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What Is Motivated Reasoning?

By E. Reeder
Updated May 23, 2024
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The psychological phenomenon known as motivated reasoning is an approach whereby people attempt to retain a certain belief or notion that they have even when the facts are contrary to their belief. Using motivated reasoning, people will actively seek and fervently believe something and will give credence to opinions that support that belief. On the other hand, when they come across facts that are contrary to their belief, they may ignore them. They might even find it necessary to try to debunk the contrary fact or to attempt to question the competence or credibility of the bearer of the fact that goes against their belief.

People using motivated reasoning are likely to come up with complicated rationalizations to support their fallacious beliefs, especially when confronted with evidence to the contrary. They might even cite a specific and isolated incident to support their viewpoint in an attempt to generalize it to all instances related to their belief. If they have an opinion about a specific group of people based on characteristics such as race or religion, for example, they might try to support their argument that all people in that group are a certain way because of their personal experience with one or two people from that group. On the chance that a person using motivated reasoning had encountered a person from the group who was contrary to the believed stereotypes, the person might say that different person is an exception to the rule. The motivated person might rationalize, because he had encountered a couple people from the group who fit the negative stereotype and had heard stories from other like-minded people, that his erroneous belief must be true.

Being correct about something, or truly believing they are correct about something even when they are not, feels better to most people than admitting they are wrong. Motivated reasoning relies more on emotions than it does on facts. It might be easier, for example, for a parent to ignore signs that his or her child is using drugs and to believe the child’s false proclamations to the contrary rather than to believe the physical evidence and the accounts of others about the drug use. Loyalty to a particular political party or religious group can be highly emotional, as well, leading people to use motivated reasoning to ignore negative facts about the party or religion in which they are invested, to seek information confirming the positive aspects they believe to be true, and to actively discredit people in opposing political parties or alternative religions.

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Feb 04, 2014

@ZipLine-- I think that confirmation bias is a method that we use within motivated reasoning. Confirmation bias means that we give more importance to information that supports our beliefs. This way, we can hold onto our beliefs even when we encounter information that's contrary.

By the way, it's absolutely true that motivated reasoning occurs before we're even aware of it. It only takes a few milliseconds for our brain to determine which information is desirable and which isn't. We can actually think of this as a protection system. Our brain is designed to protect us from threat. This doesn't only mean physical threat but also psychological threats like confusion, fear and worry. So our brain tries to keep things stabilized by regulating the information that's processed and maintained. So there might actually something good about motivated reasoning, even though in excess it can cause distorted thinking.

By ZipLine — On Feb 03, 2014

What's the difference between motivated reasoning and confirmation bias? They sound the same to me.

By fBoyle — On Feb 03, 2014

We all use motivated reasoning to some extent. Most of us are not even aware that we do this on a regular basis. I personally think that my brain does this automatically.

When I read about something that doesn't match with my opinion, I automatically disregard it. I don't actually sit and tell myself that I need to ignore this piece of information because it doesn't match my belief system. I don't even think about that information, I just move on to the next thing. I only became aware of this when my instructor talked about motivated reasoning in class.

But when I read something that supports my opinion or the way I think, I ponder on it for some time. I think that every time I find new evidence to support my belief, my belief becomes stronger.

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