Motivated reasoning is reasoning based upon subjective motives that condition the cognitive processes of the individual towards generating conclusions that endorse the maintenance or attainment of the subjective motives of the individual. As such motivated reasoning is characterized by rationalization, a phenomenon where the outcome to the process of reasoning is predetermined and reasoning is used as a means to give conceptual validation to the predetermined outcome.
Neuroscience research concludes that motivated reasoning is qualitatively distinct from objective reasoning (instances where there is no strong emotional stake in the outcomes).1 Motivated reasoning is closely associated with emotional reasoning, which is a cognitive process by which a person concludes that their emotional reaction proves something valid, regardless of the observed evidence or other people’s reasoning.2 Processes of motivated reasoning are a type of inferred justification strategy which is typically used to mitigate cognitive dissonance. When people form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence, the phenomenon is labeled “motivated reasoning”. In other words, “rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.” This is a form of implicit emotion regulation in which the brain moves quickly to converge on judgments that minimize cognitive dissonance.3 The outcomes of motivated reasoning derive from “a biased set of cognitive processes — that is, strategies for accessing, constructing, and evaluating beliefs. The motivation to be accurate enhances use of those beliefs and strategies that are considered most appropriate, whereas the motivation to arrive at particular conclusions enhances use of those that are considered most likely to yield the desired conclusion.”4 An example of motivated reasoning may be seen in the psychological mechanisms people commonly use to preserve a favorable identity. In order to maintain positive self-regard, people unconsciously discount unflattering information that contradicts their self-image or is otherwise troubling. The same can be seen in whole populations of people where a nation may selectively construct its history omitting unfavorable elements that are otherwise widely considered historical facts.5
The common feature of all motivated reasoning is that the outcome is predetermined and thus the process of reasoning is essentially just a process of searching for evidence and reasons to support that predetermined outcome, what is called rationalization. This can be seen as an inversion of the normal conception of objective reasoning, where all relevant evidence is gathered, synthesized and thought through to create a conclusion. With motivated reasoning however, the outcome is predetermined and the process simply used to present a rational argument to others and oneself.
Social science research suggests that reasoning away contradictions is psychologically easier than revising feelings. In this sense, emotions are shown to color how “facts” are perceived. Feelings come first to define preconceptions, and evidence is used mostly in service of those preconceptions. Evidence that supports what is already believed is accepted, that which contradicts it is excluded in various ways.6
Motivated reasoning defines a situation where the individual can not accept the outcomes to a process conducted through the use of objective reasoning and may develop elaborate rationalizations to justify holding beliefs that logic and evidence have shown to be wrong.7 Motivated reasoning involves building models based upon subjective motives and trying to make any form of objective reality then fit into the model. Evidence disproving the preconception is systematically denigrated through a number of psychological mechanisms such as biased information searching, biased information assimilation or disconfirmation bias. Biased information searching is a phenomenon where the individual actively searches for evidence that supports the preferred belief or discredits any information not consistent with the desired outcome. Biased information assimilation is exposing oneself to sources that will systematically support one’s preconceptions e.g. a person reading a certain politically or ideologically motivated news source which supports their preconceptions. Disconfirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to extend critical scrutiny to information which contradicts their prior beliefs and accept uncritically information that is congruent with their desired beliefs.8 Similarly, another form of cognitive bias used in motivated reasoning may be motivated skepticism, which is the practice of an individual applying more skepticism to claims that contradict their preconception, than to claims that support them.
The view of motivation as a means to reducing cognitive dissonance within the individual has long been held by social scientists.9 Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically undesirable for individuals to hold manifestly contradictory beliefs, ideas or opinions. The theory holds that this dissonance causes stress that is unpleasant to the individual, which then motivates a person to change their cognition, attitude, or behavior so that they conform to each other and thus reduce the dissonance.
The theory was first explored in detail by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.10 Two opinions, or beliefs, or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together— that is, if they are inconsistent, or if one does not follow from the other. For example, a cigarette smoker who believes that smoking is bad for her health has an opinion that is dissonant with the knowledge that she is continuing to smoke.11 In this situation the person is both addicted to the substance and does not want to give it up; likewise they do not want to experience the dissonance between the evidence about smoking related health issues and their actions, the outcome to this is that the person may use various cognitive bias (outlined above) to avoid the evidence or at least downplay it. In such a circumstance the person is using motivated reasoning to reduce cognitive dissonance and continue to experience the desirable psychological state (smoking) and avoid the undesirable psychological state of having to quit smoking. Likewise, in such a case the individual’s reasoning process may become subordinate to the desired conclusion designed to avoid the psychological or physical stress of change.
A 2004 article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience entitled “Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning” highlighted some of the underlying neurological workings to motivated reasoning summarizing their results as such: The study pressed finding from functional neuroimaging of the neural responses of 30 committed partisans during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The researchers presented subjects with reasoning tasks involving judgments about information threatening to their own candidate, the opposing candidate, or neutral control targets. Motivated reasoning was associated with activations of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, insular cortex, and lateral orbital cortex. As predicted the study found, motivated reasoning was not associated with neural activity in regions previously linked to cold reasoning tasks and conscious (explicit) emotion regulation. The findings provided the first neuroimaging evidence for phenomena variously described as motivated reasoning, implicit emotion regulation, and psychological defense. The researchers suggested that motivated reasoning is qualitatively distinct from reasoning when people do not have a strong emotional stake in the conclusions reached.12