Motivated System 2 Reasoning (MS2R): a Research Program

1. MS2R in general.  “Motivated System 2 Reasoning” (MS2R) refers to the affinity between cultural cognition and conscious, effortful information processing.

In psychology, “dual process” theories distinguish betweeen two styles of reasoning.  The first, often denoted as “System 1,” is rapid, intuitive, and emotion pervaded. The other—typically denoted as “System 2”—is deliberate, conscious, and analytical.

The core of an exceedingly successful research program, this conception of dual process reasoning has been shown to explain the prevelance of myriad reasoning biases. From hindsight bias to confirmation bias; from the gamblers fallacy to the sunk-cost fallacy; from probability neglect to the availability effect—all are psotively correlated with over-reliance on heuristic, System 1 reasoning.  By the same token, an ability and dispostition to rely instead on the conscious, effortful style associated with System 2 predicts less vulnerability to these cognitive miscues.

A species of motivated reasoning, cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to selctively seek out and credit evidence in patterns that reflect the perception of risks and other policy-relevant facts associated with membership in their cultural group. Cultural cognition can generate  intense and enduring forms of cultural polarization where such groups subscribe to conflicting positions.

Because in such cases cultural cognition is not a truth-convergent form of information processing, it is perfectly plausible to suspectg that it is just another form of bias driven by overreliance on heuristic, System 1 information processing.

But this conjecture turns out to be incorrect.

It’s incorrect not because cutlural cognition has no connection to System 1 styles of reasoning among individuals who are accustomed to this form of heuristic information processing.

Rather it is wrong (demonstrably so) because cultural cognition does not abate as the ability and disposition to use System 2 styles of reasning increase.  On the contrary, those members of the public who are most proficient at System 2 reasoning are the most culturally polarized on societal risks such as the reality of climate change, the efficacy of gun control, the hazards of fracking, the safety of nuclear power generation, etc.

MS2R comprises the the cognitive mechanisms that account for this startling result.

2. First generation MS2R studies. Supported by a National Science Foundation grant (SES-0922714), the existence and dynamics of MS2R were established principally through three studies:

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L.L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change 2, 732-735 (2012). The study reported in this paper tested directly the competing hypotheses that polarization over climate change risks was associated with over-reliance on heuristic System 1  information processing and that such polarization was associated instead with science literacy and numeracy.  The first conjecture implied that as those apptitudes, which are associated with basic scientific reasoning proficiency, increased, polarization among competing groups should abate.  In fact, exactly the opposite occurred, a result consistent with the second conjecture, which predicted that those individuals most adept at System 2 information processing could be expected to use this reasoning proficiency to ferret out information supportive of their group’s respective positions and to rationalize rejection of the rest. These effects, moreover, were highest among subjects who themselves achieved the highest scores on the CRT test.

Kahan, D.M. Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection. Judgment and Decision Making 8, 407-424 (2013). The experimental study in this paper demonstrated how proficiencies in cognitive reflection, the apptitude most commonly associated with use of System 2 information processing, magnified polarization over the validity of evidence of the relative closed-mindedness of individuals who took one or another position on the reality of human-caused climate change: where scores on the Cognitive Reflection Test were asserted to be higher among “climate skeptics,” ideologically right-leaning subjects found the evidence that the CRT predicts open-mindedness much more convincing than did individuals who were left-leaning in their political outlooks; where, in contrast, CRT scores were represented as being higher among “climate believers,” left-leaning subjects found the evidence of the validity of the CRT more convincing that did Republivcans.

Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Dawson, E.C. & Slovic, P. Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government. Behavioural Public Policy 1, 54-86 (2017). This paper reports an experimental study on how numeracy interacts with cultural cognition.  Numeracy is an apptitude to reason well with quantitative data and to draw appropriate inferences about such information.  In the study, it was shown that individuals who score highest on a numeracy assessment test were again the most polarized, this time on the inferences to be drawn from data from a study on the impact of gun control: where the data, reported in a standard 2×2 contingency table supported the position associated with their ideologies  (either gun control reduces crime or gun control increaeses crime) subjects high in numeracy far outperformed their low-numeracy counterparts. But where that data supported an inference conterary to the position associated with subjects’ political predispositions, those highest in numeracy performed no better than their low-numeracy counterparts on the very same covariance-detection task.

3. Second generation studies.  The studies described above have given rise to multiple additonal studies seeking to probe and extend their results.  Some of these studies include:

  • Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015). Study reported herein shows how individuals shift from science-knowledge information processing to identity-protective ones across contexts. The effect is magnified by MS2R.
  •  Kahan, D.M. & Corbin, J.C. A note on the perverse effects of actively open-minded thinking on climate-change polarization. Research & Politics 3 (2016). This study presents evidence that the higher scores on the Actively Open-minded Thinking test (like higher scores on OSI_2.0, the CRT, and a standard numeracy battery) magnifies rather than reduces polarization over the reality of human-caused climate change.
  • Kahan, D.M., Landrum, A., Carpenter, K., Helft, L. & Hall Jamieson, K. Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing. Political Psychology 38, 179-199 (2017). This paper reports a study of how science curiosity can mitigate the influence of MS2R.
  • Kahan, D.M. ‘Ordinary science intelligence’: a science-comprehension measure for study of risk and science communication, with notes on evolution and climate change. J Risk Res 20, 995-1016 (2017).  Presents OSI_2.0, an extension of the science comprehension measure used in Kahan, Peters et al. (2012), and reports that those who score highest are the most polarized on the reality of human-caused climate change as well as the theory of human evolution.
  • Kahan, D.M., Jamieson, K.H., Landrum, A. & Winneg, K. Culturally antagonistic memes and the Zika virus: an experimental test. J Risk Res 20, 1-40 (2017). This study presents experimental evidence suggesting that the politicization of Zika—in the form of attribuging its spread either to climate change or to illegal immigration—has the potential to magnify polarized interpretations of data, particularly among those who score highest on the OSI_2.0.

3. Secondary sources describing MS2R

  • Kahan, D.M. What is the “science of science communication”? J. Sci. Comm, 14, 1-12 (2015).
  • Kahan, D.M. On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge and Extraordinary Science Ignorance. in Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication (ed. K.H. Jamieson, D.M. Kahan & D. Scheufele) (O.U.P., Oxford, 2016).

  • Kahan, D.M. The politically motivated reasoning paradigm, part 1: What politically motivated reasoning is and how to measure it. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource  (2016).

  • Kahan, D.M. The politically motivated reasoning paradigm, part 2: Open questions. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource  (2016).
  • Kahan, D.M. The expressive rationality of inaccurate perceptions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 40 (2017).

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