is socially desirable from an economic standpoint. It is reasonable to assume that accurate popular perceptions of risk and related facts will often display the features of a meta-collective good: particularly in a democratic form of government, reliable governmental action to secure myriad particular collective goods will depend on popular recognition of the best available evidence on the shared dangers and opportunities that a society confronts (Hardin 2009).  On an issue characterized by pervasive CMR, however, the members of diverse cultural groups will not converge on the best available evidence or not do as quickly as they should to secure their common interests (Kahan 2013).  Still, this threat to their well-being will not in itself alter the array of incentives that make it rational for individuals to cultivate and display a reasoning style that features CMR (Hillman 2010). Only some exogenous change in the association between positions on disputed facts and membership in identity-defining affinity groups can do that.

This conceptual framing of this tragedy of the science communications commons, the paper will suggest, is the principal benefit that economics can make to ongoing research on CMR.


Akerlof, G. A., & Kranton, R. E. (2000). Economics and identity. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(3), 715-753.

Frank, R. H. (1988). Passions within reason : the strategic role of the emotions. New York: Norton.

Hardin, R. (2009). How do you know? : the economics of ordinary knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hillman, A. L. (2010). Expressive behavior in economics and politics. European Journal of Political Economy, 26(4), 403-418.

Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2, 732-735.

Kahan, D.M.  (2013). Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection. Judgment and Decision Making 8, 407-424.

Kahan, D.M. (in press). Climate science communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Pol. Psych.

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Dawson, E. & Slovic, P.  (2013). Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self Government. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 116.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Ammirati, R., & Landfield, K. (2009). Giving Debiasing Away: Can Psychological Research on Correcting Cognitive Errors Promote Human Welfare? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(4), 390-398. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01144.x

Lodge, M., & Taber, C. S. (2013). The rationalizing voter. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sunstein, C. R. (2007). On the Divergent American Reactions to Terrorism and Climate Change. Columbia Law Review, 107, 503-557.

Weber, E. U., & Stern, P. C. (2011). Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States. Am. Psychologist, 66, 315-328. doi: 10.1037/a0023253

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